8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
We are approaching the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Things are heating up. This week Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Judas (who will betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, the cost of a slave) rebukes Mary for her wasteful extravagance. Judas protests that the perfume could have been sold for a year’s worth of wages and given to the poor. Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (12:7). Mary gets what Judas denies.
Jesus ends with this, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).
Why? Why will we always have the poor with us, and why must Jesus die? The two are intimately connected.
When Jesus says the poor will always be with us, he is not making a simple economic observation. He is naming an anthropological reality about how we create community. Humans tend to build community by defining ourselves over and against others. We want clear boundaries between “us” and “them.” When these boundaries break down and are threatened, communities disintegrate into chaos. In an attempt to save the community, we look for someone to blame – some individual or some group to bear the sins that we refuse to bear ourselves. We create scapegoats.
Scapegoats perform a vital function. It’s why we keep inventing them and why they will always be with us. They not only bear our sins, they unify us. They keep the community from falling apart. It’s a false unity to be sure, and it only lasts temporarily. But let’s be honest, it works!
Caiaphas, the high priest, understood the scapegoat mechanism. At a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin, where the chief priests and the Pharisees conspired to silence Jesus, he said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).
One more point, which is crucial to the scapegoating process, is that in order for the scapegoating mechanism to work and to justify the terrible things we do, we must see our scapegoats as cursed — truly deserving of whatever wrath we unleash. At the highest levels of scapegoating, we enlist God in the process and convince ourselves that they are cursed
In this week’s text, Mary knows the conditions are ripe for the next scapegoat. She anoints Jesus, who will bear the sins of an unstable community that is frantically trying to save itself. Jesus will soon be crucified on what James Cone calls the “Lynching Tree.” There he will do something unimaginable. The scapegoat of our own invention will forgive us the sin we forcibly refuse to bear even while we are lynching him. He will found a new community — one that is scapegoat free. It’s called the Church.
May it be so.