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    painting of people surprised by the woman anointing Jesus' feet

    Remember Her

    Ernesto Cardenal

    March 5, 2020
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    The place was Solentiname, an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua; the setting, a campesino worship meeting in the mid-1970s. The community gathered weekly under the leadership of Padré Cardenal, the priest.

    It was in bethany. When they were sitting at the table a girl approached Jesus and poured perfume on his head.

    When the disciples saw this, they were angry and they began to say, “Why this waste? This could have been sold for much money to help the poor.”

    Oscar: If they’d sold it, it would have gone to only a small number of the poor, and the poor of the world are countless. On the other hand, when she offered it to Jesus, she was giving it, in his person, to all the poor. That made it clear it was Jesus we believe in. And believing in Jesus makes us concerned about other people, and we’ll even get to create a society where there’ll be no poor. Because if we’re Christians there shouldn’t be any poor.

    William: But all that perfume. And the bottle. The alabaster bottle!

    Padré: The alabaster bottle was sealed, and it had to be broken to use the perfume. The perfume could be used only once. And the Gospel says the whole house was filled with the fragrance of nard. It’s believed that nard was an ointment that came from India.

    Teresita: Maybe a smuggler paid her with that.

    Maria: Jesus was a poor man, too, and he too deserved to have the perfume poured on him.

    Padré: And worse off than poor, for they were going to kill him two days later. In the passage before this, Jesus said that it was two days to Passover. And in the following passage it’s told that Judas went away from there to make the bargain to sell him.

    A student from Managua: The Magdalene was used to that perfumed life, and things like that, and so she’s being grateful according to her way of life. She’s accustomed to a life of perfumes, jewels, carousing. And she pours perfume on him because that’s the life she led, she thinks that’s logical.

    William: She’s accustomed to squandering everything on the man she loves. And she doesn’t have that economical mentality of the others. She squanders it right there. And she’s not making economical calculations, like Judas.

    Donald: The criticism must have been because that perfume was one of the most costly, but for her it was still cheap to spend it on Jesus, because of what Jesus had done for her earlier. She wasn’t paying even a quarter of what she owed him.

    José (Maria’s husband, who works in the San José Bank): But Jesus hasn’t forgotten the poor, because he says they will always have the poor among them. He means that if they want to help the poor they can be helping them a lot, later. They’ll have the opportunity to give everything to the poor.

    Jesus heard this and said to them: “Why do you bother this woman? This thing that she has done is a good thing. The poor you will always have among you, but you will not always have me.”

    Bosco: That’s stupid.

    Laureano: That’s a pretty weak answer because to say you’re always going to have the poor is pretty silly.

    Padré: But isn’t it true that we’ve always had them?

    Laureano: But we’re not always going to have them.

    William: This is a phrase much used by reactionaries to say there’ll always have to be poor people, because Christ said so. The world can’t really change, because according to Jesus there’ll always have to be rich and poor.

    Padré: He doesn’t say there’ll always be poor. Let’s read it again.

    Myriam (reads): “The poor you will always have among you.”

    William: And the “always”? How must we interpret that “always”?

    Padré: Very simply. As long as there are poor, they will always be among us, we shall not be separated from them. Because the Christian community must be with the poor.

    William: But there’s that “always.” Are there always going to be poor people? That’s what disturbs me.

    Padré: He says they are never going to be separated from the poor. That’s not the same as saying there’ll never stop being poor people. As long as there are poor, they’ll always have them at their side, and among them.

    Tomas Peña: When there’s no more poor they won’t.

    A student: I’ve got it! He says “among you.” He’s referring to them, to his disciples, but that doesn’t mean there’ll never fail to be poor; he’s not talking to all of humanity.

    Laureano: Well, it was the disciples that he was saying that to. The disciples always have to be among the poor; they couldn’t be among the rich.

    Tomas Peña: There’s lots of ways of being poor: a poor person can be somebody with an arm missing. A poor person is somebody born stupid, or an orphan child. These will be in the community. There’ll always be people like that in need, but of course if we’re Christian they won’t be poor, in poverty; if they’re among us, that is, we won’t ever let them perish.

    Olivia: It could also be that he was telling them instead, it seems to me, that there wouldn’t be rich people, that everybody had to become poor.

    Felipe: It seems that if things are well-distributed there can’t be any rich; then everybody’s poor.

    Mary Magdalene’s Box of Very Precious Ointment James Tissot

    Mary Magdalene’s Box of Very Precious Ointment by James Tissot (public domain)

    Padré: I think what Jesus is saying is that he’s going away but that in place of him the poor are left. What that woman was doing with him, they’d have to do later with the poor, because he wasn’t going to be there any longer, or rather, we were going to have his presence in the poor. But can it be forever that he’ll not be there? The Gospel speaks of a second coming. He was going away and he was coming back.

    Felipe: When there’s that society that we dream about, that’s when he’s coming back, and we’ll have him, and there won’t be any poor people.

    Padré: Helpless orphans, people who have to go begging, or that sleep under a tree, or die in the streets the way the consumptives die in Managua, that’s what’s not going to exist when he comes. People for whom you ought to sell a bottle of perfume if you have one.

    Myriam: And pouring perfume on anybody will be the same as pouring it on Christ.

    William: This passage has also been used to justify big spending for luxury in churches. Because Jesus accepted the pouring of perfume on him.

    Olivia: But what that woman did was a lesson for us, and a reminder, so that what’s spent in great temples that are good for nothing can be better spent on people, on the poor people he left behind.

    Felipe: Those who now want to spend a lot on church buildings and not on the poor, they’re repeating what Judas did in opposing pouring perfume on Jesus. Judas did it because he wanted to get the money, and the people that now want all the spending for the churches, it’s for the same reason, because they live off that money. They’re thieves.

    What this woman has done, in pouring this perfumed oil on my body, is to prepare me for my burial. I tell you, that wherever this good news is announced throughout the world, what this woman did will also be told, so that you may remember her.

    Padré: Whenever his violent death is remembered, with no funeral, like the death of any subversive, they will remember what that woman did, as part of the good news.

    Olivia: It seems to me that the remembering is for us also to do what she did. So that we do it now, not to him anymore, but to the poor. Or to him in the person of the poor. That’s why we must remember her. That woman gave up a luxury. And people like us who don’t have perfumes or luxurious things to give because we’re poor?

    Felipe: We can give other valuable things that we have.

    Laureano: We can offer our lives as Jesus did. Then it will also be for us, that perfume that the woman poured on Jesus.


    This reading appears in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. Adapted from The Gospel in Solentiname, by Ernesto Cardenal (Orbis Books, 1982, 2010). Used with permission.

    Contributed By

    Ernesto Cardenal was a Nicaraguan Catholic priest, poet, and politician.

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