Mary, Judas, Jesus, The Poor, and Me…

John 12:1-8

I have spent these last days returning to the images before us in this beautiful Gospel story again and again.

As you can read below, I am still sorting out their meaning for me. I hope that my reflections might somehow be blessing to you as you do so as well.

For this is so. Sometimes all there is for us to do is to receive a story like the one before us now and wonder at who we are, who we would be, if we had been in that room so long ago those few short days before Jesus’ death.

And this I know, even as I begin:

I am not now, and have never been ‘Mary.’  I am sorry to say this, for I yearn to have this singleness of heart which would enable her to block out all those other sights and sounds and pressing needs which must have clamored for her attention, too.

I am not now and have never been ‘Mary.’ This is so in spite of the fact that I have been told I have the gifts to be a ‘contemplative.’  Too often I am pulled too much in too many directions.

Indeed, I heard the truth of this echoed just yesterday as I sat in a chair at our local nursing home. I had gone to see one of our precious 93-year-old’s who is there for a short stint of rehab between surgery and returning home. I entered her room and she looked up and smiled at me. She had her phone on speaker and was talking to her son, going back and forth about what she needed from home. When she caught my eye, though, she told him she had to go, to bring whatever he wanted. I was touched that in that moment she made my visit a priority. If I’m honest, I was grateful, too, for hers was not the only stop I needed to make that day. So she ended the call and moved her wheelchair over to where we could sit close to one another. After some small talk she fixed her gaze on me and said. “I have something to say to you.” “What’s that?” I asked. And she said. “You can’t be all things to all people.”

Earlier in the week she had, in fact, asked me not to come for her surgery for she thought I had enough other things pressing in. I did go. When one can, one always goes, especially for 93-year-old’s, it seems to me. I saw her right away after surgery and although she smiled to see me, even in her post anesthesia fog she reiterated what she had said on the phone the day before. That I should not have come. And oh, don’t I know she sees right ‘through me’ — my tendency to get pulled in many directions at once. The tendency to get worn down. The fact that sometimes, because of my own inability to prioritize, I am running on ’empty.’

No, I am no ‘Mary.’

Indeed, more and more the longer I serve in this place, I find my heart pulled a thousand ways. And oh, I hear Jesus’ voice speaking this truth today: “You always have the poor with you…” And isn’t this always so?

  • The poor.
  • The poor in health.
  • The poor in spirit.
  • The poor in hope.
  • And of course, the poor who cannot quite make rent this month, who desperately need a full tank of gas to get to where they need to go, whose grocery bill exceeds what is left in their account at the end of the month, who have nowhere to sleep tonight.

So yes it is so that “the poor” tug for my attention every day. And most of the time I struggle to be and do in more ways and places than one person can possibly be and do very well. I offer this now in a spirit of confession. For while I am seeking to ‘tend the poor,’ and this is not a bad thing, I am also not paying attention to my own ‘poverty of spirit, of energy, of wholeness.’ Too often I try to do all of this without first and last sitting at Jesus’ feet as Mary does today.

Now it is so that these words of Jesus have too often been pulled out of context and have been used as an excuse NOT to seek to meet the needs of the poor.  Any commentary will remind us, though, that those who first overheard this exchange would have been taken back to other ancient words in Deuteronomy where it reads,

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

So while it has been used as an excuse to do otherwise and out of context one could certainly hear Jesus in that way, laid alongside what would have echoed for others then and there and alongside all the other times and places Jesus spoke of care for the poor, perhaps it is so that Jesus would fully see and understand my heart in all of this. At the same time, along with Judas, he would be telling me that which takes my energy and focus too much of the time is not enough.

For this is so. Again I say, “I am no ‘Mary.'”

I also pray, though, that I am not ‘Judas’ — at least that I am not the worst of who Judas was.

  • At least not the Judas we encounter in the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary now.
  • Not this Judas whose eyes must have burned to see the purity of the gift Mary poured out on Jesus’ feet mere days before he would die.
  • Oh, I pray that my words never drip with the cynicism I hear in his voice today when he tries to use the ‘poor’ as a kind of battering ram reason to make us believe that what had just been witnessed there was somehow wrong simply because other things also clamor for our attention, our resources, our love…

I pray that I am not ‘Judas,’ and while it may be so that I am not ‘Judas,’ as long as I give too much priority (even in the best sense) to the ‘poor’ wherever they are encountered, without also first simply kneeling at the feet of the One, Jesus, who is the center of our call to ‘serve the poor.’ As long as this is so then I, too, stand in danger of becoming the worst of who we understand Judas to have been. For those who follow Jesus, any ‘service to the poor’ becomes empty when separated from adoration of the One who is model and mentor, gift and guide, source of life and power, hope and forgiveness. Indeed, it can become self-serving at worst and draining of life itself at best, it seems to me.

No, I am no ‘Mary.’

  • I yearn to be more like her though.
  • I am praying now for the clarity of heart she shows today as she kneels at Jesus’ feet.
  • A clarity of heart which recognizes that it is not finally about what you or I can do for the poor or anyone else for that matter.
  • A clarity of heart which knows when to respond to the tugs of the world’s poverty and when to turn our back on all of that and return our gaze to the One who gives us all we need. Including what we need to respond once more to all that pulls on our hearts.

And so I end where I began:

I have spent these last days returning to the images before us in this beautiful Gospel story again and again.

As you can read above, I am still sorting out their meaning for me. I hope that my reflections might somehow be blessing to you as you do so as well.

  • And so I wonder. Do you see yourself in this story today? Are you more like Mary or do you only yearn to be like this one who knelt at Jesus’ feet? When have you known the ‘clarity of heart’ she demonstrates today?
  • How do you keep the balance between responding to the ‘poor who are always with us’ and staying ‘still’ in the presence of Jesus?
  • It seems to me that although I don’t especially like to say so, it surely could be easy to become like Judas — an utter outsider to the scene between Jesus and Mary now. I wonder what it means for me and you to surrender to that love of God which seeks us in Jesus. This is surely what Mary did. What would it look like, what might it mean, for you and me to do so as well?


  1. Anne Marie Bonfiglio says:

    I think I see this a little different from you. During our morning and daily prayers aren’t we always giving thanks to Jesus for all we have, all our blessings. Aren’t we always talking to him throughout our day? We ask him to do his work thru us. So I do feel because of our close relationships with Jesus we should be where we are needed and helping whoever needs us on a daily basis. I have four adult children and each of them presents with major issues. My husband has multiple sclerosis, and my mother is 101. How can I stop. I know Jesus is with me everyday, and he wants me to be caring for all as I do. I couldn’t do it without him, and I believe in my heart and soul I am where he wants me to be. ( I have to confess, I recently had to separate myself from my youngest child, 32 years old. He has chosen many wrong paths in life. Our family gave him our love and care but he just doesn’t understand how to live life properly. Oh Reverend Janet, I wanted to erase this, I really didn’t feel confident. I do not have one ounce of the knowledge of religion as you do. However, I will take the risk and hit the send button. I look so forward to reading “Dancing With The Word” every week. I love the way you express yourself. A practicing Roman Catholic. Respectively Anne Marie

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Dear Anne Marie. Thank you so much for taking the time to offer a response to my thoughts this week. And to answer your question, of course you can’t ‘stop.’ I think you are exactly where you are called to be in this time and place for the precious people who need you. You have helped me think about this familiar story in new ways. Perhaps this is how it always is. We begin and end in prayer and we keep walking with Jesus all the day through and in this way, even as we are tending those who have been put in our care, we are living the best ‘Mary’ we can. I am so very glad you took the time to write and that you ‘pushed’ the ‘send’ button. I hope you will do so again. Please do know that you are in my prayers.

  2. Jeff Sabo says:

    Janet and Anne Marie: find a quiet time and space to reflect, and I’m sure you’ll hear the words of Matthew 25:21 I salute you both and pray for His strength to lift you each day.

  3. LaJunta says:

    sometimes sitting at Jesus’ feet just seems like “one more thing” in an already over packed day – thank you for this.

  4. There is a strange sense of separation in this conversation. Mary had a friend in front of her who was heading to his death after bringing her brother back to her. Jesus – the Son of Man wasn’t a religious object or a contemplative moment. He was her friend. And she showed her love for her friend. ‘As you have done it to the least, you have done it to me.’ We do need time and space to remember who we are, to reset our context (maybe ‘spirit’ and ‘context’ are the same thing?), in both our solitary and corporate living. But we don’t need to go be religious in order to care, or to live in the trust and forgiveness and responsibility that are the center of life.

    No, you can’t be all things to all people. But that’s the indicative, not the imperative. There is no ‘therefore don’t try’ commandment. It is our delightful place to be in a humanly impossible situation of universal responsibility and limited ability. And that’s the precursor to living by grace through faith, not in either arrogance or despair.

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