You Do Not Always Have Me

John 12:1-8

The sound of pots and pans clanging together, busybody feet scurrying about, and plates being placed on the table is interrupted by the sound of a hushed gasp. As perfumed air drafts upwards, the dinner party’s disbelieving gaze drifts downward to see Mary on the floor before Jesus, hair unbound, her dark curls caressing the dust covered olive toned feet of Jesus now dripping with a year’s wages worth of aromatic oil. All those gathered for the meal were rendered speechless, except for a questioning Judas. Outspoken about such an outlandish waste of resources, Judas chastises Mary for squandering a potential business opportunity that could have yielded high profit margins, used to do the most good for the most people (and do good for Judas’s own pockets). Mary pays him no mind as Jesus responds to Judas — praising Mary as she tends to his feet with unmatched intimacy, seemingly alluding to his own foretold death before sitting down to eat in the house of the resurrected Lazarus. 

His own hidden agenda aside, Judas raises an interesting question: couldn’t they have used the money they would have gotten from selling the oil to benefit more people? Wasn’t there a better use of resources than wasting it on feet that are just going to get all dirty again? In a tradition that attempts to follow the Wesleyan principle, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” it seems like Judas has a point. Couldn’t this have been put to better use?

As we hear from the Gospel of John, I invite us to consider: why does Mary waste such expensive oil on washing Jesus’s feet?

Congregational Response:

Why does Mary waste such expensive oil on washing Jesus’s feet?

  • God’s grace is abundant and wasteful 
  • Foreshadowing the death of Christ – a living burial rite 
  • Time and resources are at the mercy of relationship, not the other way around

Theological Reflection:

When he was just 19 years old, Calvin Duncan was wrongfully convicted for murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After living almost three decades behind the bars of Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, his conviction was overturned and Calvin exonerated with the help of an organization known as The Innocence Project in 2011. Stripped of his freedom and of the probability that his life would never extend beyond the barbed wire, Calvin did not sit idly by within the confining walls of steel and concrete. Rather, he spent his time in prison studying to become a lawyer — tasked with assessing individuals who were sentenced to death and those who were wrongfully convicted. As the resident jailhouse attorney, other inmates would often come to Calvin seeking legal advice and a listening ear for the stories they were never given the opportunity to tell. 

Reflecting upon the countless interactions he had with his fellow inmates, Calvin remarks how striking it was to see so many young men behind bars and sentenced to life in prison — young men who were not yet fully developed emotionally or mentally and who resorted to criminal activity due to poverty and other traumatic life experiences. Calvin would sit and listen as people shared with remarkable vulnerability — expressing remorse, detailing the events that led them there, pleading for their story to be heard and their humanity acknowledged. All the while, witnessing the profound transformation of human beings who were not the same as when the first click of handcuffs echoed in their ears to the haunting melody of their Miranda Rights. Upon his release, heartbroken by the men he left behind inside the prison walls, Calvin Duncan joined forces with Marcus Kondkar — a professor of sociology at Loyola University in New Orleans. Together, the two co-founded an initiative known as The Visiting Room Project. 

Containing over 100 pre-recorded video interviews, The Visiting Room is an invitation to virtually sit face-to-face and hear the life stories of individuals at Louisiana State Penitentiary who are serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. You can access all of the interviews simply by visiting their website, where you are given the opportunity to watch and listen to the human being behind the conviction. In so doing, one is afforded the chance to get to know Kendrick and Donahue, David and Lawson, Terry and Sammie and Raymond and a hundred others as they share their stories with the world and step out from the behind the curtain of generalized anonymity forced upon them by their convicted status. It is a sobering reminder of just how much we let labels and stereotypes, generalizations and statistics limit our capacity to see and hear the human being sitting right in front of us whose existence alone merits our individual attention to their individuality.

As the scent of expensive perfume intertwines with the wafting of a peasant’s baked bread, the dinner party stands shocked to find Mary kneeling before Jesus’s oil-bathed feet using her own hair for a wash cloth. Outraged at such a lavish display of inappropriate wastefulness, Judas criticizes Mary’s intimate act of faith — mansplaining how something as valuable as the perfume now covering Christ’s feet and clotting with the dirt floor could have been sold and the proceeds given to the generalized poor (as well as line his own pockets). Jesus responds to Judas’s criticism with praise for Mary, remarking how she understood something the men in the room failed to grasp. Jesus says, “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.” 

There’s a lot to unpack in the final verse of this passage. For starters, Jesus seems to be implying that, in her intuition, Mary gets where this is going. By washing Jesus’s feet with scented oil that is typically used in burial rites, Mary essentially foreshadows Christ’s death in her anointing of Christ’s body. Jesus seems to further affirm this with his final statement, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” implying that he will not always be around. This is the traditional interpretation, and where I agree, I want to argue that Christ’s words are not just about understanding his death but also about understanding what it means to live as his disciple and how Mary models that discipleship for all.

Living unhoused and at the mercy of the generosity of others, when Jesus references “the poor,” he is referencing a generalized demographic he himself belongs to. But in his final statement here, Jesus diverts the focus from the generalized “poor” to the individualized “me.” He moves from a group label to a specific identity, from a population to a person — praising Mary not for how much she donated to a corporate charity but for how much she devoted her attention to the Son of God’s individual humanity. In this statement, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” it would seem that Jesus is pointing to himself, a poor Jewish peasant, as worthy of individual attention, worthy of being treated with care for his uniqueness rather than simply one more body in a social designation sterilized of personhood by stereotyping assumption. And Mary gets it. Mary’s individualized treatment of Jesus exemplifies the Gospel call to resist generalizing and stereotyping and, instead, to fervently humanize with unyielding empathy and profound intimacy. Leave her alone; she understands where this is going.

Mary models discipleship in her treatment of Christ by showing us how we are called to tend to one another — remembering that behind the generalization, behind the statistics, behind the stereotype, behind the label lies a child of God, created in their own unique reflection of the divine. In her tending to Christ, Mary shows us how to tend to each other’s expression of humanity as reflections of God. And in her wisdom and vulnerability, her courage and love, she teaches us that such an act of relationship is nothing short of an act of worship. Whatever you do for the least of these you do unto me after all, right?

Hear the good news. You are more than a statistic, more than an unnamed number in a study, more than a demographical designation, more than the anonymity with which you have been treated. You are a child of God, whose personhood matters to God, whose uniqueness is worthy of being tended to, whose voice is worthy of being heard, whose face is worthy of being known, whose feet are worthy of being washed with the most priceless of perfumes. Let us learn from the example of Mary in our tending to one another, knowing that waste is not in love’s vocabulary and that love knows your name.