Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Jason Micheli

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