Grace is Bigger Than Our Ideas
A sermon on John 12 about the love in front of our face.
The following is an adapted sermon preached in April this year.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The poor are still with us
Let’s be real; this Gospel story just really rubs some of us the wrong way. It almost immediately makes us want to find out more context, or use our imagination, because it sounds like Jesus is a little ambivalent about the poor. The mind reels, “Well that can’t be right,” because it isn’t.
Kurt Vonnegut didn’t preach many sermons, but he once preached on this passage. He knew the damage it had done to attitudes towards the poor, weaponized in his Indiana upbringing not by the wealthy but by those born into middle-class comfort. Vonnegut was convinced it was Jesus making a joke, a way to not embarrass Mary and to roll his eyes at his followers. Church has always been God’s little hypocrite club, and even before there was a Church, Jesus knew that his most devoted disciples were usually kinda shallow posers. So in Vonnegut's reading, Jesus is rolling his eyes with the knowledge that none of us are ever going to care enough about the poor to solve poverty.
It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy all the same. “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.”
Two thousand years later and his diagnosis of this spiritual disease remains perfect.
Some scholars like Margaret Mowczko think that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were running a kind of hospice center for the poor and the sick in Bethany, a big ol’ community center for healing. This would make Judas’ hypocrisy even more cringeworthy, like visiting a monastery and telling a monk he’s praying wrong.
Mary’s devotional purchase creates a dilemma for our dumb pride. For the financially cushy among us who like to judge the working class for spending money on easing existential pain, there’s no falling back on stereotypes about purchasing decisions—it’s for the Son of God after all. But Jesus’ response isn’t convenient for my far-left friends who Judas pretends to agree with either.1
No, Mary’s intention is simple: “I’m so in the moment with Christ, I’m gonna buy this perfume just to dump it out, just so we can all fully enjoy this perfect Love in the whole house for one pure moment, you know? Yeah, I’m just gonna celebrate that.”2
Even when we’re right, we’re wrong
To be clear, I’m not here to litigate whether we take care of the poor—that is out of the question. I’m not even here to argue that Judas was wrong.
In fact, I wonder if this is story is challenging because Judas is so right.
I mean, just read the Gospel and we see he’s so clearly right! That money could have been for the poor, and that is who Jesus came to liberate. Even John is adding in apologetic details like my old North Carolina neighbors—“I promise y’all, ‘Judas said this not because he cared about the poor’”—like even he couldn’t believe the original story he heard.
So I wonder if what really bothers us, or at least what really challenges me, is that Jesus is suggesting that even when we’re right, we can be wrong.
This bulldozes my pride. I think of all the times I’ve loved my ideas so much that I was just totally ignorant of the emotional truth of a situation, the times when I was just so wanting to feel right, be right, and be the guy to go, “Look, I’ve got a clear head on my shoulders.” But this made me totally miss what was going on in the heart and what was going on in the soul. And when I get caught in my ideas, I forget to love the person right in front of me, the person that lives beyond my ideas.
Hearing Jesus slice right through my pride makes me feel as pathetic as a parent being a stickler about the rules of Monopoly. And Judas is just playing by the Gospel rules too. For God’s sake, you’ll always have Boardwalk and Park Place, but you won’t always get to play with your kids.
It’s not that Judas is wrong about the poor, it’s that he got there by being possessed by self-righteousness over his ideas—even if he wasn’t a hypocrite like John and Vonnegut point out. Self-righteousness is a broken clock stumbling into the occasional correct temporal opinion, but Jesus will keep saying, “My dude, your gears still ain’t turning right.” Because self-righteousness is the very pavement of hell’s well-intentioned road.
Caught in our stuff
The Apostle Paul once wrote this:
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
In contrast to Judas, what makes Saint Paul a saint at all is that he knows he never got it and still doesn’t fully get it. “All my old broken things? Garbage. All my self-righteous bullshit? It is a broken clock—and it belongs in the trash. I just want to know Christ.”
What Paul seeks is the holy righteousness of Christ-consciousness, which begins with a simple desire to know Christ, who is the very essence of all things, everything we see and everything we can’t (Col 1:15-20). To Paul, NASA’s Webb telescope images are just Christ’s new profile picture. This is the mind of Christ, the heart of universal Grace, that Paul wants to swim in. Self-righteousness tells you that the whole universe is in your head, and hates that nobody else understands the totality of your little universe.
We don’t subvert our self-righteousness through spiritual pride, believing that we follow Jesus so well (not least of which because Jesus teaches us that we’re all full of shit). No, what makes our little kingdom of hell crumble is that simple yearning to know Christ. Because faithful yearning after the Christ who is the whole universe drops the veil on our tiny universe, showing it as nakedly limited.
When we’re grasping after the Christ who lives deep within us and far beyond us, we can imitate Paul: “I want so bad to get it, but I know I can’t get the real deal myself. I know I’m not truly swimming in Grace…I know when I think it’s about me, I’m still caught in my stuff.”
To say “I’m a sinner” is just to say “I’m still caught in my stuff.” And I have to believe Mary knows she’s caught in her stuff, and she knows Judas is right on some level—she’s the one who spends all her days working at a community center, after all—but rather than trying to act perfect, she just wants to live in the last week of Christ’s life with her full heart.
The love in front of us
This is what I think it boils down to:
Grace tells us that sometimes even the right ideas aren’t it. Sometimes, Grace tells us we gotta look at the love right in front of us.
Because Grace is bigger than our ideas.
Oh, don’t get me wrong dear reader, I’m not insulting your ideas. I know you have the most well-thought-out ideas about how things are supposed to be, about the right political actions to take, about your historical analysis, your personal development system, your spiritual care practices, lots of great ideas. I mean, they’re not as good as my ideas, but they’re still good enough.
Now if you’re like me or brother Judas, you may be so certain that you have the correct moral position that you forget the person you’re actually with. In those dark moments, we become so ready to put people out of our hearts for how we’re choosing to live our lives and how they’re choosing to live theirs. “Don’t you know that could be for the poor?”
And Jesus is telling me, “You’re right, Joe and Judas, that could be for the poor. But all she’s doing is trying to love the Love that’s right in front of her.”
All Mary’s doing is approaching Love and giving herself and giving her love over, because in that moment she appreciates how fleeting this whole life is.
And if we’re really swimming in grace, of course we will feed the poor. If we’re not feeding the poor, it’s our Check Spiritual Engine light that we haven’t totally surrendered into Grace. A personal redistribution of our wealth is undoubtedly what Jesus teaches us to do with the cash we’ve been loaned while we lease these human bodies for a few decades (if we’re lucky).
And Jesus says as sacred as that is, there’s an even bigger thing happening than that.
Like a solid Zen koan, if you’re doing something because “it’s the right thing to do,” it’s still not quite it—even though it is the right thing to do. But our poor lost brother Judas is still living in his own little universe; and Christ is still, even in the last week of his life, working on opening the eyes of our heart. “Judas…I’m the love right in front of you, and so is she.”
Judas is arguing about music. Mary’s just playing it.
Jesus doesn’t think we should do anything and everything we want because people will suffer anyway. That isn’t Good News. And when Paul was teaching us how to get freer, it wasn’t to be free to do anything you want. It was finding freedom in Christ, the path that leads to a paradoxical, but truer, freedom in service, because serving others is one of the freest relationships we can experience.
Jesus is just telling me that we don’t serve each other because we want to be right. We serve each other because Christ lives in all of us. We give to those who need it because they are the part of Christ that the world refuses to love.
As Mary knows, we’re not on this ship forever, it’s all fleeting. It’s all urgent. When we know it’s urgent, every moment matters.
And when every moment matters, the person in front of you always matters. And every single day and interaction comes alive.
The love we see in each other—the Christ in me that sees the Christ in you—those days where we get to experience and rejoice in the Christ in each other are fleeting. We’re not going to see each other before too long, in the grand scheme of things.
The Grace that exists here and now is bigger than even our best ideas, our truest ideas. Grace is bigger even than getting the teachings right. Grace lives where we are at this moment, hidden in the Christ in each one of us. And every moment of every day, Grace is teaching us something about the love that’s right in front of our face.
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By the way, when I’ve wanted to feel as cool as the prophetic voices in my divinity school, I’ve been just as phony as Judas in this regard.