“The Fragrance of Christ”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In John 11, Jesus resuscitates Lazarus and confirms the unique power of the one who called himself “the resurrection and the life.” In that same chapter, John describes the treacherous fallout of raising Lazarus—namely how it caused a small group of Jewish leaders to plot the deaths of both Jesus and Lazarus.
That’s an uncomfortable paradox: Jesus’ restoration of life provokes a scheme to cause death.1 For some reason, life-giving holiness often generates an equally powerful and determined will to end the lives of those who demonstrate the radical love of life-affirming acceptance and life-giving grace. It’s discouraging how often genuine holiness provokes violent reactions from worldly powers-that-be. In John 11, those powers are represented by Caiaphas and his small circle of co-conspirators.
It’s necessary to acknowledge that John’s gospel is often considered a source of anti-Semitism in Christianity. And indeed, John frequently refers to “the Jews” as Jesus’ principal opponents. It seems to me, though, that John is speaking primarily of those Jewish leaders who hold ecclesiastical and social influence, and who can whip the masses into a frenzy when they—the so-called leaders—feel their privilege being challenged. These leaders also know that when Jesus adds raising the dead to his already popular works of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming outcasts, people will flock to him and throw their support and loyalty his way instead of toward folks like the high priests. For the most part, it’s this little clutch of Jewish leaders who feel threatened by Jesus, not the Jewish people in general.
Whether in first-century Judaism or in twenty-first-century Christianity, those who are most likely to feel threatened by Jesus and his followers are those who approach life most pragmatically. Dealing in absolutes and certainties rather than in the mysteries and possibilities of faith, they’re often the ones who, like Caiaphas and, for a time, Judas, keep their fingers on purse strings rather than heart strings, who remain more concerned about weapons than wisdom, and who spread more loathing than love.
And then there’s Mary.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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.
4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.)
7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (NRSV)
The sister of both Lazarus and Martha, Mary is more interested in affection than etiquette. She is hungrier for growth than for groceries. And filled with such deep gratitude for Jesus, she pours an entire bottle of expensive perfume on his feet, and overwhelms the house with fragrance.
The pragmatists in the room act appalled.
What a waste! they say.
And I guess they have a point. Once all that perfume is poured out, it cannot be re-bottled. This extravagant act convinces me that Mary, with her keen spiritual awareness, comprehends what Jesus did for Lazarus. She knows that Jesus endangered his own life by restoring the life of her brother. So, her gesture becomes an act of lavish thanksgiving and blessing, not wastefulness. It declares Mary’s defiant love for and solidarity with Jesus. It’s an offering made completely and irreversibly to him. So, whatever Jesus’ lot will be, Mary is prepared to share it.
Mary’s actions challenge us to ask ourselves just how much power over us we grant to money and to the things it buys, whether that be expensive perfume or influence with people of influence. And if we’re completely honest, we’re likely to be a little embarrassed by our answers.
In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian pastor Bill Carter tells the story of attending a clergy stewardship conference and listening to a presenter talk about generosity. Carter says that when “the presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God…the [roomful of preachers] began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.’
“The reaction was electric,” says Carter. The pastors “began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume.” They whispered nervously about the legality of destroying money. They laughed uncomfortably about how wealthy the presenter must be if he could so casually waste a hundred dollars.
“‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. I am offering it to God, and that means that it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’”1
Mary’s all-in offering of perfume is often considered a foreshadowing of Jesus’ burial. And that is, indeed, something John wants us to understand. I also wonder if Mary’s offering creates a kind of fragrant link between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.
When we talk about Jesus raising Lazarus, we call it a resuscitation instead of a resurrection. And we do so because Lazarus, who returns to the same body will also return to the same grave.
Jesus’ resurrection is an entirely different thing. While we speak of the resurrection of the body, we also speak of an unimaginably new resurrection body. That distinction is consistent with Jesus’ reluctance to be touched by Mary when she sees him in the garden on Sunday morning. It’s also consistent with Paul’s affirmation that Jesus’ resurrection body is incomparably different from the body he inhabited during is earthly ministry. (1Corinthians 15:35-55)
Whatever a resurrection body may be—and no one on this side of the grave can know—it does seem safe to trust that it’s at least a body that will not return to the grave. Our previous bodies, then, like that $100 bill, will, at least eventually, cease to be of use to anyone.
Lazarus’ resuscitated body can continue to be of use—if he gets over the jolt of having been forced to return to the world with all its suffering as well as all its beauty. Jesus’ resurrected body declares that his previous incarnation is over and done. Having poured his life out like Mary pouring out her bottle of perfume, Jesus can no longer be re-bottled. Having been poured out, he continues to be a fragrant offering turned loose in the Creation for the sake of all Creation.
I think that’s our call—to live as the fragrance of Christ in and for the world. If so, then we ask ourselves: Do we, as Mary does, pour out our words and actions like a fragrant and extravagant offering? Do we, as Jesus does, go all-in on loving God by loving our neighbor and caring for the Creation?
Or do we, like Caiaphas and his terrified little junta, impose a graceless and self-serving pragmatism on the people and the environment around us?
The table before us is set with a reminder of the extravagant grace of God’s outpouring in Jesus. The gift of the incarnate Christ is meant to set us free from dead-end devotion and loveless longing.
As we receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may each of us sense God’s Spirit being poured into us, strengthening us, and empowering us to experience for ourselves and to embody for others the out-poured fragrance of God’s eternal Christ, who unites all things in himself through his all-inclusive, non-violent, Creation-transforming love.
1JaeWon Lee Carter, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 141.
2William Carter, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 142.