March 17, 2013 – Lent 5, What Is That Smell?
To listen to this sermon, click here: What Is That Smell?
There are times, when something momentous is about to happen, that time itself seems to slow down, and every action and word seems to have special meaning. Whether it is something good or something terrible that is about to happen, we see and hear and remember even the smallest thing because every moment is alive with expectation. I remember so many little details about the morning of my daughter Emily’s wedding, Emily and the bridesmaids running through the rain from the parsonage to the church under big green-and-white striped umbrellas. I remember the excited chatter of the bridesmaids putting on makeup and doing one another’s hair, and my sons looking like somebody else, standing around quiet and awkward in their tuxedos. I remember my wonderful mother, making sure Roseanna and Louisa and Colin stayed tidy for their jobs as flower girls and ring bearer, and calling me just as I was running to fetch ice for the soloist who had a nosebleed, so that I wouldn’t miss the important moment of getting to help Emily into her wedding dress.
And I remember just as vividly a time some years later, the days before my mother passed away, sitting beside her bed hour after hour, reading psalms to her and looking at old photographs with her, and trying to remember how to pray the rosary so I could pray it for her. I remember my big sister bustling around cleaning and making medicine charts and pretty much living on bananas and gummi bears. I remember my sweet, gentle Uncle Armand, my mother’s favorite brother, holding her hand and talking to her about Jesus and how much he loves little children. And I remember the night before my mother died, the longest night in the world, sitting in the dark listening to a jazz CD with my younger brother who was bitter and terrified in the face of death.
We have all had those moments, joyful moments and sad moments, times of waiting and expecting, that are imprinted in our memories forever because the meaning of what was about to happen made even the least detail heavy with significance. And the story that we just read from John’s gospel is exactly that kind of moment. It’s a story about a dinner party, but it was no ordinary dinner party. First of all, this dinner party happened at a crucial moment in the lives of Jesus and his disciples. The last time they had been in Bethany their good friend Lazarus, the host of the dinner party, was four days dead and rotting in a tomb. Jesus had called Lazarus forth from the tomb with a loud cry, and not surprisingly there had been quite a commotion. A lot of people were there and saw what had happened – it’s pretty hard to hush it up when a dead man walks out of a grave. A lot of those people put their faith in Jesus, as you might expect, but some people ran off to alert the Jewish leaders, and that was what really caused problems. They were terrified that if too many people got excited about this new Jewish upstart it was going to get noticed by the Romans, and if the Romans got upset, it would destroy the uneasy peace they had managed to establish with the empire, and life was going to get dangerous. And so with all the fuss over the raising of Lazarus it was determined that Jesus had to go. If one man’s life had to be sacrificed for the life of a whole nation, so be it – that seemed reasonable enough to them. And so word had gone out that if anyone had word of Jesus’ whereabouts, they were supposed to alert the authorities immediately.
But now, six days before the Jewish feast of the Passover, clearly Jesus had decided it was time to set his plans in motion. It was time for him, not to avoid the threat of death, but to come forth openly and challenge it. As Dallas Willard said, Jesus invited the powers of the world to do their worst to him, and that is exactly what they did on the cross. And so this meeting of good friends, this meal at the home where so many other meals had been shared before, was overshadowed by the looming threat of death. Jesus’ disciples still didn’t understand all that he had been teaching them along the road to Jerusalem, but they must have had a sense that a crucial time had come, the time toward which Jesus had been moving – well, for months, certainly, but even before that, ever since they first saw him at his baptism. Anyway, coming to Bethany had sealed their fate as far as the Jewish leaders were concerned. Bethany was just two miles outside of Jerusalem; Jesus and the disciples might as well have sent an email to the High Priest giving him directions to Mary and Martha’s home. There was no more chance of hiding, no more waiting, no more delay, no more safety.
Everyone must have been feeling the tension: Lazarus was at the table with Jesus, Lazarus who could remember hearing his voice and stumbling out of the dark tomb with the graveclothes binding his face and body. When Martha had seen her brother alive again she had understood who Jesus was and had declared her faith that Jesus was the Christ, the One sent from God. I think Martha must have prepared that meal and set the table in a kind of awe. Everyone in the house must have felt that something big was about to happen, but it was quiet Mary who seemed to understand more than anyone else. She alone seemed to really understand the nearness of Jesus’ death, and she brought out a jar of costly oil to anoint her Lord’s feet, the feet at which she had sat to listen and learn many times before.
John, who was there, and who remembered that moment many years later, tells us that the whole house was filled with the fragrance when Mary poured out the perfume and began to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. It was a gesture of deep emotion, and an expression of intimacy. It was a very unusual thing for a woman to let her hair down in a room full of men, but she didn’t care. She was overwhelmed with love for her Lord and with grief for his death, and without any shame or embarrassment she poured out the perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.
There is another story in the gospels about a woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, and I think it’s important not to get the two stories confused because they make very different points. In the other story, Jesus was at a dinner party, too, at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. And a woman, a woman of questionable reputation apparently, came in and scandalized the host and everyone else by falling at Jesus’ feet, weeping, and wiping his feet with her hair. In that story Jesus very tenderly forgave the sins of the woman and taught Simon a lesson on love and repentance. That woman’s actions were a sign of her shame and desperation; she is literally throwing herself at the mercy of God. Her name was Mary, too; it is likely she was Mary Magdalene, because we learn later that she had seven demons cast out of her. But for our Mary at the dinner party in Bethany there wasn’t any sense of shame associated with her actions. She was grieving, because she knew that Jesus was surely going to die. So these are two very different stories, though they are both stories about great love.
I love it that John remembers the fragrance of the perfume and how it filled the house as they all stood or sat, perplexed or horrified or angry or whatever, watching Mary pour out the precious oil that would have been worth an entire years’ wages. Each person that watched and that smelled that fragrance must have had his or her own reaction, his or her own understanding of what was happening, what it meant. In the days just before my mother’s death, we each dealt with our feelings in our own way. My sister kept herself going by working and serving us all, making my mom as comfortable as she could, keeping the apartment neat and orderly. She was always busy; and she seemed to always know what to say and what to do. My sister is a very Martha person. My brother, though, saw everything that happened through his own personal cloud of despair. He seemed to just turn in on himself; so that all he was able to see was his own loss and fear. For me, it was a hard time, and a sad time, but I knew that I wasn’t really losing my mother. I knew that she was going home, and that I would see her again. She had suffered with Alzheimers for years, and I felt thankful that she would be healed at last, that she would be herself, whole and well and happier than she had ever been. It’s not that I was a better or smarter person – my sister is certainly the strongest and smartest and most giving of the three of us – but by the grace and kindness of God I was able to see and not to despair. All three of us were experiencing our mother’s death in very different ways; we saw the same things and heard the same sounds and smelled the same fragrances but they had very different meanings for each of us.
And that’s how it was with the people in the house when Mary poured out the perfume and the sweet fragrance filled the house. Everyone smelled it, and each person must have had his or her own reaction – but John only tells us one person’s reaction. I am sure he chose to record the reaction of Judas because, in hindsight, he knew that Judas was the one in that house who would have a hand in hastening the shadow of death that hung over Jesus that day. I suspect Judas wasn’t the only one who was surprised and confused, but he at least didn’t seem to have any understanding of Mary’s actions. He seems to have been offended by her impropriety, her total lack of concern for being sensible. His concern was for accounts and balances, losses and gains – and particularly for his own gain, according to John, who said that Judas was in the habit of helping himself to the common purse occasionally.
Sometimes people mis-use Jesus’ quote about “the poor you always have with you” to say we shouldn’t get too het up about all the poverty and suffering in the world – it’s just a fact of life, even Jesus said so. But that isn’t what Jesus was saying to Judas at all. He looked at Judas that day, knowing full well the real reason why Judas was concerned with the monetary extent of all that waste, and he said, “If you wanted to help the poor, nothing was ever stopping you but your own greed. This is about something very different. This is about my death.” But even surrounded by the fragrance of Jesus’ coming death, all Judas could smell were his own desires, and all he could think to do was to judge Mary, to call her out for being foolish and wasteful. I think for ourselves, we need to be very careful not to pass judgment on Judas, because who can say how any one of us would have felt, what we would have said or done when we smelled the fragrance of Mary’s perfume? The only one who has the right to judge Judas is Jesus, whom he betrayed, and he is the God who is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
We weren’t able to be there in Bethany among Jesus’ friends that day, and that’s why John remembered it and wrote it down for us. As we come to Holy Week this year, and as we remember Jesus’ suffering and death on our behalf we need to be reminded that Jesus was not a hapless victim of man’s inhumanity to man. Jesus came to his friends’ house in Bethany to eat with them one last time before entering Jerusalem where he knew he would face death. And for everyone who understood Jesus at all, they knew that the meaning of all that he was about to do was love. He loved Mary, who sat at his feet and listened, and he loved Martha, whose hands were always willing to serve, and he loved Lazarus, who heard the voice of his friend even in death. He loved his twelve traveling companions, thick-headed though they so often were. He loved his people, even as they cried out for his death. He loved the Roman soldiers who struck him and spit in his face. He loved you, and he loved me. And because he loved us all, there was nothing in all of creation that would stop him from journeying on towards his death. And that was the meaning of the sweet fragrance that filled the house in Bethany that day. My prayer for you and for us all is that as we get closer to Holy Week ourselves in memory we too will be able to smell that same sweetness all around us, and understand God’s sweetness to us in a new way.