Sweet smelling extravagance

17 March 2013
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5C (RCL)
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

We are drawing closer to Palm Sunday/Holy Week/Easter, and our readings bring us closer to the paschal mystery. The passage from Isaiah speaks of the new thing God is about to do. If you thought the Exodus was amazing, says the prophet, wait until you see the return from Exile. God will make a new heavens and a new earth, streams will flow in the desert, jackals and ostriches will honor God. God asks, “Do you not perceive it?” It would have been hard for the fractured little community in Exile to perceive God’s hand in anything. It was not a mighty group who returned from Exile, and they would need great faith to perceive in their circumstances God’s plan for a new universe.

Paul is also facing a bleak future. I believe he wrote Philippians to his favorite community on his way to his martyrdom. Ignatius’ letter to the same group rings with many resonances to Paul’s letter. Both desire to be co-formed into the likeness of Christ’s death, so they might experience a resurrection like his. Both count all their worldly accomplishments as so much dung (dog poop is the word Paul uses). He doesn’t count on any of those things, but only this new righteousness we have in Christ, this new community formed by Christ’s faithfulness to God. Paul sees this new community as the “mystery hidden for the ages from the foundation of the world,” as God’s plan for the universe all along. Again, it would have taken great faith to see this little rag-tag band in that light.

The passage from John’s Gospel occurs right at the hinge between the Galilean ministry and the final week in Jerusalem. The entry into Jerusalem, in John’s Gospel, is bracketed by Mary anointing his feet, and “certain Greeks” seeking to see him. The episode of the Greeks (who approach Andrew and Philip) looks back to the first disciples asking Jesus where he stayed, and his reply, “Come and see.” These Greeks have now come to see (and then drop out of the story — until our story, the readers). The story of Mary anointing Jesus looks forward to his burial, and his resurrection appearance to another Mary.

John has taken one story from Mark and two from Luke, and combined them into a single story. Mark has an unnamed woman anoint Jesus just before his entry into Jerusalem. Luke has the story of Mary and Martha entertaining Jesus, and Martha complaining that Mary won’t help, and then the story of the woman of questionable repute washing Jesus’ feet with her hair. John crafts his story to catch resonances of all these stories: an anointing for death, Mary as a disciple, and a woman’s extravagant love.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, Martha had warned him, “Lord, by now, there will be a stench.” Twice, in our story, John tells us that the odor of the perfume filled the house. Clearly, Jesus’ burial stands in stark contrast to Lazarus’. Just after the episode of the Greeks seeking Jesus, Jesus will eat a dinner (the same Greek word used in this story for the dinner party with Lazarus, Mary and Martha) with his disciples. At that dinner, Jesus will strip himself, put a towel around his waist and wash his disciple’s feet, just as Mary has done to his. When he does that, he gives them a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them, and to do to one another as he has done to them. Mary has already done that and more for him. She is the clearly the proto-disciple.

The word John uses for “odor” is osme, a word not used often in Greek. It shows up four times in the New Testament; once here, and three times in the Pauline corpus. In 2 Corinthians 2, and Philippians 4 (and in Ephesians 5, not technically Pauline), the word means the sweet savor of a sacrifice offered to God (the smoke that goes heavenward). In the LXX it shows up in Leviticus quite often as the sweet smelling savor of a sacrifice offered to God. So, Mary’s offering amounts to a consecration of Jesus as sacrifice and constitutes the Godward part of that sacrifice (the eucharist, his body and blood constitute the humanward part, the feast, of the sacrifice).

Judas complains that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii (a year’s wages!), and used for the poor. Jesus replies that we will always have the poor, but not always have him, a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11. There, the poor are the community’s opportunity to “open your hand” and demonstrate God’s justice. Mary’s offering is certainly extravagant, appropriate for someone who loves much. When Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, Mary has already shown her extravagant love for Jesus. And since we no longer have Jesus with us, our extravagance is to be directed to the poor.

The community which Jesus forms, and for whose food he gave himself, is to practice a radical sort of hospitality, taking the role of a slave to wash the feet of those we welcome to table, and to even go beyond, and anoint with extravagant love against the day of burial. That’s a lot to pack into a very short story.

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