Simplicity in a World of Excess – John 12:1-8

This week on the pastor’s email list there has been a really long discussion around whether it is appropriate to boycott certain businesses. It all started when a pastor sent around a forward he’d received that claimed that a certain corporation had been working with the immigration enforcement to get immigrants arrested on a specific day in March. This pastor was calling for a boycott of Wal-Mart because of this. It quickly came out that this text message was a hoax, but the question of boycotting a business because of how they do or don’t use their resources was still being discussed days after the initial email got started. (I think this is a good question and worth continued discussion in the church, boycotts can be powerful tools for social change — don’t forget the Montgomery Bus Boycott — or my post on Amazon).

While what we should support and should not support are both great questions, it needs to go deeper. The bigger questions are around how we use our resources as Christians (and what impact our use has on others), or why is it that we tend to value lower prices over just about everything else? These seem like good places to start. The bottom line has become the standard by which our society judges everything. Yet the bottom line is itself subject to deeper probing and questions. The bottom is subject to God’s kingdom.

Another pastor wrote on the email list suggested that we must remember that no corporation, not even Amazon, included is itself “the Enemy.” He wrote insightfully: “The enemy for me, in this instance, is my acquiescence to the culturally imposed idea that “products” will make our lives easier and that if I don’t have product “x” than I must not be worth something.” [I’m usually like this with technology – iPhone]. I think our Christian faith wants to shed light on the situation. What we should be aiming for is how our way of life can meet up with the Christian narrative so that there is integrity between what we say we believe and how we act. What we need to question are the ways our lives get weighed down by either intentionally or unintentionally being shaped by the world’s narrative rather than Scriptures. So finally a question around boycotting becomes a conversation involving Quaker queries:

Query 13: Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?

Query 14: Are you careful to live within your income? Do you avoid involving yourself in business beyond your ability to manage or in highly speculative ventures? Are you willing to accept a lower economic standard rather than compromise Christian values?

These questions help us we understand the Christian story and what it has to say to us about how we use what we have. This in turn, from a Quaker perspective, becomes a question of what we have, why we have it and what we do with it. This is simplicity, or plainness as earlier Friends called it, that many feel drawn to in Quakerism. In a society of excess the church can be people of enough. The church questions what or who we put our value in. The Christian narrative suggests that real worth is located not in consumable items but being a follower of Jesus Christ. And this requires a simplified life. Simplicity can be something we take on voluntarily as an act of worship and this is how we might approach this passage in the Gospel of John today.

Mary’s Act

The story of Mary, Jesus and Judas may be a helpful lens for interpreting some these questions within our world today. It teaches us which response is the response we are to work towards. Mary is the hero of this story, her faithful and excessive act challenges us to continue to work towards the unencumbered and simple life. Mary sees that true wealth is in becoming poor for Christ (cf. Philippians 3:4b-14).

For our purposes, Mary is a kind of prodigal daughter, whose very act of worship is overly extravagant and offensive to some. The background to this story is that she is the sister of Lazarus, the man who Jesus, in the previous chapter, raised to life. This is the story where we get the famous lines that say, “Jesus began to weep.” And then Jesus, stands in front of the tomb cries out “Lazarus, come out!” And the disciples looking up, mutter “dead man walking.” Jesus raises Lazarus back to life, and the write of the Gospel says that this is when news really began to spread about Jesus. Can you imagine, a guy who raises dead people to life. That’s going to hit the evening news in no time.

So now, a few days later a dinner party is thrown for Jesus, with the newly resurrected Lazarus as the guest of honor. While everyone is sitting around the table this woman stands up, pulls out a ridiculously expensive bottle of fragrant ointment, the estimated amount of which was a year’s wage, kneels down in front of Jesus and pours the thing out all over his feet and onto the floor.

I don’t know how many of you have perfume like that laying around?

Have you ever done something like this? Found something you love some much that it changes everything? That you’re willing to give it all up for because of that person or calling?

This extravagant act is a double metaphor: Lazarus was dead and is now alive, Jesus too will die and be raised to life, the fragrant perfume which was a symbol of ceremonial cleansing foregrounds his death and resurrection. What she did was in line with ceremonial washings Jewish people would do with dead bodies in preparation for burial.

Mary does it while Jesus is still eating dinner. [One friend from our meeting wrote on the church’s blog this week that he was reading the passage as taking in every moment as though it were sacred. This is a wonderful way to read this act. Mary turns this eating event into a worship event. Jesus is arrested shortly after this. This is his last public event, just prior pharisees look for ways to kill him.] This is an expression of Mary’s faith in who Jesus was, and what he had said about his death.

And then as if this wasn’t enough to make a really awesome party kind of awkward, she starts wipping it up with her hair!? For one, a Jewish woman in these days always kept her hair covered. To unbind her hair in public was already kind of offensive, but then she went and wiped Jesus’ feet with it. So she was willing to stand up and do something that could be misinterpreted and even offensive because she was utterly humbled in his presence, she positioned herself as a servant before his feet. This is read as act of humiliation, it is Mary’s way of embodying the words of Jesus “whosoever will save their life will lose it and whosoever wishes to lose their life for the sake of the kindgom will find it.”

Or to put it another way — I don’t want to be rich, unless I’m poor. This is her act of worship, her act of voluntary simplicity, an emptying out of what I assumed must have been her most treasured possession. All of my worth is in your, nothing I possess or can possess comes near the worth I find in you.

I learned about this kind of downward mobility when I heard Alexie Torres Fleming speak last year.

Downward Mobility // Voluntary Simplicity // Alexis Torres-Fleming

Alexie Torres-Flemming, is a Catholic turned activist latina who grew up in, moved out of the Bronx, only later to return under God’s leading. She tells her story of once having a wonderful high-paying job in NYC with beautiful and huge windows overlooking Manhattan only to realized that she had given into this kind of ordered life-planning and culture of consumerism that was leading to an unfulfilled life. She speaks about how God led her through “downward mobility” as she moved her family back to the Bronx to live and work alongside poor youth there.

She returned to the Bronx neighborhood of her youth in 1992 after feeling something was missing from her corporate life in Manhattan. She soon became involved in neighborhood issues and organized an anti-drug march attracting 50 people. Days later, in retaliation, drug dealers torched the church where the march originated. Frightened, but undaunted, Alexie organized a second march that attracted 1,200 people and SWAT teams. Following this event, Alexie and young people from the neighborhood began Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) in the basement of a run-down church. From Robin Hood.

Torres-Fleming is a good example of someone who had particular choices and resisted the choice of the common course. Instead she did something similar to Mary in John 12 and poured it all out on the feet of Jesus becoming fully wrapped in the identity and call of the the Kingdom. Even a top paying career and all the possessions in the world could not bring the worth Christ had for her. She took on a voluntary simplicity or downward mobility as she called it. She found that she didn’t want to be rich unless she was poor, any other way would be to lose life. She had a choice, not all of us have high paying jobs in Manhattan, not all of us have as much to lose but we all have a level of choice in what we place our worth in, in what can become an obstacle to worshipping Christ. This could be jobs, possessions, ideas of what success looks like, even dreams yet unrealized, it could be good intentions blinded by our own selfish ambitions too.

Judas’ Act

The problem with Judas here is that he has deceived himself into thinking he has good intentions, yet he is still ties to finding worth in his possessions. He is no doubt the foil in this story, even without the side commentary, you get the picture that something uncomfortable stirs within him. In a way Judas’s response is rather sympathetic. If I saw someone pouring out a years worth of wages on someone’s feet, there’s a good chance I’d speak up too. Judas brings up the underlying questions about the proper use of the resources we have.

The problem is that Judas is ultimately still ruled by his possessions and faithful to the bottom line (or his bottom line) which has become his standard of judgement. The cost of the perfume, the perfume becomes an obstacle for him to see what is really taking place. There is a sense in which Judas is not awake to himself. He says he wants to help to poor with the money from the perfume, and maybe there is even part of him that really wants to do this. But the poor will never be fed by because he is ruled by the particular vision of how resources get used, namely for his own gain. This is why Jesus says, Judas, the poor will be with you long after I am gone. If you really want to help them, you will have your chance. Because it wasn’t really about helping anyone but himself but he was blinded I think to this.

I think Mary on the other hand will feed the poor because she has first aligned herself wholly to Christ. She is ready to follow Christ, no matter the literal or figurative cost it will incur. She knew that before she could truly be rich, she had to be poor too. This divestment of her most precious possession can be offensive to others as it represents a kind of “downward mobility” something our society loathes.

Conclusion

So how do we too follow Mary in this movement of voluntary simplicity that is poured out as worship on the feet of Christ? How do we become unencumbered, fully awake to see who Christ is this Lenten season? What is that needs to be poured out? What is it that we have placed our worth in? What is that obstacle to our worship?

There will be some of us who shop at stories such as Wal-Mart or Amazon, there will be those of us who will boycott them all done for various reasons, usually involved how these places have intersected with our own life experiences. I think we have to continue to question both sides of these willing to learn new light an be willing to change our positions on all these things as our convictions grow and change as as the situations grow and change (for better or worse). But behind all this we have to ask where do we find our worth and are will giving into what our culture says we should value over what the Christian narrative says we should value?

Following Christ will often require that we go against what everyone else does in our society, our values should not match everyone elses and so Judas should be offended. We need to continue to work to have unencumbered lives, lives that are free from the unnecessary trappings that keep us from being faithful. Maybe we, like mary, will have to pour out our most prized possessions to do it.

May we too be inspired downward mobility by this kind of downward mobility. May God help us to shape and reshape our values in a way that resembles more of the Mary and less of the Judas in this story. May we find ways to make Mary’s story our own.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.