In the four Gospels, some stories are only told once – like the lost sheep and lost coin – while others are repeated in more than one – like the feeding of the five thousand, the widow’s mite, or the birth of Jesus. The story we are looking at this morning must have been important in the early church because it is found with some variation in all four of them. Not even the Resurrection is in all four gospels.
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.”
There are two distinct accounts and then a combination of the two. First, in John we read the account of Jesus dining in a house where Lazarus is present and it is Mary, the sister of Martha, who pours the perfume on the feet of Jesus and wipes his feet with her hair. In Matthew, it is a dinner at the house of Simon the Leper and an unknown woman pours the perfume on his head. In Mark, it is a dinner at the home of Simon the Leper and the nameless woman pours the perfume on his head. In Luke, dinner is in the home of a Pharisee and woman is one who had lived a sinful life. She wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair while pouring perfume on them. Likely, it is that story most of us remember the most.
Three of the accounts are focused on the anointing of Jesus while Luke’s account is more focused on the plight of the woman who had led a sinful life and the forgiveness of her sins by Jesus.
Whether they are separate stories with two different women or one story told in different ways, the fact is every Gospel includes them. The story of the anointing of Jesus by the woman is one that the church has never forgotten or considered others to be more important.
“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.”
There is nothing said about her being a sinner and Jesus letting her touch him as there is in Luke. “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” In fact, Luke’s account does not even mention the indignation about the waste of money as his eye is on the woman and her desire for forgiveness. Not so for Mark. The focus is on the wasteful extravagance of the woman and the reaction of the guests and disciples. For all we know, the woman was an upstanding and wealthy member of the community. There is no weeping. No tears. No life of sin. Just the anointing.
But their indignation is not about the life of the woman but the wastefulness of the gift.
Immediately after the disastrous fire at Notre Dame, donations from people around the world poured in. Close to a billion dollars – more than twice the estimated cost of the repair – was given and there were reactions everywhere about the immediate and extravagant gifts of the billionaires of France.
What about the poor?” If the rich can so easily give hundreds of millions to restore a building, they could just as easily have spent that money elsewhere in better ways. They could have spent €1 billion to save lives.
”As more than $1 billion has rolled in to repair the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a debate is raging over whether the glut of donations would have been better spent on other causes.
Meanwhile, within France, many are saying the heaps of money should be directed toward French people in poverty. Over the past year, homelessness has increased by 21 percent in Paris. And for months, the “Yellow Vest” movement has been protesting rising social inequality in the country. The Yellow Vests and their allies saw President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to rebuild Notre Dame within five years as further proof that he’s prioritizing the wrong causes.
“If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency,” Philippe Martinez, who leads the General Confederation of Labor trade union, said on Wednesday.”
Ironically, three churches in Louisiana were torched at the same time and people were outraged that very little attention was paid to rebuilding them.
It is that same sense of outrage and indignation people around the table were expressing that evening. “How dare someone waste something this expensive when the luxury item could be sold and put to use to relieve suffering.”
I can even imagine some of them saying, “What happened to the Jesus who said, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” or asking people to give up everything and follow him?” This is new. This is disturbing. When did he become someone who has no problem with this extravagance? Maybe he is nothing more than a huckster like the teachers and scribes tell us he is.
Of course, I have the same response when I see the conspicuous consumption we witness on television and in magazines like Wealth Report, Architectural Digest, and The Robb Report.
A single bottle of The Macallan malt whiskey sold for over £1 million at auction in London last year.
$453 million for Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World), attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (2017)
$55 million for a watch.
$12 million for a car
$13,000 per ounce for perfume.
I would likely have been one of those at the table muttering about her showing off her wealth or having disordered priorities. When I wander around cities filled with the poor and notice a cathedral in the heart of the worst poverty, I think, “Why would anyone spend money on this extravagance?” The poor do not need art and sculpture. They need relief. The poor need jobs and a safety net – not beauty.
And what does Jesus say?
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could.”
A beautiful thing? What is the value of a beautiful thing? He does not say a word about the expense – just that it is a beautiful thing.
We lose sight of that, don’t we? In a world where we are more focused on the extremes of rich and poor, haves and have nots, equality, inequity, poverty, and luxury, we lose sight of beauty. We measure things by what they cost and not by their innate beauty. We measure things by their productivity and forget about what it means to be beautiful in the way Jesus uses this word. In fact, it is the same word God uses in Genesis on the sixth day. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very beautiful.” Jesus was saying to them, “You have missed the point. She has done something you could have done for me but didn’t. She has done something you considered worse than useless. She has done something truly beautiful in and of itself.”
Therese Aaker wrote:
”But we’ve forgotten about Beauty.
A big reason for this is that our culture worships productivity. We idolize that which is useful. We like to get stuff done. Especially in America, keeping ourselves from being too busy is a real struggle.
If you look around, you’ll notice there aren’t many artistic undertakings, be it buildings, paintings, or great masterpieces in general. Even great films and TV shows are fewer and further between. Instead, we’re surrounded by cheap, easy entertainment. Special effects are getting prettier, but the depth of storylines and striking characters are fading.
Few people seem to notice this. We’re just spoon-fed whatever we’re given and don’t realize we’re being starved of authentic Beauty.
As a culture, we don’t spend any time cultivating it because, honestly, what does beauty actually do?
Beauty is useless.
Nothing. Beauty doesn’t do anything. It’s just there. It just is.
But in casting it off as useless, we’ve cut ourselves off from something crucial: We’ve lost a sense of wonder. Our childlike spirit. Our sense of discovery. We’ve lost our ability to self-reflect and, as a result, find the deeper meaning of things.”
Jesus says, “She has done something more beautiful than she knows and she will be remembered forever.”
Two things about that:
First, it is what she has done that is to be remembered forever and not who she is. She is unnamed.
Second, I am reminded of his words at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But what do we do in remembrance of her? What do we include – other than an offering for money – that reminds us of the beautiful thing she has done?
I like the version of the story in John where he adds the phrase, “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Perhaps that is why Catholic and Orthodox churches include not only sound, sight and taste in their services but also the sense of smell – which is the most powerful of all the senses.
“Scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which might explain why the smell of something can so immediately trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion. But why, if we’re such visual creatures, does smell get this elevated status in our brains? Some think it goes back to the way we evolved: Smell is one of the most rudimentary senses with roots in the way single-celled organisms interact with the chemicals around them, so it has the longest evolutionary history. This also might explain why we have at least 1,000 different types of smell receptors but only four types of light sensors and about four types of receptors for touch.”
For all of us there are smells that bring back people, events and places as if we were there again. What does it for you? I remember my mother when I smell cherries. I remember my father when I smell shaving soap. I remember the church where I grew up when I smell old hymnals.
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
I heard years ago that Boston was scandalized briefly when a family friend saw Alice Saltonstall, a confirmed Unitarian and widow of Senator Leverett Saltonstall entering a Catholic church. When asked if it was true she explained “My dear, when you reach my age and are losing your sight and your hearing you need a religion you can smell!”
Maybe that is what we all need. Reduce the volume and increase the smell. Ironically, there is something about the smell of nard that is a reminder of Jesus as well. Here is what the experts say:
“What does it smell like? Not necessarily what you might expect a perfume to smell like, if your expectations are of a floral garden. Spikenard has a profound and complex aroma, a combination sweet/spicy/musky, a very organic earthy scent.”
In a way, that is the smell of Jesus. It is not simple but complex. Not sweet but a mixture of compassionate and prophetic. Not superficial but profound. Earthy and basic. Perhaps that is why she chose nard and not another fragrance. It was intended to be a reminder for everyone there and us as well that Jesus is these things.
Perhaps that is what we need as much as communion to remind us of Jesus. We need to smell him more often.
- Everyone there soon smelled like Jesus – except one.
“Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”
Twice we read of Judas leaving dinner to betray Jesus. Here and at the Last Supper. Judas has other things on his mind that keep him from staying around.
I suppose no character has been more despised and analyzed for his motives than has Judas. Some have looked to his being the one who held the money bag and stealing from it as the reason he sold Jesus for silver. Some have said that he was disillusioned with Jesus not being the Messiah everyone wanted. Betraying him was a way of forcing Jesus to show the power everyone expected. Some have said he was more than upset about this incident with the expensive perfume and thought he had a more sensitive social conscience than even Jesus – even though he likely would have stolen part of whatever the amount was. Some have said he resented Jesus getting all the attention or he was put off by Jesus accepting such an outlandish gift with no objections.
No one really knows for sure – but we do know this. Whatever happened at dinner that evening – whether it was the adoration of the woman, the comment about the poor, the realization that Jesus was determined to die, or a score of other things – It had likely been a long time coming but Judas turned a corner at that moment.
Yes, it is a cautionary tale for us as well. When we cannot put Jesus in a box or pigeon hole him or are put off by something he says or does we are in danger of leaving him and going after our own ideas about what it means to be a follower. We don’t like what he says about loving our enemies or turning the other cheek or going the second mile or the first being last so we twist it around to say what we want it to say – and we might as well betray him just as Judas did. We sell our version of him to others and deny him. We sell him for silver.
Paul said it best in 2 Corinthians 2: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”
For Judas, the smell in the room that evening was death. He couldn’t get away fast enough. For us, it is life and the complex, earthy, and profound aroma we spread wherever we go.