The story continues: "But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 'Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?'" Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial," Jesus says. "You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me" (12:4, 7-8).
John tells us bluntly that Judas doesn't really care for the poor. He's a thief, and as the treasurer for the disciples he pilfers the money bag. Later, we learn that Judas betrays Jesus for money.
This is the world Jesus weeps in. It's a world where those who protest loudest about the poor, complain most bitterly that not enough is being done for the outcast and the underprivileged, often care nothing for them. They are often wealthy, and have cut a few corners, pilfered a few money bags, to get that way. It is a world in which such people are usually the first to point out the extravagance and wastefulness of others: if only the government, if only the church, if only those rich people who live over there, would do something, the poor would be helped.
It is a world swollen with indignation, but nearly empty of compassion. Jesus wept.
And he weeps in a world where others love to quote only half of his rebuttal to Judas: "You will always have the poor among you." There you have it—Jesus said it, who are we to argue? Let's just get on with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and trust that the "trickle-down effect" and some "invisible hand" will help the poor. We're off the hook.
Jesus, though, had a second clause: "But you will not always have me." The extravagance Jesus commends is not extravagance for its own sake or for our own sake. It is not self-indulgence. It is, rather, extravagance that is Christ-exalting. It is something poured out for him.
It is centered on his death. Jesus says that the perfume has been saved for the day of his burial. Mary didn't know, but Jesus knew, the meaning of his death. It was a death for us. It was a death in which the only real hope, the only lasting hope, was secured and offered, free to all, needed by all, rich and poor alike. How terrible to give the poor bread but not the bread of life. How terrible to relieve only their poverty of means and not their poverty of spirit. How terrible to give them hope for this world but none for the next.
The poor will always be among us. That is not an excuse to forget the poor and instead pamper ourselves. But it's not an excuse, either, to keep from pouring ourselves and our gifts out in remembrance and exaltation of the Crucified One. If he is lifted up, he will draw all people unto him.
We live in a world in which we use the poor to excuse our own lack of costly and lavish devotion to Jesus: I can't serve a god who would let little children suffer in Sudan … I'm not going to any church where they'll spend $30,000 on a sound system while slum-dwellers in SÃo Paulo don't even have electricity or running water … And then we get in our expensive cars and drive to our homes with more room than we can use, and to buffet restaurants with more food than we can eat.
We use the fact that the poor will always be with us—that the problem of poverty is too vast, too complex, too deep-rooted to solve—to excuse our own apathy, inaction, and self-indulgence. Well, I don't feel the least bit guilty buying this sport-utility vehicle because even if I gave the money to the poor, it's just a drop in the ocean. They'll always be with us. And anyway, if there were some natural disaster, I would be able to help people with this truck …