They say that smell is one of the most powerful memory makers. The scent of pine reminds me of Christmas; Hyacinth’s bring thoughts of Easter (along with weeping eyes, a running nose, and a slowly disappearing voice!); the smell of wood smoke evokes a feeling of warmth as if I were near a crackling fire; while the smell of spoiled milk is a warning NOT to drink.
There are smells that make us smile and smells that make us cringe. One we might call an aroma, one an odor! Both are included in the FRAGRANCE of life. The knock-out image, or smell if you wish, of the Scriptural passage today is that heady perfume that Mary uses in wiping Jesus’ feet. It is a powerful scent—one that you cannot get away from. It was often used to anoint the dead—to cover the smell of rotting flesh, the decay of the body in a hot land.
So of course, when Mary opens that stopper and pours the oil and then massages it into Jesus feet, wiping his feet with her hair, the aroma is hard to miss. The Bible says, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” It was a beautiful gift. An extravagant gift. A gift meant for a king. A gift meant for the dead. A gift meant for Jesus.
It must have evoked so many emotions for those in the room. Not too long before, they had used nard like that, an expensive perfume, to prepare Lazarus’ body for burial—and yet, here he was, sitting at table with them. He had been dead, and now he was alive. They would have given anything to say “Thank you” to Jesus. No wonder Mary took perfume worth 300 denarii and lavishly soothed Jesus’ tired feet.
There it was, the fragrance of life which also included the fragrance around death. Maybe some thought of the famous words of Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a time: a time to be born, and a time to die.” A beginning, an end.
Or maybe the perfume wafted into their nostrils and filled their minds with dreams of kings and kingdoms. The rich scent of oil for anointing the One of God. And here he was—Jesus, the one they had begun to call Messiah, the one to bring in God’s reign. And yet, they knew the rumors flying around town. They knew he had made powerful enemies. The religious authorities (allied with the Empire that ruled the land) had him in their sights. Jesus himself had talked about his death. And he does it again in response to Mary’s anointing “Leave her alone… you will not always have me.”
Life and Death. Kingdom and Empire. All muddled together, as Mary uncorks the perfume, and touches Jesus’ feet.
But sneaking around the tendrils of life and death, of anointing a king and anointing a body, there lurks a whiff of something else. Something that also is part of the fragrance of life: lies, and greed, and selfishness, represented in the person of Judas.
He starts by denigrating the gift given by this woman. Silly woman. Wasteful woman. Uncaring woman. Why didn’t you sell the perfume for money? Don’t you see how much could have been placed in the treasury to take care of the poor? You can hear the hostility. And, in case, we don’t know the whole truth, our narrator tells us “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.”
Judas is there, mucking up this story, to highlight the choices we must make, every day. Do we leave our costly ointment, in its pretty jar, on the shelf, saving it for some more momentous time? Do we sell it or use it, saying that it is for others, but really it is for ourselves? Or are we willing to pour it out for God—and for God’s purposes?
The stench of what Judas is doing—belittling someone else’s gift, spinning lies and falsehoods, stealing money meant for the poor—is something we recognize. Something that happens at every level of society. It stinks. Like the offending odor that is the hallmark of the skunk, this way of behaving permeates everything that you are and do.
And so, I find it amazing that it is THIS passage that is so often quoted in tamping down generosity. I know you have heard it said, “Even Jesus says, you will always have the poor with you.” As if this shows that it is a problem with no solution, and so, why bother?
This is almost exactly the opposite of what Jesus was trying to say. His “you always have the poor with you…” was a quote from Deuteronomy 15. A chapter that talks about the poor. Listen to a portion of it.
“7If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, [Jubilee] is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11Since 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.”
See how the putrefaction of Judas-like thinking has allowed us to hold onto the first part of this verse “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth”—while we “forget” what I’m sure Jesus intended--that we would then hear the rest of the verse in our heads, “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
I sometimes think we turn our backs a little too quickly on Judas. Yes, he was the one who got kicked out of the group. Yes, he was going to betray Jesus. But I was surprised to read in John’s gospel these words, “The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.” The devil prompted, whispered, cajoled, dangled, tempted Judas. Or in other words, there but for the grace of God, go we all.
The story of Mary’s act and of Judas’ response is a mirror for human action and interaction. The fragrance of life is a multi-layered affair. At times we are more like Mary, but there may be times when we lean toward Judas.
So we need to continually and consciously ask ourselves:
--Are we willing to be extravagant in pouring out our gifts, our time, our talents, our all, for God?
--Do we sometimes dampen others’ enthusiasm?
--Do we ever stand in the way of God’s love being
shown to another?
--Have we become callous, or complacent, or uninterested in the plight of the least of these?
Smells are coded into our memory banks—good and bad. I’m sure everyone who sat around the table the night that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, had an image, associated with a smell, seared into their brain. Maybe this story, found in all the gospels, was too important not to tell, too important not to try to embed in our thoughts and actions.
In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story it ends with the words, “Truly, I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
The fragrance of life.
The extravagant gift.
The personal touch.
The closeness to Jesus.
The willingness to stand your ground, even against those that sneer, those that demean, those who are out for themselves.
May this become our story as well.
Amen and Amen.