I want to think with you today about poverty and that last line from today’s gospel (John 12:1-8) in which Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
What do you make of that? Who are the poor Jesus is talking about? Whose faces do you see? And what does it mean to be poor?
Maybe you think of poverty as only a financial matter. Maybe it’s the people on the other side of town or the other side of the world who do not have enough; enough money, enough food, enough clothes. Perhaps poverty for you looks like the faces of children in the pictures organizations use to solicit donations. Or perhaps it’s the unemployed, refugees, migrants. Some might think of poverty as not having enough money to buy food or pay the bills. Others might feel poor if they’re unable to buy or do whatever they want.
Most of us, I suspect, hear that last line in today’s gospel and think about the economically poor. We tend to understand poverty mostly in terms of finances and quantity. And that’s not wrong. But I wonder if it’s more than that.
I do not want to ignore or diminish the needs of the economic poor. And Jesus is certainly not saying that poverty is a hopeless situation about which we should do nothing. He is not giving himself priority over the poor and neither is he telling us to choose between him and the poor.
He is very clear about his and our responsibility to the poor. He declares himself to have been anointed to “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). He says that the poor are to be invited to our banquets (Luke 14:13). And in each of the other three gospels Jesus says, “Sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22). The poor are a chief concern of Jesus.
But what if a strictly financial understanding of poverty is too small of an understanding? What if there is not only economic poverty but inner poverty? What if the poor Jesus is talking about are you and me?
Haven’t there been times when you had enough, you could pay your bills, or maybe you even had more than enough but you still felt empty, like something was missing? And you knew that more stuff was not going to fill the void. That’s inner poverty. And no amount money can fix it. It’s not a financial problem. It’s about the soul.
So let me ask you this: In what ways is your life impoverished today? I’m not asking about your bank account, finances, or how much stuff you have. I’m asking about your soul. Where is your life rich and full and where is your life lacking and in need?
What is your personal poverty today? In what ways are you living a bankrupt life?
I think that’s what’s going on with Judas. I think everything he says and does reveals the bankruptcy of his life. I think he is unable to smell the fragrance that is filling the house. I think his own poverty is behind his question “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
He doesn’t understand what is happening. He’s trying to quantify the moment. He’s looking at the poor outside of himself rather than the poverty within himself.
Think about what has lead up to Judas’ question. Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”
It’s the fragrance of Mary’s presence to this one moment. It’s the fragrance of love as she offers herself to Jesus, all that she is and all that she has. It’s the fragrance of generosity and holding nothing in reserve. It’s the fragrance of extravagance. It’s the fragrance of vulnerability and openness. It’s the fragrance of skin to skin intimacy. It’s the fragrance of sensuality as Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. It’s the fragrance of knowing that the fullness of life and meaning are held in this one moment, every moment. This fragrance that fills the house is the perfume of beauty.
I’m not talking about beauty as an object outside us, but as an experience in which we participate. Beauty connects us to the infinite, reveals meaning, and reminds us that are a part of something larger than and beyond ourselves. Beauty heals and changes lives. It’s less about the eyes and more about the heart.
When have you smelled the fragrance of beauty? In what ways is it filling your house today? Is it the perfume with which you are anointing others and the world today? In what ways might you be nose blind to that fragrance today? To not smell the fragrance of beauty all around is to live an impoverished life.
Judas is the personification of that impoverished life. Judas is nose blind to the perfume of life. He’s missed the fragrance of beauty that filled the house. What if the poor about whom Jesus is speaking are those who are unable to smell the fragrance of beauty?
That is not a judgment or criticism of Judas. It’s a diagnosis. And it’s the recognition that sometimes there is a nose blind Judas within me. Sometimes I miss the fragrance of beauty in my life. And every time I do my life is impoverished and my soul is in bankruptcy.
- When I am indifferent and turn away from the needs of another or the pain of the world my life is poor.
- When I am jealous of and unable to celebrate another’s joys and successes my life is in bankruptcy.
- When I am skimming the surface of life, distracted and preoccupied by the trivial, unwilling to go deep I am impoverished.
- When I am too busy or self-absorbed to be truly present to another, to listen with interest and care, or to honor and respect his or her life I am living in a poverty that no amount of money can fix.
- When I make judgments about others, compare myself to them, or live as if life is a competition I am poor.
- When I live in fear, guilt, or shame I am living in poverty.
- When I define myself by my griefs and losses, failures, and regrets my soul is filing for bankruptcy.
- When I turn away from my own beauty and goodness, my deepest callings and longings, or the dreams that drive my life I am living in poverty.
- When I identify with my history and see myself as only what I have done or what has happened to me I am living an impoverished life.
- When I betray myself, turn away from my truest self, and deny the life that wants to enter the world through me I am bankrupt.
- When I refuse to touch and claim the beauty and goodness that is in me, to exercise and share my gifts, to answer the call that won’t let me go, or to open my life to another I am living in poverty.
I don’t want to live an impoverished life and I don’t want you to either. I want us to smell the beauty of life, each other, and ourselves. This season of Lent has been about awakening to and recovering the fragrance of beauty in ourselves, each other, and our world.
Look at the poverty of your life and then take a deep breath. If you are not smelling the fragrance of beauty, why not? What might you need to do, change, or let go of?
Breathe deeply. Embrace the beauty. Let it fill you to overflowing, give you courage to love and hold nothing back, and inspire you to risk vulnerability and intimacy. Let the beauty of your life anoint the life of another and waft through this world.