Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Of all the stories of Jesus’ ministry that we have heard until this point during the pandemic, this scene may feel the most unsettling. Not because the story itself is strange or off-putting. But because of where we currently find ourselves. Having lived and continuing to live cautious lives and only considered careful measured forays into social settings.
And the thing that sticks out to me more than anything is that it must have been almost hard to breathe.
The smell of the perfume would have stuck in the room. It would have overwhelmed the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. In the before times, we all know someone who wears too much perfume or cologne, whether it is that strange aunt in the family, or teenage boys wearing too much body spray cologne. But I cannot remember the last time that I smelled someone else that doesn’t live in my house. Masks and social distancing have had the incredible effect of isolating us from the smells of being in community.
Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can immediately recall memories long buried to time with incredible vividness. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons than just about anything else. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to beloved Christmas memories.
The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or be overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and this is the first time that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus since the miracle. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. She is giving thanks in her way. But Mary decides to give thanks in a different way. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. It is the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public. As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that was just strange. Mary’s act is as extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that should have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.
In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”. The moment is ruined. Judas has re-interpreted this lovely scene to his own ends. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he wants to disconnect from the intimate and personal moment. He tries to make it about the impersonal and distant and abstract idea of how money should be used. Judas tries to make the moment about practicality and he almost steals away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. Judas tries to dismiss Mary’s love and gratefulness with his distant and impersonal righteous indignation.
I can very much get Judas’ discomfort, you probably do too. Having a display like Mary’s can intrude in our space and feelings and sense of what is appropriate. And like Judas, we can seek to create distance, through power and manipulation, between ourselves and this deep display of affection. We fear what Mary is doing. We fear letting go of ourselves to God’s love and call for us. We fear the ways in which we might be changed, we might be vulnerable and unsafe, the ways in which our world and lives may become uncertain.
And at the heart of our distancing, is our desire for control. We want to be in control of where we begin and end, to protect our bodies and feelings and tribes from risk and hurt. And we use whatever power we can. Money, judgement, shame. Mary’s act is not safe, it is wild and untamed. It is extravagant and passionate. This is not the way we think the world should work. “Don’t waste the money” we declare because we are uncomfortable with risk. “Don’t be so emotional” we cry out because we know loving so deeply can lead us to getting hurt.
Our fear of being close, our need for control, gets in the way of opening ourselves to God’s love and call. Our discomfort puts practicality or pragmatism before others, before people. Judas only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time and passion as being worth of the expense. It can be hard for us to let ourselves take the risk being close, the risk of following and loving Jesus, the risk of being people who care about God’s mercy for the world too much. We know that all of that is very uncomfortable.
For five weeks we have been immersed in the season of Lent. Immersed in this journey exploring the relationship of power and love. We began with the powerful reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. We hear the stories of temptation, lament, another year of grace, and prodigal love. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the deep symbol of death enters into our sanctuary.
There is a pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. This perfume is one meant to keep the smell of death at bay. It is suppose to disguise the smell of a decaying body while it waits to be buried.
Yet, so often the thing meant to distance and disguise, to protect us from reality comes to symbolize the very thing it is trying to hide. The perfume becomes the smell of death.
Jesus does not miss the symbol. Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the day that we are slowly building to as we get closer to Holy Week.
Jesus does not see waste, Jesus doesn’t need to distance himself from Mary. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild and untamed love. Jesus sees the future. “Leave her alone” he says, ”She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time of all of this. The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. None of it is about the bottom line, none of it has been about being practical with money, none of it was about God staying distant and safe from creation. This moment is a foretaste of God’s imminent future.
When the time comes for Jesus’s body to be put into the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb. God is accomplishing something new before the women even have the chance to anoint Jesus’ body on that Easter morning. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but preparing for New Life.
Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate and impulsive Mary has shown her love and thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. And God is bringing us all right into the middle of it, God crossing the bounds of our discomfort in order to love us.
What a contrast the walls and obstacles we put to protect ourselves, to our seeking to distance from God’s wild and untamed love. We try to protect ourselves by appealing to power, money, and supposed morality all because we are uncomfortable with God’s love. God risks it all, even death, to come close, to take on and wear our flesh, so that we will know love.
Judas is uncomfortable with the perfume filled house, he wants to step back and distance himself. Make things about money, or poor people, or whatever else that is safe to feel. But Jesus stays present and near for Mary’s gesture of love, and then Jesus tells us that God is only coming closer. Coming in the familiar smells of Holy Week.
Like any powerful perfume, there is no distancing ourselves from God’s love after this. Today God’s Love comes near to us in perfume that anoints Jesus feet, it will come on palms branches next week, it was waft from the table at Maundy Thursday. And it will comes so close on Good Friday, we will nail it to the cross to distance ourselves from it.
But after three days, God’s love will burst forth, uncontrolled, untamed, wild, passionate, extravagant. And it will be love that we can see, touch, taste and of course, love that we can smell.