Broken and Spilled Out
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
For God So
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Smell triggers memory more than any of the other senses. The olfactory bulb that runs from the nose to the bottom of the brain is connected to both the amygdala and the hippocampus, the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion and memory. The other senses don’t directly touch these parts of the brain.
Many people understand the profound ways that scent triggers memory. Brides are often encouraged to wear a signature scent on the wedding day, in order to evoke memories of her wedding whenever she wears it afterward.
You may know that scent evokes memory from your own experience. The smell of cloves, cranberries, and orange may transport you to Christmas morning when you were a child. The smell of fall leaves on a cool morning might transport you to Friday night football games in high school. The smell of freshly baked cookies may evoke images of your grandmother. The smell of baby lotion may bring you back to the days when your children were infants.
There is a distinct smell as we approach this text, and that smell is death. This story comes on the heels of Lazarus’s resurrection. When Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, the people were con- cerned about the smell. They were worried that if the tomb was opened the stench of rot, the pungent smell of death, would waft out. Instead of death, however, life came out of the tomb.
But Lazarus’s death is not the only death still lingering in the air. Jesus’s death is just six short days away. The section of Scripture that immediately precedes this one is of the plot to kill Jesus beginning to come together. Jesus knows this, even if others in the room don’t, and the smell of approaching death must hang heavy in the atmosphere—until Mary changes the fragrance of the room. The aroma of perfume permeates each corner with a new scent. The scent of gratitude at the return of her brother and the one who performed the miracle that brought his return. The scent of celebration that Lazarus was here in the room, and over the life and glory of Jesus. The scent of resurrection in the midst of death. The scent of lavish love poured out for her Savior.
a. In Luke 10 we get a bit more of a glimpse into who Mary is.
She is a disciple of Jesus.
She is motivated more by her desire to know Jesus than she is by propriety.
At the time it would be the expectation that she help Martha with the chores; that would
have been her duty and responsibility.
Women weren’t disciples of rabbis, and her desire and pursuit of discipleship (as well as
Jesus’s allowance of her discipleship) was countercultural.
She views Jesus as her teacher and her friend.
b. Mary is motivated by love over law.
There was a specific law that prohibited women and men who were not related from touching each other.
This law is called “negiah,” and it comes from Leviticus (18:6 and 18:19). The Talmud ex-
pands upon this.
Women and men were not allowed to touch unless they were married, parents and chil-
dren, siblings, or grandparents and children.
This means that women and men were not alone to even shake hands, let alone touch one
another’s feet with their hair.
Mary risked both her own and Jesus’s reputation by touching Jesus.
We often focus on the expense of the perfume, but just the act of touching Jesus would have been scandalous.
Jews around them would have viewed it as inappropriate.
c. Mary is willing to illustrate her love for Jesus through sacrifice and service.
She spent a large sum of money. 1. The perfume she purchased was expensive. 2. She didn’t use just part of the perfume on him; she used all of it.
The act of washing feet was for lowly servants. 1. This was not a glamorous task because feet were the number-one mode of transportation. 2. Washing Jesus’s feet would have implicated Mary’s desire to serve Jesus.
Contrasting Judas with Mary
Contrasting Judas with Mary
Judas is motivated by selfish gain.
Matthew 26 and Luke 22 both reference Judas’s plan to betray Jesus.
1. He betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver
John calls Judas a thief.
1. Judas cared for the common purse. a. He stole from the purse.
Judas does not care for the poor; he cares for himself. 1. He sees this as a lost opportunity to acquire more money. 2. He is focused on himself, and not on sacrifice for Jesus.
Judas does not act out of service and love.
Mary willfully sacrifices reputation and money to care for Jesus.
Judas, while being given the opportunity to be a disciple and learn from Jesus, is still seeking to look out for himself.
Judas in this story is amplifying the scent of death and destruction, by looking out for himself at the expense of others.
The Conquering Scent
The Conquering Scent
a. Even though the smell of Lazarus’s death still lingers, Lazarus is alive and in the room. i.This is a foreshadowing of resurrection hope.
b. The smell of gratitude and love are overwhelming.
Even though Judas seeks to turn the conversation toward one that looks proper, it reeks of sin.
His “care” for the poor is just a cover for his own misdeeds.
Even so, the focus of the story is on the wafting scents of gratitude and love.
Mary is written as the heroine.
She is applauded by Jesus for her act of love and sacrifice.
Even though according to the law she was the one who acted improperly, Jesus again rein-
terprets the law, elevating love over propriety.
c. While Jesus’s death looms, his love and resurrection are the highlight.
The nard alludes to his death because it is a perfume usually used in burial. 1. Jesus says she bought it to use for his burial, but instead of saving it, she chooses to use it
in this moment.
This is an astonishing statement, granted Jesus’ repeated statements about the importance of the poor, and the kingdom-blessings that would come on them. The only explanation is that Jesus believed that his coming death would be the action through which the world as a whole, including the world of poverty and all that went with it, would be put to rights. We who live on the other side of his death and resurrection, and yet still face a world of poverty, crippling debt and all the evils which follow from them, may find ourselves wondering whether the church has always got its priorities right.
Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (p. 23). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
According to the other Gospels, and the previous chapter in John, the plot to kill Jesus was
already underway. 1. Jesus knows he is going to die.
2. Even though the disciples still don’t seem to fully understand, it is likely they have heard the threats of Herod, the warnings from the Pharisees, and the whisperings of violent revo- lution that the leaders were afraid of.
iii. This act of self-giving love is the highlight, and the room is permeated with it. 1. Ultimately the focus of this text is on both the love Jesus has for Mary and the love Mary
has for Jesus.
4. Our Lives as a Fragrant Offering
We should have the same level of discipleship as Mary. i. We should follow love as the law.
ii. We should seek to embrace Jesus and others over legalism. iii. We should do what we can to get as close as possible to Jesus.
We should pour out our lives as a sacrifice for Christ. i. Lent is a season of sacrifice, but it’s not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.
ii. We should find ways to extravagantly lavish love upon Jesus through our acts of sacrifice.
The last part of the text that talks about the poor always being with us is not an excuse to not care for the poor.
i. It seems that the opposite is actually true. Jesus emphasizes that he is not always with them, but we know Jesus speaks to what is done to the least of these as being done to him. 1. This would imply that, while Jesus isn’t with us, the extravagant acts of love we do for one
another, and especially for the least of these, are acts of profound love done for Jesus.
We should permeate the world with the hope of resurrection.
i. Though death often hangs in our air, what would it take to see the world permeated with the fragrance of hope?
This Lenten season, we should take the time to permeate the world with the hope of resurrection. The scent of death often hangs heavy in our world. It doesn’t take long to find examples of that.
It’s easy to become cynical or even self-motivated, to care more for ourselves than for Jesus and others. It’s easy to fall into the lies that Judas did and cover our own selfish motives with words about seeking the well-being of others. It is a hard but good task to sacrifice for Christ in the ways of Mary. To care more about our love for Christ than for legalistic rule-following.
This season, we should seek a heart like Mary’s. We should seek to fall at the feet of Jesus, to worship wholeheartedly with love and gratitude, that the world might experience hope in such profound ways that they can smell it.