Peace Mennonite Church
March 13, 2016
Think back to a time you caught a whiff of something and were transported back to another time and place. Here’s mine: a city scent of diesel fuel, rotting garbage, and charcoal smoke, wafting in the air as I walked through Georgetown on a steamy August afternoon. Immediately I was transported to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, many years ago. Each of us would have our own version of that story: baking bread reminds us of our grandma. The earthy smell of fertilizer takes us back to shopping with our father in the hardware store where grass seed was arrayed in an open bin. A sharp curry or spicy pot of black beans makes us remember a time spent abroad. A snatch of perfume — that one aunt. A whiff of formaldehyde — biology lab and dissecting a frog.
Mary takes a bottle of nard and uses it to wash Jesus’ feet. Nard. That’s a fun word to say. Nard. Researchers believe the plant spikenard is what was meant by “nard” in this time. I wondered how it smells, so I went online to look for spikenard. All the descriptions in the world can’t convey an aroma. At a site that sells essential oils, I found some for about $30 (fortunately, well short of $20,000) and ordered a bottle. I brought some with me. I thought about putting it in a diffuser this morning but was afraid some might find the scent unpleasant or suffer an allergic reaction, so I didn’t do that.
But it’s here if you want to satisfy your own curiosity about what it might have smelled like to have the aroma of nard fill the entire house. The Mary-centered sensuality in this story stands in contrast to the Judas-centered insistence on hanging onto what’s valuable and piously feeding the poor. As Jeremy Marshall, author of the blog “Slouching Towards Emmaus,” comments, “Judas is not the first—and certainly not the last—to pretend to care about the poor just to get something for himself.” Some commentators point out that this wasn’t really about feeding the poor.
Mary’s outpouring of the nard onto Jesus deprived him, Judas, of the usual “rake,” or skimming off the top, that he enjoyed every time the group received cash—for instance, from selling property that someone donated. Judas was the keeper of the purse; he may have justified his thievery by the amount of work he had to do to keep the finances organized. The nard would have sold for 300 denari, they say — a year’s wages for a working person.
In modern terms, the federal poverty for a working adult with two children is about $20,000. Imagine a vial of perfume costing $20,000! (I looked online for the world’s most expensive perfume and found one, Baccarat Les Larmes Sacrees de Thebes – $6,800 per ounce. The “Sacred Tears of Thebes,” as it translates, is an Egyptian-themed perfume housed in a beautiful pyramid-shaped bottle of Baccarat crystal. Nowadays you can buy the fragrance in tiny 0.25 oz containers. The ingredients include a blend of amber, jasmine, rose, Egyptian cassie, as well as myrrh and frankincense to evoke the smell of the Middle East. A three-ounce bottle would approach $20,000.
So, Judas immediately tallies up the 300 denari cost. His usual take was about 10% — in this case, 30 denarii. Is it any coincidence that his price for betraying Jesus was 30 pieces of silver?
All of the commentaries I read make a point of contrasting Mary’s extravagant — and in the context of her times, shockingly sensual — outpouring of love and devotion to Jesus with Judas’s reaction: how could you waste that stuff on Jesus when we could have used it to feed the poor?
Jesus responds with the memorable phrase: The poor will always be with you. In John’s version of this story, it is apparent that Mary understands something: The time of Jesus’ death is fast approaching, so she uses a means that women of her time used to show their love toward a deceased male relative: anointing him with fragrance.
Here’s Jeremy Marshall again: “Mary’s worship is all about being sensitive enough to do the right thing at exactly the right time. Mary’s worship is all about being present with Jesus in the moment. She behaves as if there’s no one in the room but Jesus and her. She’s not afraid of giving too much or looking too foolish.”
When I was younger, Jesus’ statement “The poor will always be with you” bothered me. After all, aren’t we working for kingdom justice in which the poor have enough? It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Don’t bother. You’ll never fix poverty. I deserve the lavish treatment from Mary. She gets it.”
That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we think we are following. We simple-living Mennonites smugly criticize the multimillion-dollar lifestyles of the rich televangelists as we give to MCC and volunteer at the homeless shelter. Why wouldn’t Jesus take our side? There’s another whole sermon in just this part of the text alone, and I’ll leave that for another day.
The point I’m making here is that in our worship we should spare nothing: no emotion, no generous impulse, no honest adoration that dips into what’s most precious to us and lets us give it freely.
Once again, from Jeremy Marshall:
What would extravagant worship look like, if we used Mary’s gift to Jesus as an example? What would our worship space look like, sound like, feel like, even smell like, if Mary’s gift to Jesus is our guide? What about our life together as a church? Our sense of community, of fellowship, of family? What might it mean to welcome each other extravagantly, if Mary’s welcome of Jesus has anything to say about it? And what about our ministries to our community? To our neighbors? To strangers? To the poor? The homeless? The lost? The hurting? The lonely? What might it mean if, when we started imagining how we will reach out to others, we remembered that Mary poured out a year’s worth of wages on a homeless man who was going to be dead within a week? What if the point of the story—the message Jesus wants us to take from it—is that nothing we offer in the name of loving God with all our heart and being and will and ability; and loving our neighbor as ourselves; no matter how extravagant it seems; is ever wasted?
One of my favorite films is “Enchanted April,” which is a story of contrasts between lavish sensuality and the gray, rainy everyday life of early 20th century London. A group of women go in together to rent a villa in Italy for the month of April to escape the dreary London winter. After a few days in the Cinqueterre, one of the women observes that back in London, she viewed love as something to be hoarded and doled out to the deserving, pinch by pinch, and kept strictly in balance with what she received in return. Being in the lavish Italian spring in a beautiful villa on a cliff over the Mediterranean, which sparkles like a sapphire, framed by lavish gardenias in the piercing Italian sun — has opened up her view of love as something to be celebrated, and she wishes suddenly that her husband was there to enjoy this transformation with her. If you’ve seen the film, you know whether or not her husband actually follows her to Italy; I won’t give the story away.
The story of Mary pouring a $20,000 vial of perfume on Jesus is intended to tell us to stop doling out our love in little smidgens and risk pouring out our whole hearts in worship. The role of Judas is to point out the dangers of parsimony, excess concern with what everything costs (in this passage, the cost is more than monetary), and strict adherence to a code of behavior that locks generosity in worship into a leather purse or glass vial, to be saved for some more deserving situation.
The smell of Mary’s extravagant worship filled the entire house and lingered. An aroma that reminds people of that time of death and embalming–foreshadowing the crucifixion that was to follow soon. For us, the aroma of worship might serve to remind us that nothing we offer in the name of loving God is ever wasted.