Back in January there was a very bad outbreak of violence in Zimbabwe. Party thugs went around beating up the opposition. Probably the opposition did some beating up too. In the small township of Tafara, outside Harare the people had a very hard time. Police and soldiers dragged young men and women out of their houses and beat them. The Anglican church became a refuge where people hid overnight to escape these gangs. I know the church quite well so when the violence was over I asked their priest how things were. He told me the gory details then added “When you come out next month can you bring a thurible? Ours is broken.” That was amazing. After all the violence, what they wanted was a thurible so they could worship God properly. I took one out with me last month and had a lovely time celebrating a gloriously joyful mass and burning my fingers on the blazing hot thurible as I swung it around the altar.
It is that same instinct Mary of Bethany showed when she poured expensive perfume over Jesus. Yes, the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But at this moment it was right to pour it over Jesus to thank God for the extraordinary thing Jesus was going to do for us, offering his life for the salvation of the world. Does that not demand some appropriate response: sweet smelling oil, incense, joyful songs? and that is a note we must not forget in these coming weeks. The suffering and death of Jesus is terrible. It is full of darkness, disappointment, bleakness, failure and death. It is a time when we are called to walk alongside him as far as we can, though we must always stop when we reach the Cross. Only he can do that part. We often have to remember our own failures and darkness, sorrow and sin. That is all we can offer in this sacrifice of the Son of God. And yet we rejoice, that God is doing this for us. For us darkness and light are both present; pain and joy exist side by side; Christ is going into the darkest places of death and yet we know he will return, taking captivity captive and bringing gifts to men; and the greatest of those gifts will be life with God.
Yes, it is nothing less than life with God that we are being offered. Can you think of anything that could be bigger, better, more exciting than that? I think people often forget that this is what is at stake. Rightly we watch the suffering of Jesus; rightly we remember that Jesus suffered to save us from our sinful way of life, but we forget that this salvation means life forever with God. I can’t tell you what that will be like because obviously I don’t know. No matter how hard we try we cannot conceive it because we don’t know what God is like and we don’t know what eternity is like. But we have a couple of clues. We do know that Jesus said “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” That means that the Father is something like Jesus. And we know from the Gospels that Jesus was an utterly fascinating person to be with. He was full of life, love, humour, seriousness – he was caring; he was everything we would like a person to be. So God is like that too, only much more so. Life with God will be wonderful. It is really something we can look forward to. We need to hold that in mind during these coming weeks so that we know why Jesus did all this for us. He really wants us to have what he has – a wonderful Father who is also God. As he told Mary Magdalene. “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” He wants to share his Father with us. How generous is that!
In that context it may seem strange that Jesus could go on and say “You always have the poor with you, you don’t always have me.” Of course this is a rebuke to Judas; it should not suggest that Jesus doesn’t bother about the poor, but accepts them as an inevitable background to life. Yet is that how we accept them? The poor people who beg in London railway stations? the poor who have to resort to food banks to feed their families? the poor of Africa, or South America, or the kids in Tariro who you so generously support? Are they an inevitable background to life, or simply an object for our charitable giving? I think Pope francis has picked up a part of the message of Jesus that we often don’t notice. The poor are blessed for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The poor are a blessing to us because they remind us of aspects of life we often forget. When I go to Zimbabwe to help our poor kids I come back always inspired and humbled by so much courage, joy, resilience and belief in God. The poor have a wonderful gift to give us if we can take the time to receive it.
Pope Francis tells us that we should let the poor evangelise us. You should look that remark up on the internet and see how scandalised some people are by it. They think the poor are there for us good Christians to help. They have nothing to teach us, nothing to say to us. Rich people don’t listen to the poor. Jesus knew better. He knew that the poor trusted God because they knew they had to rely on him for life. Jesus knew that the poor have a better sense of priorities, the importance of family, basic food, helping each other. Jesus knew also that once people get rich they are very easily distracted from the important things of life, and especially from God.
Our world is never a fair world: the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. We who live in a rich country are rich whether we think we are or not. Just having the National Health Service makes us rich. No one has yet invented a political system that brings a measure of equality and prosperity to all. That is not surprising since the basic problem is not economics but human sin. We are all selfish. We all cling to what we have. We give away only the bits and pieces we can spare. Yet this week we begin to watch Christ as he gives away everything he has – his family, his nation, his friends, his possessions and finally his life. At the end he seems to lose his God as well. The poor of this world give us the chance to dispossess ourselves of some of what we have. It helps them, of course, raising them a little out of their poverty so they can cope. But it helps us to become a little more like Christ giving something of what we have to them so that they may be more like us. That is the blessing the poor have to give us. That is why we thank God, with Jesus, that the poor are always with us.