Extravagance. Pleasure. Effusiveness. Exuberance. These aren't ideas that we usually associate with Lent and the overture to Jesus' passion.
But Mary of Bethany understands differently.
John 12:1-8 in Its Context
Within the narrative world of John's Gospel, this passage acquires a good deal of meaning through its connections to other scenes and themes. Mary's gift, along with Judas's stinginess, has greater significance because of how it participates in a series of developments.
John 12:1-8 in Its Own Terms
While this passage helps us appreciate the structure and emphases of John's Gospel, excessive focus on those dimensions can actually threaten, at least on this Sunday, to take our attention from Jesus, Mary, and the intensity of this particular episode.
Likewise, an opportunity would be wasted if a sermon focused only on Judas, his presumed motives, and his possible resemblance to other money managers who have made the news over the last year or two. Mary's testimony and model offer valuable perspectives that deserve our attention.
Mary's gift exceeds extravagance. She expends a pound of perfume valued at about the yearly income of a manual laborer (see 12:5 in the NIV).
Mary also exceeds good taste. Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary's hair lends an erotic air to the event, although I think it is impossible to hear the story today without raising an eyebrow. At the very least, Mary's hair imbues the act with profound intimacy, calling attention to the tactile element of the anointing. If the fragrance of her perfume fills the house, the gentle touch of her locks fills Jesus' sensations. It is an expression of deep love that those watching would hardly ignore or find ordinary.
The whole scene offends at least one of the onlookers. Judas breaks in. Does he regret losing the chance to pilfer from the 300 denarii, or is Mary's lavish love too disturbing to watch?
We can understand the economic and charitable logic beneath Judas's criticism, but we should also recognize that it resembles a rigorous, unyielding piety that cannot stomach a wild love like Mary's. Acts of true grace and love regularly get slandered as deviance.
Jesus' response to Judas sounds surprisingly gentle, given all the other ways this passage sets up that disciple as the villain. Jesus speaks more to us, to those who wonder if Mary's apparent recklessness sets a dangerous precedent. When he says, "You always have the poor with you," he does not diminish the seriousness of poverty and the imperative for charity. Possibly he alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, which commands generosity toward the poor precisely "since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth." As punctuated by the anointing for burial, Jesus looks toward his death, contrasting his impending departure with the perennial opportunity to serve the poor. The specter of Jesus' death makes a deed like Mary's strangely appropriate, because it emanates from love and expresses understanding about Jesus and what he must do.
What Does Jesus Smell Like?
The vividly sensuous nature of this passage encourages preachers to invite congregations to think about the gospel in ways beyond words, speaking, and reading. Does grace have a scent? It can be worth the effort to reflect on Jesus and his work in terms of meaningful smells and sensations.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack."1
Most people have experienced a smell that floods the mind with arresting memories of a person, place, or event. Olfaction, emotion, and memory share closely networked real estate in the brain's limbic system. Our sense of smell relates closely to how we experience life and process significant memories. I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster literally stop me in my tracks because they conjure sights and sounds I experienced as a teenager on a life-changing visit to a Haitian slum. I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I'm in a crowd and I chance upon someone wearing the fragrance my wife wore when we were dating.
Mary's gift emits an aroma that saturates the house and the minds of everyone in it. How does that passionate aroma persist even today? What real-life experiences does Jesus' death forever define, like a scent we never forget?
The Sweet Aroma of Jesus' Death
The pairing of Mary and Judas creates a rhetoric of contrast, which also might energize a sermon. Notice a variety of oppositions:
1Quoted in Rachel Herz, The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 1.