Sunday, March 17, 2013

Common Scents (John 12:1-8)

As I've mentioned elsewhere, when I was a kid I had no idea what "nard" was, but since it rhymed with "lard" I always pictured it as having a Crisco-like texture. Of course, it doesn't. Like perfume today, it was probably a kind of oil. Even though we might see perfume by the pound as not so much of a bargain, we need to remember that any kind of scent other than sweat was probably kind of welcome in these times. So even cheap perfume was better than whatever else we might be smelling.

Sometimes people have wondered if Mary understood her action as an anointing for burial. Jesus saw it that way, but did she? Did she know he was going to die soon?

Well, perhaps. We know that the disciples themselves knew that the religious leaders were ready to kill Jesus if they could manage it quietly, so I'm sure others would know the danger he faced. And Mary may have seen that Jesus did not deviate from his path, which was leading him to a direct confrontation with those leaders. So she might have been very concerned and feared that he might be killed. If so, her gesture shows her loyalty. She will follow and serve Jesus, even in the face of danger. Even if he dies, she will serve him by anointing his body for burial.

This event is truly fascinating, especially given its context in the gospel of John. After all, John is the gospel that describes how Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, even though as their teacher and lord he should have been the one being served instead of serving. When we read that story, we may miss that no one washes Jesus' feet, even after he explains to the disciples the importance of what we now call servant leadership.

Or you could say that Jesus' feet had been washed a few days earlier in Bethany.

Mary pours enough perfume on Jesus' feet to send the scent throughout the house, and the apparent waste seems to perturb Judas. He asks why it wasn't sold so the money could be given to the poor, and although we know that he was really interested in increasing his profit-skimming, nobody else does. Given Jesus' concern for the poor, the question seems reasonable. Is not the use of a whole pound of perfume a profound waste?

No, Jesus says. Mary has done a marvelous thing, anointing my body for burial. You'll always have the poor, but you won't always have me. We can (and have) read that wrong. Jesus does not ask us to ignore the poor, because his words are actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11 that tell us since we always have the poor around us, we are always to help them. But after we give to the ones in need in order to help them out, have we given all we should? If we follow Mary's action here, I would guess not. Once we help the poor, we may yet have more to give, even our best.

In that time ordinary courtesy meant washing the feet of a guest or assigning a servant to do so. But for Jesus, no ordinary courtesy could be enough.

He had restored life to her brother Lazarus. What gesture could possibly be adequate thanks? None, but she would make sure that any thanks she showed at least hinted at the depths of her gratitude. The Teacher's feet would be washed, yes, but not with water and a towel. She would bathe them with rich perfume and dry them with her own hair. Nothing common for the Lord.

So what do we do in thanksgiving, we who know that not only the lives of our loved ones but even our very own lives have been redeemed and restored by our Savior? Will we make common gestures of thanks or will we too be extravagant? No gesture can be adequate, but will ours hint at our gratitude? Or hide it?

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