Sadao Watanabe, "The anointing with oil and tears", 1979
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 at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' 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."
When last I worked at Hesed House, a troubling thought came to me while I was opening lockers and finding toiletries for guests as they awoke for breakfast. I wondered what all of these men and women, homeless for one reason or another, thought of me and of my situation; I wondered if they were as keenly aware as I was that at 7am, when my shift was over, I had the luxury of returning to a home - my own home - with my own private shower and my own queen-size bed with real sheets and blankets and a comforter. I was troubled by knowing that when I returned home, I could rummage around in my refrigerator and create whatever sort of meal I fancied, rather than being held captive to whatever type of dinner and breakfast the shelter volunteers decided to provide. I was troubled because I knew full-well that even though I would leave Hesed House and go back to my own self-sufficient life, the poor and homeless and hungry people in the world would still be there. And they would still be poor and homeless and hungry, no matter how delicious a breakfast I had helped make that morning.
When Jesus says "you will always have the poor with you," I squirm in my seat a little bit. There are myriad charitable organizations in this country and in the world. Plenty of people do good things, seek justice and peace, and work on behalf of the poor and hungry. The church takes on its own share of charity and advocacy. And yet, the reality is that despite all of our human efforts, we still have the poor with us. There are still hungry people. There are still people in need. There are still suffering people. The truth is that no matter how much I'd like to believe that the good will of broken people could relieve the needs and inequalities in our world, it is simply not possible. We are too flawed, and our world too marred by the power of sin. I don't say this to be pessimistic; I say this to remind myself that we and our world are forever longing for redemption.
This is why Jesus brings the focus back to himself, and to the extravagant display of love and honor shown by Mary. The poor will be with us as long as this world remains. It is surely our calling as people of faith to continue to serve the poor and help the needy. But in all of our service to others, we first need to keep our eyes focused on Jesus. Because the only lasting hope of relief and redemption for our world is the hope that comes from the cross. Our efforts help soothe sufferings in a temporary way; the promise of ultimate redemption and restoration shown through the cross of Christ will soothe sufferings once and for all, in that day when God will come to earth, to dwell among mortals in a redeemed and reconciled new creation, where there will be no more sorrow, no more hunger, no more want or need, but where Christ will be our all.