What is the strongest sense of smell of something that you remember? The perfume or lotion of someone dear to us? Some delicious homemade recipe from childhood? Freshly baked bread? The smell of just brewed coffee? Chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven? How about a Christmas tree? Or perhaps some not so pleasant orders, like a refrigerator overdue for a cleaning? As a child, on the way to my Uncle Doc’s, we’d pass the slaughterhouse - whew - the order or dead carcasses spread for blocks. I can still recall the smell of the smoke from my neighbor’s pipe, the lilacs blooming in our backyard. The sense of smell strongly influences human behavior, it strongly elicits memories and emotions, and shapes perceptions. Did you know that everyone has a unique odor identity similar to a fingerprint — no two people smell the same way except identical twins? Studies have found that scent marketing increased customer intent to purchase by 80%, turning indecisive shoppers into actual buyers. One gas station actually added the smell of fresh coffee to its store and increased coffee sales by 300%.
Our gospel lesson today invites us to engage our sense of smell, to imagine what the Bethany home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha smelled like when Mary, kneeling before Jesus, poured out a pound of pure nard, a perfume worth a year’s worth of wages, on Jesus’s feet. Close your eyes and imagine the best scent possible you can conjure up. We are told this beautiful perfumed imbued the entire house.
Now John tells us in the chapter before today’s reading that Jesus had brought Lazarus back to life from the dead. The Pharisees and chief priests met. They felt the crowds turning toward Jesus. As a result, they began to plot to kill Jesus. So, today’s story signals the last week of Jesus’ life. Lazarus, Mary and Martha, siblings, honor Jesus with a meal, perhaps to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life. It is a meal that actually sets the scene for Jesus’ death, in a matter of days.
It was an ordinary meal. Lazarus was at the table with Jesus. Martha was busy serving. Then out of the blue comes Mary. Mary of Bethany is, if we recall, the female disciple who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens. Remember how Martha complained, asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her out in the kitchen? Jesus defends Mary, saying she has chosen the “better half.” Mary has paid attention, she has connected the dots, and now she knows the end is near for Jesus: he has come to Jerusalem to die and be raised. So, without asking, without a speech, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with this costly ointment and tenderly dries them with her hair. Servants typically washed the feet of guests. Here is Mary, assuming the role of the lowly servant to her Rabbi, Master, friend.
Mary’s action is met with criticism by Judas the thief turned betrayer. In other versions of the story in other gospels, all the disciples are indigent, perhaps thinking there goes Mary, going overboard, perhaps they are uncomfortable with the act of anointing Jesus. Mark and Matthew say that Jesus is anointed on the head, here Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair. All in all, it is an extraordinary act, extravagant act, even slightly scandalous, for it is out of custom for a respectable woman to let her hair down, let alone use it as towel. Jesus again defends Mary by telling the disciples to leave her alone, for she alone has correctly interpreted the times, Jesus’s death is drawing nearer. Mary couldn’t stop this from happening. But she could show her love, she empties her account, her savings, to envelope Jesus with the fragrance of love.
If we step back a minute, it is interesting to note that the only time Jesus receives gifts are at his birth, when the magi from the East bring him gold, frankincense and myrrh; myrrh being a spice used commonly to anoint the body upon death. The gift bearers are foreigners, but they get it – Jesus is the King of the Jews and they acknowledge it while Jesus’ own people reject him. Now here at the end of his life, Jesus receives another gift, the gift of anointing with pure nard at the hands of a humble female disciple, a woman, a second-class citizen, on the fringe of the official group. Mary lovingly boldly carries out this prophetic act that Jesus interprets as preparing him for his death and burial. Jesus’ life and death are bookended by anointing spices. The deeper question Mary’s act brings to mind is this: where in the gospels is Jesus treated with such tenderness and lavish love – except perhaps the act of another woman, a repentant sinner, who crashes the Pharisees party to anoint Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries with her hair? The truth is despite all that Jesus has done for others; Mary’s of Bethany’s act tops the charts. None of his disciples demonstrate their love for Jesus in any way. It can even be said that Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet inspires Jesus, who a few days later at the last supper, will wash his disciples’ feet.
The truth is, Mary reveals how God’s love is scandalous, outrageous, overflowing. Imagine a God who suffers on behalf of his creation. But that’s what Jesus does. If we look at all the world religions, Christianity is the only one where at the center of the message is a messiah who dies an ignominious death for love. Jesus embraces death, the indignity of death, with the death of a common criminal, to prove his love for us. Scandalous. What kind of crazy God would do this? Unthinkable! Mary captures this powerful love as she ministers to Jesus.
It is Mary’s scandalous love that lets Jesus know he is not alone. I would like to think, as Jesus prayed desperately in the Garden of Golgotha, as he was arrested, falsely charged, badly beaten, and lay dying on the cross, that somewhere in his memory that scent of the lavish perfume lingered, reminding a brutalized Jesus of Mary’s gentle touch.
Mary’s scandalous love is an example for us for we are called to be the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15-17) in a stinking world where death and violence hold sway, in a world that smells of greed and judgment. We are called to lavishly spread the sweet, sweet aroma of compassionate love. Mary makes us think: am I stingy with my love for Jesus? Do I hold back like the other disciples? Do I turn the other way when someone is in need? Our reading asks us, what was the last lavish act of love we have performed – an act so scandalous, so outrageous, it left others shaking their heads in wonder. You see, that’s what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. To pour out our inner resources, to give lavishly of our material resources so that others who witness stand in awe, and exclaim, “I want to know this Jesus that has inspired you so!”
In these final weeks of Lent, let us get scandalous. Let us get extravagant. Let the powerful aroma of Christ fill our hearts and follow us wherever we go. Let us empty the tank, giving generously until the world overflows with the scent of faith and love wafting through us from the cross of Jesus, the scandalous incarnate love of God who emptied himself, gave it all away, so powerfully, so lavishly so that people would smell the fragrance of love and in turn believe in our scandalous, extraordinary fragrance of God’s love poured out in on the cross of Jesus Christ, our savior, our Lord.