Generosity in Proximity

by Pastor Seth

En route to Jerusalem, a hungry Christ sits at the table of the resurrected Lazarus, the sisters Mary and Martha present for the meal. While Martha tends to the platters, the smell of her home-cooked meal is quickly overpowered by the fragrance of something peculiar — an expensive scent smothering the senses of the gathered group. Noses trailing to the cause, the dinner party catches a gasping glimpse of Mary on the floor before Jesus’s now-soaked feet, a pound of perfume quickly pooling around them as she lowers her hair to wipe them clean.

Outraged at the scandal and utter wastefulness of this foolish woman, a red faced Judas points to profits lost — money that could have been given to the poor (and lined his own pockets) now soaking the dusty floor and travel-worn soles of Christ. Aside from his ulterior motive, Judas makes the case for utilitarianism: they could have done so much good for so many people with the earnings from the sale. Yet, Jesus privileges Mary’s gesture over Judas’s pragmatic proposition, concluding his lesson with a confusing claim: “you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Why does Jesus take Mary’s side?

Congregational Response

Why does Jesus take Mary’s side?

  • The vulnerability of Mary’s blessing
  • Mary’s intimate act of trust in Jesus
  • Loving Jesus and loving the poor is not an either/or
  • Mary prioritizes relationship

Theological Reflection

Charity is on trial. With decades of experience in urban ministry and an intimate familiarity with the compassion industry, Robert Lupton pulls back the veil on the harm that can accompany even well intentioned acts of generosity. In his book, Toxic Charity, Lupton critiques the charitable norm: that is, the “privileged” swooping in to save the “underprivileged” in an effort to provide quick-fix solutions that can result in potentially damaging long-term consequences. As an example, Lupton points to the unintentionally nefarious underbelly of how the western church often approaches short term mission trips, especially abroad. Namely, a random group of unskilled American do-gooders taking over an impoverished community for a week to provide some act of service and then going back home to report on all the good that was done in the name of Christ and publicity, usually from a place of cultural insensitivity.

Lupton expounds that such efforts can eventually lead to the disruption of the local economy and the disempowerment of the people who live and work there — resulting in it being more about the experience of the giver rather than the benefit of the recipient and feeding a savior complex and a paternalistic attitude towards those deemed “in need.” It’s not just some approaches to short term mission trips that can contribute to this issue, though. Lupton references charities and other philanthropic efforts that, with the intent of generosity, distribute from a place of disconnection — projecting their own opinion on what people need without doing any work to listen to what is actually needed all while undermining those within the community already doing the work. At the heart of negatively impacting acts of generosity is an aura of patronizing condescension: that those in places of privilege have more to give and, thus, have a higher knowledge of what giving should look like, reinforcing a hierarchy of value based upon high ideals and the number of zeros before the decimal.

With all this criticism, the argument is not against helping one another nor is it against going on service trips or donating to organizations doing the work. The argument is against irresponsible, uninformed, and distant help — help that prioritizes “doing for” rather than “doing with”; help that starts from a place of arrogance that the giver knows best; help that reinforces barriers of separation between us; help that devalues and undermines an individual’s capacity for contribution all because someone at some point deemed them merely worthy enough to receive. It is giving, regardless of context, without the receiving of mutual relationship that can be harmful no matter how well meaning the motive.

Charity from a distance can be dangerous because it operates from a place of disconnection — be it physical, emotional, or spiritual. In what feels like a thesis statement in reference to responding to need, Lupton proclaims, “There is no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship.” I’ll take it one step further: and authentic, loving relationship is built upon the mutuality of vulnerability. It is showing up for each other with the recognition that we are all human beings both in need and needed and that we are each endowed with the worthiness to be blessed and to bless.

True generosity is not about doing for, handing out, or giving away; it is about a willingness to connect and, from that connection, realizing that the line between giving and receiving, between giver and recipient, never existed in the first place. It is proximity, not amount, that makes an act of giving truly generous. It is closeness, not accounting, that defines our capacity for blessing one another in the name of discipleship.

Taking the bottle of nard, Mary crouches down and empties it over the dust covered, road battered feet of Christ, using her own hair as a wash cloth. Upset by her wastefulness (and the thwarting of his money making scheme), Judas chastises Mary’s act of intimacy — a critique cut short by the one now bathed in perfume. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” At first glance it almost seems like Jesus is sidelining the poor as insignificant in comparison to what is happening before his feet — suggesting, perhaps, that poverty is insurmountable, a problem for another day, to not waste your time thinking about it. But no, rather than turning our attention away from the poor here, I believe Jesus is turning our attention to the poor.

We tend to link this statement, “you will always have the poor with you,” with the apprehensive, self preserving words of Judas — that this is a direct response to Judas questioning why potential profit was wasted. And whereas Jesus is responding to Judas generally, he directly references Mary and her faithful act of extravagant love immediately before these words. It leads me to wonder if the next and final statement of this passage is not so much a counter to Judas counting coins but, rather, a lesson on who to look to for an example of true discipleship, especially when Jesus is no longer around to teach them in person.

There is something interesting about the word “poor” here. In Greek, the word is ptóchos, commonly translated as poor, lacking in resources, or destitute. However, the word ptóchos literally means “of one who crouches or cowers.” It’s why this word is sometimes translated as beggar due to the act of physically making oneself lower in order to ask for something from a passerby above. Ptóchos can describe experiencing socioeconomic poverty (hence, begging as a means of survival), cultural poverty (being forced to crouch and cower by oppression and disregard), or spiritual poverty — either in a negative sense, as in spiritually lacking, or in a positive sense through its association with humility. The “poor” can serve as a stand in for the least of these, the out-group, the unheard and unseen, those who have been forced to crouch and cower and beg beneath oppression’s cruel inequity, and I can’t help but picture the scene of this scripture as it relates to this loaded word, “poor.”

As the smell of a year’s wages worth of perfume wafts along the billows of steaming bread, the sight of Mary’s crouching body before Jesus’s shimmering feet causes a double take while her black ringlet curls wipe away the sheen. Though likely of at least some material means, Mary is no stranger to lowness — the weight of a society built upon injustice forcing her and her womanhood below the bolstered ego of the patriarchy’s fragile masculinity. Second class treatment and silent submission her own brand of poverty, overlooked and knocked down to lower rungs on the hierarchy of regard. But here in Bethany, in the home of her resurrected brother, Lazarus, we do not see a woman forced to crouch and cower to beg for scraps of humanity. We see a woman, of her own decisive agency, crouching to bless the feet of Christ.

Mary does not question her contribution nor does she ask for permission to offer it; she acts, with wisdom and compassion, understanding that, whereas the disciples would prioritize the transactional, Christ prioritizes the relational. While Judas is concerned with expanding profit, Mary concerns herself with crouching closeness, and Christ affirms her in the act. It is a grand reversal: an individual whom society would have defined by dependency teaching the disciples what it means to be a disciple through her act of exemplary generosity.

When Jesus says, “you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” I think he could just as well have said: “You will always have the Mary’s of the world with you, but you do not always have me.” In other words, “when I’m gone, if you ever forget what discipleship looks like, look to Mary.” For Jesus praises her who crouches to bathe his sandy soles as the model for how to proceed once Jesus is gone: to take the risk of intimate proximity for the sake of lavish relationship.

The world might define generosity by how much materiality we give, and, of course, material resources are vital for the support of communities and survival of individuals. But as Mary teaches and Christ affirms, the truest act of generosity is not about our capacity for spending; it’s about our capacity for closeness and the recognition that giving knows no status.

We live in a culture that believes if we have less, we are less and have less to give, that to be poor means we are defined by our reliance upon others and lack of ability to offer something to this world. But that could not be more counter to the Gospel. It is the beggar and the beaten down whom Christ trusts with the keys to the Kin-dom. It is the women and children whose faith Christ praises. It is the leper and the neurodivergent whom Christ ordains to preach. It is the criminal and the soldier who recognize Christ on the cross. It is the shepherd and the pariah who are the heroes of the story. It is the Palestinian sister who exemplifies generosity. In the Gospels, it is often those deemed lowest who have the highest knowledge of the Divine, who show the world most fully what it means to live into each of our identities as a child of God. Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth — not by receiving it but by blessing it into existence.

If you have ever been considered least or lowest, whatever form your poverty, know that you are not defined by what society deems you worthy enough to receive; you are defined by God deeming you worthy enough to bless — to bless in ways only each of us uniquely can, vital for thy Kin-dom come. For it is the least whom Christ looks to the most to carry on the legacy of love.

You will always have the poor with you, the Mary’s of the world to show us all the way, and thank God for that.