The Agnostic Christian

Now and then I come across a jewel in my studies that I can’t wait to share. I’ve been sitting on this one for quite some time in anticipation of this very scene. We’re set today to encounter Jesus’ response to Judas. Recall that Jesus has just been anointed with a year’s worth of nard, or spikenard – an expensive essential oil. I’ll back up a bit in the text so we can capture the entire exchange: 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? It was worth a year’s wages. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” ~John 12:4-8

Now, for a clunky segue…let’s talk about the celebrated American writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In a career that spanned fifty years, Vonnegut became one of America’s most notable writers – producing plays, novels, short stories and autobiographical musings. His sixth novel, Slaughterhouse Five, (Or, the alternative title: The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death) catapulted him to fame and to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list in 1969. In 2010 the book was still receiving awards. The first sentence of that novel, which reads: “All this happened, more or less.” was ranked No. 38 on the American Book Review’s list of “100 Best First Lines from Novels.” How then does this most modern of modern writers fit into this particular section of the Gospel of John? Well, because he was once asked to preach a sermon on a Palm Sunday. He chose as his text this exchange between Jesus and Judas. I will give you a bit from that message:

“I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music… (Anyway) I choose as my text the first eight verses of John 12, which deal not with Palm Sunday but with the night before – with Palm Sunday Eve, with what we might call “Spikenard Saturday.” I hope that will be close enough to Palm Sunday to leave you more or less satisfied…I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation “For the poor always ye have with you.”…This is too much for that envious hypocrite Judas, who says, trying to be more Catholic than the Pope: “Hey-this is very un-Christian. Instead of wasting that stuff on Your feet, we should have sold it and given the money to the poor people.” To which Jesus replies in Aramaic: “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” This is about what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances. If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well-suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same. “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” Shall I re-garble it for you? “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade. This has no doubt been a silly sermon. I am sure you do not mind. People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.” ~Adapted from Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut