John 12: 1-8
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.’
What is the True Cost? John 12:1-8
Once, when I was a teenager, I remember smelling something so bad that it woke me up from a deep sleep very early one morning. I wondered out of my room and found my mom, who was also awake at such a shocking hour. With a stench hanging in the air, I said, "Mom, what is that?" She said, "I'm pretty sure it's a skunk." What we think happened was that our mama cat and a local skunk had a disagreement about who got to live under our house. Mama Cat was ok, if stinky, and the skunk was long gone. But, the smell lingered. In the morning, we all got ready like we normally did and went to school. As I waited for home room to start, I sat my purse, a small leather backpack, on the floor behind me and didn't think about it again for at least an hour, when it was finally time to go to class.
One of my friends offered to grab my purse because I had my hands full. As I picked it up to hand it to her, a terrible scent wafted our way. The smell of the skunk spray had so invaded our home that it clung to my purse. Even though it smelled bad in the house, my family and I were so used to the smell that we didn't even realize that it had stuck to my purse. Had I realized how bad it smelled, I would have left it at home. I knew that I couldn't carry that thing around school. I found my other friend whom I shared a locker with and apologized profusely. I told her what had happened and that I had to leave my purse in our locker. We crammed that stinky purse into the locker before first period and didn't think about it again until after lunch, when we had to go to the locker to change out which books we were carrying. We opened the door and the skunk smell hit us so hard that we almost fell down. That day, I felt like this horrible smell was infesting every bit of my life, sticking in every nook and cranny, making my locker smell like roadkill. It took a while to air that smell out of our house and off of our belongings. I am really lucky that my locker mate was so understanding.
I remembered this story this week when I began reading from the Gospel of John, which is arguably the squishiest, muddiest, stinkiest Gospel. This Gospel author, who begins Christ's story by preaching about how "the Word became flesh" uses all kinds of fleshy, smelly, bodily, wordly images to demonstrate the true radical nature of Jesus' identity as God's incarnation. In this Gospel, the Divine and Creation are intricately connected. I have been reminded by scholars that, while skunks are thankfully absent, the scents of sweet wine, fresh bread, wet mud, stones made warm by the sun, and rooms made stale by sickness work their way into every nook and cranny of this Gospel. The family at the center of today's Scripture, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, have some particularly smelly stories. Upon our first meeting of them, Lazarus has been dead for three days and smells something awful. The tomb that he had been buried in was smellier than my locker full of skunk anger.
Now, you might wonder if the smelliness of poor Lazarus needs to be mentioned. It seems kind of rude to mention that he smells bad, given that he has bigger problems, like being dead. But, the smell matters in the story. That's how we know that he is really dead. It's how the author of John makes sure that we understand that what Jesus does in raising him from the dead is actually a Divine act, not simply Jesus waking a guy up from a nap. The smell helps us understand that this event is radical, radical enough to anger the authorities. Radical enough that they decided that Jesus need to die. This isn't the only story about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where a smell will help us learn something more about Jesus. Our Gospel reading today is their second smelly story. It has a much more pleasant smell than the first.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have been through a lot with Jesus, so it is not surprising that he would return to their home in Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. We are told that we're nearing Passover. Those of us with the value of hindsight know that Jesus' greatest trial will come during Passover, in the city of Jerusalem. That time is growing near. The conflict between Jesus and the authorities will soon come to a head. Maybe Mary felt the tension in the air and she knew that something dangerous and drastic was going to happen soon. Maybe this tension was too great for her not to do something wildly loving to care for her dear friend.
Remember how, over the last couple weeks, we've been talking about God as the extravagant lover of lost people. Even though those stories were from the Gospel of Luke and this one is from John, I think we're reading yet one more account of holy, lavish love, though this time Jesus is on the receiving end of such grace. Mary took a pound of perfume and washed Jesus' feet with it. As Karoline Lewis reminds us, this act of love is kind of absurd. Mary used pound of perfume (that is a lot of perfume), perfume that was very expensive and usually saved for rich and powerful people. Then, she wiped off all of this perfume with her hair. She didn't have to make such a production of this act. She could have just used water, a little oil, and a towel. Why do we need such a lavish display? Did she really need to stink up the place with such a grand gesture?
Like the story just before this one, the smell matters. We need the smell of great love to remind us of God's great love of us. Mary's act has to be absurd and lavish and abundant because she understands Christ's concern for her, and for all of humanity, to be absurd, lavish, and abundant. Her demonstration of love has to be grand. It is an expression of a grand faith. So, she uses so much of this perfume that the smell filled every corner of the house. She uses so much perfume that it would have taken her a year of work to save up to replace it. She uses so much perfume that everyone present would have walked out of the room smelling like the grace she just shared with Jesus.
Jesus must have been touched by this gesture. Not only does he defend Mary's actions to his disciples when Judas accuses her of being wasteful, he also goes on to repeat this humbling, intimate, and extravagant gesture with them. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover, he will strip nearly naked, covered only by the towel that he will use to wash their feet. He will wash the feet of the twelve, even of Judas, the one who will betray him. Maybe he still smelled a bit like Mary's perfume as he scrubbed each of them clean and gave them a new commandment. He will tell them, "Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." His love, their love, should stick in every nook and cranny of this world, filling every space so that no one should be able to miss the aroma of Christ's love.
You may have heard that Judas tried to censure Mary's extravagance by claiming that her money would have been better spent serving the poor. It is a good point and Jesus' response can be a little perplexing. He tells him to leave her alone. She preparing for his burial. "The poor will always be with you, but you do not always have me." Some have read this in such a way as to exclude seeking justice for the poor from the realm of proper Christian behavior. Given that Jesus readily serves the poor in other parts of the Gospel, I don't think that's what he's suggesting here. Scholar Matt Skinner suggests that we read this with Old Testament commandments to care for the poor in mind. It is like Jesus was saying, "if you follow me, you will always be where the poor are, serving them and advocating with them. Since you will always be equipped by God to do right by people in need, there is no need to be so stingy with the gifts we have that we can't do kind things for one another. My life could end very soon. Mary's act of love is fortifying me to follow this hard path." As scholar Gail O'Day once said, this is a both/and kind of love. You can love Jesus and love the poor. And, you have to love each other in order find the strength to do both.
There is a great cost to Mary's actions. Not only did she spend a lot of money, but she demonstrated her faith in a very open, public way. Not all of Jesus' followers would be so brave. She also risked being criticized by other Jesus followers for such a sensuous, lavish display of love. However, she knew that her faith is a faith of abundance and not scarcity. Demonstrating her love was worth the cost. It is our calling to live an abundant faith like Mary's, lavishly loving God and neighbor, filling up every nook and cranny, making sure everyone walks away smelling of God's grace. Don't be afraid, like Judas. There is enough love to go around.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing this sermon:
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2749
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4554
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582
Matt Skinner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=544
Gail R. O'Day, "John," in The Women's Bible Commentary, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Billy Honor: http://www.onscripture.com/jesus-justice-fatigue-and-why-being-black-exhausting
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.