The smell of chlorine hits your nostrils. Suddenly, you are a child again about to cannonball into a pool of summer memories. You smell pancakes or catch a whiff of your great aunt’s perfume or the scent of dusty seats and boards in an old church, and the memories come flooding in.
Scientists tell us words go to the thinking part of the brain. Smells, fragrances, odors – they go straight to the amygdala, the oldest, most basic, the emotional part of our brain. That’s why a whiff of Grandpa’s tobacco or your mother’s soap or a certain recipe can make you feel ten years old again.
This passage from John’s gospel is a “fragrant” text. Jesus’ friend, Mary, takes a box of very expensive perfume and spreads it all over the feet of Jesus. The estimate is that today the perfume would be worth about $10,000. Easily a year’s wages to many of those who gathered around Jesus.
It was an extravagant gift for Jesus. A fragrant gift of love.
Relationships experts say that loving someone is not love until the love is received by another. To be received, love needs to be expressed in a language that the loved one understands. It is not enough for you to say you love your wife or your husband or your partner or your children. That’s a good start. But, for love to be received, felt, understood by the person you love you need to know how that person receives love and then give your love in that language.
Mary expressed her love for Jesus in this lavish gift of scented anointing. It’s the language of service and of a tangible gift. Jesus obviously understands these expressions as love. He receives the act and the gift as an expression of Mary’s devotion to him, understanding that she will love him all the way to his death.
Judas thinks all this is a waste of $10,000.
That money could have been given to missions, he says. That money could have been given to the poor. Mary has wasted it, he says. Except, John lets us in the truth that Judas would have wasted the money too. He wouldn’t have wasted it on Jesus, though. He would have wasted it on himself.
Jesus responds to Judas’ complaint about Mary’s gift of love by making two points. Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought this to keep it for the day of my burial.” In other words, “Pay attention to what this woman is doing. She understands what is happening here, even if the rest of you don’t. She knows that the day of my death is approaching. She is ready to stand by me and love me to the end.”
Jesus has been pouring himself out to his community in extravagant gifts of love that are rich with the scents of grace and mercy.
His outpouring will lead to his death. Now, he receives Mary bathing him with love, to prepare him for the time ahead.
The other thing Jesus says is, “You will always have the poor with you. You will not always have me with you.” Jesus here seems to be referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads ‘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.” In other words, Jesus is affirming the need to always care for the poor because there will always be poor people. It seems as though Jesus is pointing out to Judas that Judas could always be the one taking care of the impoverished people he purports to be so concerned about.
Judas held the purse strings of the collection that kept Jesus and his disciples. He won’t open it for the poor or for Jesus. In fact, he will pad his own purse by betraying Jesus to the authorities. It is Mary who breaks open a box that belongs to her and gives what is of greatest value to her.
What is most valuable to you is probably something different. I doubt that any of us has a $10,000 bottle of perfume sitting on a shelf at home.
There is something that is very precious to you.
What is it? It’s different from one person to another. You know what it is. What is of greatest value to you? The desire to succeed? Your self-image? Your health? Your bank account? Would you give it up for Jesus?
Would you support your children, for example, to leave the ordered life you have created for them so they could serve in a difficult and discouraging place? Would you be able to risk your health because you were caring for people who were in a dangerous, infected place? Would you jeopardize your reputation as an upstanding citizen to fight for someone else’s rights? Would you let go of your rights so others could be safer?
Remember, love felt is not sufficient. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you, Jesus.” As good as it is to know we love Jesus, knowing we love Jesus is not a full expression of our love. Love has to be received to have meaning.
How do we express our love to Jesus in a way that is deeply understood by him?
Surely, it is when we offer ourselves to live as he lived, as he asked us to live. Pouring ourselves out in devotion for those for whom he cared. Taking up the cause of the outcast and rejected. Tending to the poor who are always with us. Lifting up the oppressed and the marginalized. Listening to and broadcasting the voices of victims of violence, abuse, warfare, and injustice. Jesus understands the pouring out of what is most valuable to us in a gift of love to those he loves.
Blair Monie of Austin Seminary tells about witnessing a great example of sacrificial love. Beyonce and her family were being interviewed by Katie Couric on Dateline. This was back when Beyonce was with Destiny’s Child before she had become the music empire she is today.
At one point, Couric turned to Beyonce’s father, Matthew Knowles and said, “You know, you are an African- American male. African-American men often have more difficulty making it in the world, but you did. You were earning a six-figure salary. You were successful. Yet one day you walked into your boss’s office and said, ‘I am going to leave my position and am going to manage the singing careers of my daughters.’ They must have thought you had lost your mind. Was that difficult to do?”
Knowles answered, “Yes, it was difficult. But you see, I believe in these ladies.”
We love extravagantly what we believe.
Monie asks: If Matthew Knowles can turn his back on a six-figure salary because he believes in his daughters, shouldn’t we who are followers of Jesus Christ want to do so much more because we believe in him?
The fragrance of Mary’s perfume filled the house. Of course, when she anointed Jesus, the ointment flowed everywhere. On Jesus, on Mary, on her clothes. And when she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, that extravagant fragrance became part of Mary also.
When Jesus left the house in Bethany, the fragrance of Mary’s gift was still with her. Such a strong perfume would last a long time. Wherever she walked, people caught the scent of the gift, and they thought of Jesus. All through the days ahead, as Jesus road into Jerusalem, as he gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, as he appeared before the High priest and Pilate, as he hung upon the cross – Mary and her gift were there.
Wherever Mary went people smelled the fragrance of her extravagant gift of love and were reminded of Jesus and the outpouring of his extravagant love.