Lent 5 C
Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12: 1-8
I remember the smell of my grandparents’ backyard. They had large evergreen trees. Lots of shade. Years of pine needles, built up and decaying over decades. It was shady back there, and cool. They lived in central Massachusetts, lots of rocks. Did you know granite has a smell? It does when it’s damp and it mixes with the scent of earthy loam that has formed under the pine trees. To this day, any hint of that mixture will transport me back to my childhood and suddenly I am safe and secure and loved.
Smell is the most primitive of our senses. The receptors for smell connect directly to the limbic system, the part of our brains in charge of emotion and emotional memory. Only after being processed there do those signals move on to the more analytical cortex of our brains – the logical, descriptive part of our brains.
What we see going on with Jesus and his dear friends today has nothing to do with logic, and everything to do with extravagant out-pouring of deep, heartfelt devotion. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”.
Jesus goes to Bethany for dinner at the house of his dear departed, and subsequently resurrected friend Lazarus, and Lazarus’s two sisters Martha and Mary. His actions with Lazarus have brought him to the attention of the authorities. There will be repercussions. This is not a benign governmental presence, and it is not good for one’s health to be elevated to the level of “threat”. But tonight, he celebrates. He breaks bread with his dear friends. Lazarus takes advantage of his new lease on life to host a thank you dinner for his cherished friend. Martha expresses herself the the best way she knows how – she prepares, she cooks, she cleans, she serves.
And then there is Mary. Mary listens to the call of her soul. She always has.
Nard, or spikenard, is a flowering plant of the valarian family, grown in the Himalayas. Exotic and pungent, when distilled its essential oil can be used as a perfume, as incense, even as an herbal medicine. It’s aroma is complex: spicy, sweet and musky. Because it is exotic, it is expensive.
Mary has a great quantity of this costly ointment – enough to have cost a year’s wages. Maybe she bought it for her brother’s funeral. For the time being at least, he won’t be needing it. Jesus tells us he has bought it for his burial. But Mary… Mary never says a word. She comes into the room, heedless of everyone around her, bearing the most expensive thing in her home. She pours this abundance of rich, pungent ointment onto Jesus’s feet, anointing him. She lets down her hair, heedless of the presence of unmarried males. That’s hardly shocking in our culture, but was an astonishing abandonment of decorum in an observant Jewish household. She then begins the indulgent, sensual act of wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair. The fragrance of the perfume permeates the entire house, and chases out the smell of death, even as it ushers in the unescapable reality of Jesus’s coming fate.
Now admit it. If you read this passage and replaced Judas’s name with Peter’s perhaps, or Thomas’s, and took out John’s careful reminder that Judas’s intentions were not honorable, would you not have a great deal of empathy with his basic sentiment? One estimate I read said that jar of perfume smeared on Jesus’s feet was worth about 12,000 dollars in today’s money. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Why indeed? Working for the poor, the marginalized, the displaced – that is what Jesus’s ministry has been all about, has it not? We are, as Judas was, such very practical people sometimes. Get the most bang for your buck. There’s nothing wrong with maximizing positive impact, so Jesus’s response is a bit disturbing, and seems out of character. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” That response has been historically misused to minimize people’s sense of obligation to the poor and maximize their sense of obligation to the Church – the “body of Christ.” I say “misused” because to interpret Jesus’s words in that way misses the point, just as Judas did.
Jesus was referencing Hebrew scripture in his response, specifically Deuteronomy 15:11: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Far from abandoning the poor, he is quoting scripture that specifically demands perpetual care for them. To live a life in the love of Christ demands care of the poor, the sad, the meek, the down-trodden, the marginalized. But Jesus moves beyond the bottom line. Jesus moves beyond the practical, beyond the balance sheet. Jesus opens up a new way.
Saul, before he was Paul, knew how to follow a spiritual balance sheet. He did the right things, followed the law to the nth degree. It meant caring for the poor, the displaced, the widows. That was the law. In doing so one should be rewarded. It also meant persecuting those who didn’t follow the law, who lived life a different way. That was the law. In doing so one should be rewarded and so he was. He was rewarded with the respect of the people, the religious authorities, and one suspects, with a certain sense of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness that he felt was his due. Until Jesus came to him on the road to Damascus. He learned in one fell swoop the overwhelming, extravagant love of God in Christ and suddenly profit was loss, loss was gain, and death meant new life.
“I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah wrote in a different time, of course and knew nothing of Jesus. Still, he spoke powerfully of the old way, our history and our base, and moving on to the new way – a way marked by abundant life, extravagant love. Oscar Wilde once said, “Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.”
Mary never says a word, but Mary understands. Wordlessly, she communicates with Jesus, offering Him a tiny taste of extravagant love before he offers himself, a fragrant offering for all. Susanne Guthrie imagines their wordless conversation: Applying the rich perfume to Jesus’s tired feet, Mary’s actions say, “I know.” Briefly relaxing into her ministrations Jesus answers silently, “I know that you know.” Wiping his feet with her hair, Mary weeps, “Now I know that you know that I know.”
“Love’s deep silence surrounds their mutual understanding – a sphere unshattered by words. Only love and only prayer can enter the soul’s darkness with such intimacy.” (Suzanne Guthrie, The Edge of the Enclosure) “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Jesus invites us to share in God’s extravagant love. To experience that love means to share that love. It is an active process, not a passive sentiment.
Let us pray:
Holy and loving God,
As we travel through this day, this season, this life, may we breath in the extravagant perfume of your love and breath out your peace and justice to all. Amen