The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed. (Psalm 126:4)
My great aunt Rose was a good cook and she cared deeply about her neighbors. Whenever she heard that someone was ill, or a family member was in the hospital, or a loved one had died, Aunt Rose knew what she could do. She would gather up the ingredients, get out her cooking pan and make her delicious chicken and dumplings. She would then get in her car and drive this tasty and fragrant dish to those who needed the smell of home cooking and kindness. She never deluded herself that her chicken and dumplings would cure the illness, or stop the grief, or end the suffering, but she did what she could to let her neighbors know that she cared about them and wanted them to inhale deeply the love she offered.
Many of us have experienced this kind of generous love in our lives. The friend who knows that you are tired and need some support and brings you a basket of bubble bath and sweet lotion. The family member who learns you are sick and brings you a big pot of chicken soup. The church member who hears that a loved one has died and brings a complete meal to give you strength in a time of need. Each of these acts—generous, thoughtful, and fragrant with care—allow the elixir of love to pour over us and fill the very air we breathe with God’s graciousness.
We stand today in this fifth Sunday in Lent knowing that Jesus will soon be in Jerusalem. That while he will be greeted with cheering crowds on his entry, the religious leaders who have grown increasingly alarmed by his teachings and his growing crowd of followers will soon capture him and turn him over to the Roman authorities who have the power to put him to death.
Jesus has had to go underground. In the chapter before our reading today we hear that “Jesus no longer walked about openly among the Jews.” (11:54) People are gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover that is six days away and everyone is looking for him. The chief priests and Pharisees have put out orders that anyone who knows of Jesus’ whereabouts should tell them so they can arrest him.
In this setting, three beloved friends of Jesus invite him to their home for a meal. This one who has nowhere to lay his head is given the opportunity to be at home and to be cared for despite the dangers looming just outside their door. Martha prepares a meal. Lazarus who is fresh from the grave having just been resuscitated by Jesus in the previous week, rests at table. And Mary, whom we have grown to know through her devotion to Jesus can be found where we always see her, at his feet.
She sits at his feet as a devoted student listening to his teachings. When her brother, Lazarus dies, she falls at his feet in indescribable grief. Now she kneels again, this time with a jar of precious perfume. We are told that this perfume is scandalously expensive. It is said to be worth an entire year’s wage for a laborer. This is no ordinary fragrance. But with it she kneels and pours out the entire contents over Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her loosened hair.
Time stops as her act captures the amazement, and for some the outrage at her extravagant behavior. Jesus, who is surrounded by threat and imminent death, receives her gift with great gratitude. He knows that his time on this earth is rapidly coming to a close. But here, Mary’s gift of fragrance has provided him with the comfort and love he needs at this particular moment.
A whole pound of fragrance, the full jar, nothing held back, that is how much she loves him. Sensing the sorrow that is to come, Mary pours out the perfume of her devotion, blessing the feet that will soon have to bear a terrible burden. The fragrance fills the house and for this one brief moment in this long, brutal story, Jesus is blessed with kindness.
For just a moment, Jesus is at peace. He is loved. Mary has brought him from his fears and his responsibilities to experience in this present moment an abundance–an extravagance– of blessing. Mary has done what she can. She has given herself completely. By anointing Jesus with her jar of perfume that was worth a year’s salary, she acknowledges who he is and what he is about to undergo. Her actions will be mirrored soon by Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples on his last night on earth.
In the anointing at Bethany, Mary sees what Jesus is about to do. Unlike the other disciples who refuse to accept Jesus’ pronouncements of his impending death, Mary honors Jesus’ coming total self-giving by anointing him. Maybe because she has faced the sting of death with her brother Lazarus, she will not wait to pour out this expensive perfume. She will not wait to honor him, to be connected to him, to learn from him. She will not wait until it’s too late, but shows through her actions and her extravagance that Jesus’ life is all too fleeting.
But there are those in the room for whom this exorbitant generosity cannot be tolerated. Judas, who in John’s Gospel, takes on early his role as the bad guy, calls Mary out for wasting expensive perfume that could have been sold to help those who are poor. Jesus sees through this shaming statement and says words that can startle us. He tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Some have heard in these words that Jesus is resigned to the eternal fact of poverty. Some have even taken them as proof that Jesus does not really care about the poor. That Jesus’ only concern is salvation for those who believe. But we know that Jesus’ ministry was founded on his mission to bring good news to the poor. Jesus always stands on the side of the poor and against all forms of poverty and oppression. He is in fact quoting scripture from Deuteronomy 15:11 that says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas comments: “The poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given.”
So in defending Mary’s act of generous love, Jesus is not ignoring the poor or the disciples need to care for them. He is inviting them into this present moment where Mary has prepared his body for burial while she is present with him. “Wake up! Be alert! Do what needs to be done now! This is Mary’s chance now. She pours out extravagant love now. Jesus says, “You can help the poor as long as you live, and you must. But I am with you now. Live in this moment. Bless while you can. Love while you can.”
We have much to learn from this story. Not only is it a vision of extravagant love poured out by a faithful disciple, but it is an act that has become a part of the liturgy of the community. Mary’s anointing of Jesus and the wiping of his feet, anticipates and enacts what Jesus will offer a few nights later at what we know to be the Last Supper. Mary, as one whom Jesus loved, did what the friends were taught to do by Jesus. We are to wash and be washed in love.
And Mary’s expansive act cannot be contained by social conformity. Pouring an entire jar of extremely expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wiping it with her unrestrained hair was a scandal at this dinner of celebration. But Mary has attended to Jesus’ need in this extraordinary time and Jesus shows his gratitude for this relationship. This seems to be the reason for Jesus’ blunt response about the expensive perfume. The point is not to be indifferent to the needs of others, but rather to be present to what each moment requires. And what this moment required of Mary was an act of reckless beauty.
And why is Mary anointing Jesus now? In only a few days Jesus will be in the tomb and it is there that this expensive perfume would find its original purpose. But something in her can’t wait. She seems to understand the truth in Jesus’ words that he will not always be with them and so she eagerly pours it out all to honor the time that she has left with him.
We too will not always have each other. In our fast moving culture we can put off opportunities to share our full selves in love with others. With Mary, the beloved disciple of Jesus, as our example we should not waste a chance to share extravagant love. We should not put off making the casserole, baking the bread, calling someone on the phone, or going to visit someone in need of the fragrance of God’s love. We come together in church. We pray the prayers. We sing the hymns. We listen to the sermon. And then we are to go! We are sent out into the world to love others in the way that Jesus loved–fully, willingly, extravagantly. We like Jesus are to bring the good news to the world, to our neighbors, to our family, to wherever we see someone in need. We can talk about love all day, but until it is expressed, it is not sufficient. The world—people we know and people we are yet to meet—are in desperate need of the lavish attentiveness that Mary shows.
The last words in verse 3 are wonderful: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” This costly ointment when poured over Jesus’ feet must have filled the air. And then when Mary wiped his feet with her hair, she too captured the fragrance so that wherever she went, the fragrance wafted about her. In this way, this moment was shared with many others and it would forever be a reminder of her love.
And perhaps, because this perfume was so expensive, its scent lasted a very long time. So as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, confronted the moneychangers in the temple, as he ate with his disciples, and then appeared before the religious authorities and Pilate, this fragrance lingered faintly reminding him that he was loved. And then, even in his most terrifying moments on the cross as Jesus offered forgiveness and his life to all, he might have sensed a faint sweet fragrance that reminded him of a generous friendship that accompanied him to the end.
Sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary learns how to give herself away completely in love. That is why this story must be told wherever the Gospel is preached. Because in remembering Mary’s act on this day in Bethany is to fill the whole world with the sweet perfume of God’s love. The fragrance of love that gives without considering the cost. The fragrance of love that is carried on the wind to places we cannot see.
May God give us all the faith to pour out the jar of our love this day while we can. May it be for those who receive it a blessing in their time of need and for what is to come. May we give ourselves recklessly away through God’s abundant grace. Recognizing that even now, the fragrance of unending love is being poured out on us.