John 12:1-7 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it.7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” [emphasis, in green, my own]
This was the reading we had at the Monday of Holy Week communion and compline in Bishopthorpe. The Spectacled Bear has an excellent imaginative contemplation on the whole passage but it was the second half that struck me as it was being read.
Firstly this scene reminds me of a number of discussions me and my friends have. “Why do churches need big buildings, and all that finery? Let’s demolish all the cathedrals, sell the land and use the money to set up homeless shelters” is a good enough synopsis of them all. My friends ask this because they have a genuine concern for the poor, and one that I share. I genuinely think the church needs to be doing more to help those in most need. I do, however, also think that selling our churches, or even the ornamentation, of those glorious buildings is not the answer.
For me this passage has two implications; one that serving the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, challenging injustice, privilege and systematic abuse or neglect is vital to the Christian calling … but so is honouring God, and worship, and acts of adoration. The first have that sentence make up part of our worship,but they are not all of it. They should not push out other expressions of honouring God. Some people, Quakers, puritans being the strongest examples, but most of non-conformist Christianity too have plain places of worship, in order to put emphasis on the relationship with God. It is a way of removing distractions. Other elements of the Christian tradition; many Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, for example have very ornate building. Here the buildings themselves express worship to God. Mary used an expensive resource in excess to demonstrate adoration of God, so too do churches use expensive resources; stone, Gold, embroidered fabric, land they own etc to express their adoration of God.
and in the passage Jesus permits and defends Mary. Obviously we can stretch this too far, I would struggle to assert so plainly “Jesus permits and defends glorious cathedrals”. It is not my place to speak for him, but the message is clear. Abundant worship is right and proper and should be celebrated, and that is what these rich buildings are.
The second thing I noticed during the service, and it was more of an aside, was that the evangelist really didn’t like Judas Iscariot! I struggle to picture a Jesus who has such obvious concern for justice permitting him to take money himself from the (implied) communal money bag. Yes, Jesus built a community of love and acceptance, but he also came to right injustice, abuse, and to say “sin no more”. To me this sounds much more like one broken human (or group of humans) struggling to love another broken human who caused them so much pain, and taking that anger out in personal attacks against them when writing up an account of their time together.
For more thoughts on Monday, have a read of these thoughts on Jesus in the Temple