Today is Good Friday and as a result I pause to reflect upon a particularly crucial passage of the story that is as frequently misunderstood as it is frequently quoted. In it, the actions and responses of the principle players still speak to us, even 2,000 years later. The impetus and motivation upon which Judas makes the ignoble decision to betray Jesus lies with this anecdote. I cite it today in an attempt to put the impeding Crucifixion in context. Chronologically the verses fall shortly before Palm Sunday, where Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem to the adoration of thousands of cheering supporters. Jesus has stopped to rest at Lazarus’ house, the man who he had but recently raised from the dead.
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”
He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Judas was a Zealot, a member of a Jewish political movement devoted to the removal of the occupying Roman Empire by any means necessary. At first, Judas assumed that the Kingdom which Jesus talked about was an earthly one to be established after a violent conflict. However, once he discovered that the Kingdom of Heaven was a spiritual state arrived at neither through violence, nor through material gain, Judas made the decision to betray Him. Judas’ primary devotion was to money and profit, and thus his own selfishness belied his rationalization.
Some have believed over the centuries that Jesus meant that there would always be poverty and that we ought not to worry about it. This is not the case at all. In honesty, I have always felt that Jesus’ response in this situation is directed squarely towards activists, particularly those on the Left. So often we justify our actions and deeds under the guise of piety. It is easy to make a great show out of doing what is best for the less fortunate, especially when our true motives are neither noble nor especially charitable. But there’s also a second dynamic at play too, the idea that our own human desires to help people are subordinate to God’s plan for us. It is as if Jesus is saying “You’ll always have some excuse or some reason to seem socially conscious. After all, the “poor” will always be with you. If it isn’t the “poor” today, it’ll be something else tomorrow.” If it isn’t Darfur today it’ll be Katrina, and if it isn’t Katrina, it’ll be Haiti.
Good intentions quickly become obscured by profit, accumulation, and a desire to win the adulation and approval of others. We fight against the injustice of the world, but often are distracted from the ultimate mission at hand by worldly temptations. Mostly we wish to superimpose our own will and our own itinerary upon the work we do for others, and I imagine God laughs as He brushes that aside. As for me, so long as I follow that voice inside myself that is God and is divinely inspired, I will never go wrong. When I deviate from that guidance and that surety of purpose for whatever reason, then I find myself running into complications and frustrating situations with no resolution. God’s plan for me might be scary at times, but it is never confusing or unclear.
For many people it is difficult to have faith in something that is unfamiliar or cannot be comfortingly explained by reason or readily available information. Humanity is, as we know, inherently mortal and inherently flawed, so missteps and problems are inevitable. Perhaps the best perfection we can achieve is that of complete trust and obedience to a guidance beyond ourselves, one that will not always place us in comfortable spaces, but will certainly always ensure that we are learning and growing. Our resistance is often designed as a means of preventing ourselves from being uncomfortable or braving the unfamiliar, but to be guided by God never promises the easy way out. We can take comfort not that we will always have all the answers, but that we can reach a point where we know that answers will be granted in due time, and in the meantime we will never be given a greater burden than we can handle. In many respects, this is almost Zen-like in its application.
I wish that someday the “poor” might not be with us, as I recognize that there will always be work to do and that inequality and injustice are unlikely to leave us any time soon. May we resolve to help those who need it with a singular purpose of service, setting aside anything else we might wish in the process. That which we need will be provided. We have everything at our disposal that we could possibly ever want, and my prayer is that someday we’ll believe it.