Sermon for 5th Lent C, March 17, 2013 on 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.”
Love’s Fragrance: the floor scene
Scientists tell us that in our brains, the region in which memories are stored is closely related to our olfactory capacity: our sense of smell. Perhaps the reason this story was remembered and retold was the powerful memories evoked by the fragrance in the room – but perhaps there were other remembered smells as well. Even the prettiest bouquet can remind us of a funeral. There is a mixing of memories, of odors, of motives and of outcomes in this story.
Let us begin by picturing the setting. It’s evening, sun is setting; it’s very dim inside a small room. Lighting is by oil lamp so it’s dim; shadows are plenty.
There isn’t much furniture at all. On the floor in the middle of the room is a thing that looks like a Japanese tea-ceremony table. It sits low to the ground. If you recline on the reed floor-mat with your head close to the table, leaning on your left elbow, your right hand would be free to reach the table and take from it your food and drink.
This is the scene. The home belongs to two sisters and a brother; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Who is at that table? John does not pan the camera around; there are gaps in our knowledge. Martha is serving. Her sister Mary is busy with something else – she has not made her appearance yet.
Lazarus is at the table – and this is the amazing thing, because Lazarus got sick and died. He spent four stinking days in a rock tomb before Jesus finally came and spoke those words that brought life back into his wrapped-up, rotting body: “Lazarus, come out!”
He did come out, and now, some days later, he is well. This is a celebration dinner! A quiet celebration. I picture it like Anne Frank’s family celebrating Chanukah in hiding; joy and foreboding sit together at that table. Lazarus’ life has been snatched back from the grave; Jesus’ life edges closer and closer, just as he said it would.
Taking Risks in Bethany
They are taking a risk there in Bethany; it’s just over the hill from Jerusalem where “the powers that be” are feeling so threatened by Jesus that they have already tried and failed to kill him once. If he gives them another chance, they will most likely succeed. In fact it seems so likely to the people in that little house, that at least one of them considers it a done deal. She has started making final arrangements.
Who else is there? We only hear from one. If Judas is there we assume that the other disciples are there too, but like many things in this story, we cannot see them, so deep are those shadows.
Many mysterious shadows
There are other things we don’t see; things that don’t seem to make sense. Mary comes into the room – but not to help Martha serve dinner; she comes in with another purpose. She has an entire pound of perfume valued at one whole annual salary in her hands! Why does she have it?
They just had a death in the family; should she not have used that perfume to anoint her dead brother? Why didn’t she? Was she expecting him not to die because Jesus was certainly going to come to heal him – wasn’t he?
Was she expecting, even in the hours after his death, that Jesus would show up and revive him? Did she keep hoping until it was finally past the time when it was possible to enter the tomb?
Is that why, when Jesus finally did show up, Martha told him that Lazarus’ corpse smelled so bad, after only 4 days in the tomb – because he had not been anointed for a burial that was not supposed to happen? We do not see into those shadows; we only see Mary there, with the unopened perfume in her hands, and the vivid memory of that day and its odors in her heart.
Feet: a corpse anointing
There are more shadows of mystery. Mary comes over to where Jesus is reclining, kneels down, and pours the anointing perfume on him, as if he were a corpse. She does not anoint his head, as one would the head of a living king to honor him; she anoints his feet. Jesus gets the message; to Mary, he is as good as a corpse already.
When Judas watches this and makes his snide remark, Jesus tells him, “Leaver her alone. She did this so that she might keep it for my burial.” Jesus understands her action’s meaning.
Mary is probably thinking, “I may as well get him ready while I have the chance, because if the boots of those who are coming to get him kick in the door tonight, who knows; this may be the last we will ever see of him.
The Anointing scene
She loosens her hair, as women only did for their husbands, or in mourning. She leans down, opens the container, and pours it out on Jesus’ feet. She works that perfume into his bare skin using her hair in place of a cloth. Now she too smells like a freshly anointed corpse. Is she expecting to share his fate? Is she casting her lot “until death do us part” with a man who, she believes, may not live to see morning? This goes way beyond extravagance!
Are there words for what she is feeling? John leaves them off the page; in the shadows. We can only watch, amazed, if somewhat baffled. And yet it was this man’s words that had brought Lazarus back to life, the sole male in that family; if we were Mary, what would we have withheld under those circumstances?
The Odor of Cynicism
The scene of extravagant love and devotion is broken by the stink of cynicism that comes, dripping from the lips of Judas. He does not speak the language of love because he has not learned it. So he speaks the language of economics: this was a waste. “The money could have been spent on the poor” – and this from the man who had his hand in the jar.
John is brutally plain about Judas’ motivation. It is as disgusting as it is obvious to hear people with no concern for the poor pretending to care. It’s like hearing about the evils of debt from people who put a $2 Trillion dollar war on the national credit card. Other motivations are apparent.
Like all con-men who know the soft-spots of their victims, the place where they are most likely to let down their guard, the place closest to their hearts, Judas knows where to stick his jab; he brings up Jesus’ famous concern for the poor. You can almost see the curl in his upper lip as he spits out the quickly cost-accounted calculation.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (verse 5)
No greater opposite pair could be in the same room; Mary, who has filled the room with fragrance, sitting disheveled on the floor at Jesus’ feet where nothing remains to her that she has not given; and Judas, filling the room with the stink of his contemptuous self-interest, miserable that he hasn’t got more of what we wants – that which no one takes with them past the grave.
In between is Jesus, who alone has the words of life.
We have entered that room today. We are among those other disciples witnessing this contrasting display from the shadows, just out of sight. We have a choice before us.
With whom do we identify?
We all have been where Judas is – we have to admit that. We have all been there, believing that just “a little bit more” will solve our problems. We have all felt the impressive, comforting weight of those coins in the money bag and were afraid of the vulnerable lightness of letting them go, even when faced with needs we could have met.
But haven’t we all also recoiled in horror at the thought of becoming Judas, the betrayer? We want to make a different choice.
But can we be Mary? Is it possible? Can we see ourselves so utterly abandoned to Jesus and his cause that we relinquish every alternative source of security? Could we ever see ourselves taking on that kind of risk – of respectability, of reputation, of livelihood?
What could make that choice possible for us? Only by coming to one settled conclusion: that Jesus’ words do bring hope and life into situations that otherwise are hopelessly dead.
Look at Lazarus sitting there at table and remember that day when his name was called and he came out of that dark tomb. Let us look at ourselves sitting here, and remember our baptisms, on which day our name was called, and we were brought to life as a child of God!
Memories to deal with
It has not been easy; we have gone through valleys of shadows. We are like Mary holding that perfume jar; each one of us has in our hearts a remembrance of times of deep disappointment with God’s plans for us.
We had the perfume to anoint the dead but we didn’t imagine we would have to use it. We never expected to have had to go through that illness, that crisis, that divorce, that pain, that grief; in fact we prayed to be rescued, but rescue didn’t come in time, and the rock rolled over the occupied tomb. The perfume jar in our hands is there to remind us.
The Last Word
But that was not the last word, was it? The Lord of Life has a sense of timing that we do not understand; there are shadows of mystery that remain. But words of life from Jesus do follow the crisis; and here we are today as living proof.
And so, we want to be like Mary – joyfully giving back life for life. We are people who have committed ourselves, “until death do us part” to Jesus and his life-giving words.
This is why his soft spot is our soft spot that Judas identified. We are passionate about the poor, as was Jesus. We are passionate about social justice as Jesus was, even if the politicos mock us for it.
It is a cynical lie to say that we want socialism or are socialists, just because we have been called to love the “least of these” poor, as Jesus taught us. We are passionate about the weak, the vulnerable, the outcasts, the suffering, because the Lord of Life on whom we have staked our hope was and is passionate about them.
The dishes are cleared, the oil lamps dimmed, the company rests. In the morning, at first light, the door will open, fresh cool air will flow in, and they will depart the house. Mary will go one direction; Judas the other. Which will we take?