What’s that smell?

What’s that smell?
John 12:1-8
March 21, 2010
Steve Hammond

Today’s gospel story is one of the more familiar and debated stories in the gospels. The interchange between Jesus, Mary, and Judas is tense, fragrant (literally), and shocking to its viewers on a variety of levels.

There is a lot to unpack in that triad of characters, in what they say and what they do. And believe me, a lot of unpacking has been done. But I don’t find those three characters and their interactions the only interesting thing about this story. Don’t forget Lazarus.

Before we think a bit about Lazarus, though, I do want to pull a couple of items out of the suitcase myself. First of all, this thing Jesus says about the poor always being with you, may well be, unconsciously for some and very consciously and deliberately for others, the most misinterpreted thing that Jesus said.

We know that Jesus cared a lot about the poor. We see that in stories all over the Gospels. But people take this thing that Jesus says about the poor as always being with us as evidence that Jesus didn’t really care about the poor. Or they make it seem that since the poor are always going to be with us, Jesus is saying that there is nothing we can do about it. We just have to resign ourselves to the sad fact of poverty and go on to things we can maybe do something about. We have used what Jesus said here to further marginalize the poor when Jesus lifted up the poor and made them central to his ministry.

All Jesus was simply saying here is that I’m going to die. Sure this money Mary spent on the perfume to anoint me for my burial could have been spent on the poor. But you are going to have plenty of chances to spend your money on the poor in the days ahead. They are going to be there, and if you are my followers you are going to pay attention to them and their needs. But I’m not going to be here much longer, and Mary is trying to deal with that.

So Mary washes Jesus feet with all the perfume and her tears and wipes them with her hair. This is, obviously, a very intimate moment between the two of them, which might also explain some of the tension in the room.

A few days later, though, what is Jesus doing? He’s washing the feet of his disciples. Did he learn something from Mary at the dinner party about humility and what it means to be a servant Messiah? Is it like that stuff about the first being last that I’m convinced he got from his mama? What was it she said? “God will bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.” Why is it that the more established Christianity became, the more patriarchal it became?

Another thing. In this story, Judas is called a thief. That’s not how we should remember Judas. He may well have been a thief, but more importantly, he was a revolutionary. And that’s why what he did to Jesus, I think, was not so much a betrayal but a terrible miscalculation.

What Judas was trying to do was get Jesus to take charge of the revolt, to lead the revolution. What Judas didn’t understand was that Jesus had a different kind of revolution in mind. Betraying him to the Romans was not going to force Jesus’ hand so he had to meet violence with violence.

The last little bit of unpacking I want to do before taking a quick look at Lazarus is this idea some have that these predictions Jesus made about his death were things that Jesus ever actually said, but added by the writers of the Gospels after his death.

As some Biblical commentators point out, though, we don’t necessarily have to make such an assumption. They argue that Jesus was well aware that what he was saying and doing was putting him on a collision course with the political and power structures of his day.

And some have pointed out that Jesus is not the only one to sense that he was putting himself in danger by taking on the establishment. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero are just two more recent examples of people who were aware that their prophetic ministries would most probably lead to their deaths.

There were already plots to bring about Jesus’ death. It is hard for me to imagine that Jesus was as clueless about all of this as the disciples were. This does, actually, lead us to Lazarus.

There were other folk who were outraged by what was taking place in that room. But, unlike Judas, it had nothing to do with Mary letting down her hair and washing the feet of Jesus.

The religious leaders, we are told, were outraged by the presence of Lazarus. They we so upset, in fact, that the story says they decided right then and there that Lazarus would have to be killed. I mean Judas was upset with Mary, but he wasn’t about to kill her. But these folk wanted Lazarus dead…again.

Remember that the story before this one is about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. And it is a curious thing that the religious leaders are so upset by that. You would think that being religious leaders and all, they would be out of their minds ecstatic that Jesus had shown the power of God by doing such a thing.

The problem is that the power they knew best was the power of death. And Jesus was taking that away from them. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus played the trump card. People were noticing. What the religious leaders didn’t know, of course that it was going to get worse. In just a few days they were going to give Jesus their best shot and he would get up, dust himself off, roll up the grave cloths, and tell his folk to keep on with it.

And that’s exactly what the folk these religious leaders represent don’t want us to do. To keep on with it. To keep bringing life in all the places where they bring death.

As long as we don’t take resurrection too seriously, or just make eternal life about something in the world beyond, rather than this one, they are content. But the minute we start bringing life to their death traps of racism, militarism, sexism, and homophobia, or turn our attention away from the powerful to the powerless, from the haughty to the humble, from the rich to the poor, and find life in those places, then they fight back. They don’t want any more people like Lazarus around who have learned that death is not the final word. The last thing they want is a bunch of us running around saying we are alive in Christ and we’re here to help. What if we came out of our tombs at Jesus’ call? And they started plotting against us because people were believing in Jesus on account of us? Because they saw we were actually alive, that we had left death behind?

Don’t you wonder how that room smelled when Mary busted out that jar and poured out the ointment? It was pretty expensive stuff and must have smelled great.

I wonder, though, how Lazarus smelled. He had been dead, after all, for four days. I don’t know how quickly that smell goes away. Maybe never, really. At least for Lazarus.

And I don’t know what grace smells like, but they were smelling it in that room that day. But isn’t it always mixed with the smell of death? Isn’t that why we need it?

I think the religious leaders got it wrong. They should have been going after Mary not Lazarus. I think Lazarus may have been a little stunned by the whole thing. But Mary got it. She was there when her brother died and smelled that smell when he came out of the tomb. She realized that smell was something there all the time and that Jesus was showing us it didn’t have to be. So all she could think to do was get the perfume and pour it out.

There is something powerful if we will just break open the jar and make ourselves that vulnerable with Jesus. Allow ourselves to be that needy, that hopeful. It’s not we won’t smell death again or not get caught up in death ourselves. That’s always with us. But Jesus raises us back to life. We are called out of tombs to sit, again, at the table. Even if they don’t like it.