Aroma Therapy

I found it interesting how considering a jar of ointment can cause me to question just how I value the things of this world.  I admit I was shocked to realize that in Jesus day there was a market for an item worth a years wages and that one of Jesus’ followers had made such a purchase. I was pleased that Mary wasn’t all that extravagant in its use. In spite of his proclaimed character flaws I felt a strange unity with Judas about the wisdom of such an investment.  Like Lazarus, Judas and Mary we each make choices in how we use the resources at our disposal, our choices, most likely, won’t be remembered for a couple thousand years – but they each have consequences on our integrity and our testimony.  


 

 

 

Aroma Therapy

 

As we prepare for Easter our Gospel reading for today puts us at a critical moment in the story of Jesus’ final days.  We know that the religious authorities in Jerusalem had already committed themselves to putting Jesus to death. Yet he and his followers had been called by Lazarus’ sisters to come from what was, for them, a safe haven, a place out of the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem authorities called Bethany beyond Jordan to the Bethany just outside of Jerusalem.  To remind us of the extent to which Jesus life was in danger, John tells us that Thomas said to his colleagues “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

 

Since it is pretty easy for us to be rather cavalier about condemning the community of priests and Pharisees for their reaction, it seems important to understand that, seeing themselves as the acknowledged voice of an oppressed people living in a garrison state, their responsibility to protect their nation and religious culture was of the very highest priority.  For people to follow Jesus and be drawn away from the national cult would be to encourage the Romans to do away with the political niceties that allowed the Jewish community to maintain their cultural identity and their Temple.   Jesus was a threat not just to the standard of living and status of the religious leaders in Jerusalem but to national security.  These people had a solid, biblically founded concern that if the people ceased their worship as the children of Israel, God would unleash worldly powers to punish and restore them to covenant relationship. God has done it before – God will do it again. However comforting, accessible, compassionate and liberating is the message of Jesus; however consistent with the Prophet’s calls for mercy, justice, humility and love – Jesus must be stopped – now more than ever!  When Jesus and this disciples get to the home and Mary and Martha the events of that day will only serve to elevate the anxiety of the priests and Pharisees to an even greater degree.  As the story circulates among the community that Lazarus was raised to life after four days in the tomb even more people flock out of Jerusalem not only to see Jesus but now to see a new celebrity, Lazarus. 

 

John 12: 1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

 

Can you imagine the obituary column in the Bethany Times Herald:

 

Eleazer of Bethany, known to his friends as Lazarus, after suffering a brief illness entered into eternal rest March 17, 3760.  He was preceded in death by both his parents and is survived by his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  He was an active member of Temple Beth Ananiah Synagogue.   Entombment was in the family burial chamber in Mount of Olives Memorial Park.  Contributions may be made to Crossroads Leprosarium in lieu of flowers.   A memorial gathering for friends and family will be held Sunday at their home. 

 

Now try and imagine such a meal? A dinner after a funeral usually provides an opportunity for remembering the deceased and reconnecting family ties that have been strained or broken.  But what happens when the deceased is no longer dead? What happens when the deceased is sitting among the guests?  What do you talk about then?   One thing about which everyone there must have been aware was the smell. John says that Lazarus was one of those at the table with Jesus.  I wondered about the conversation that must have taken place.  Jesus’ expectation that his own death was imminent may have given rise to questions he may have had for his friend.  I’ve known people who have had brain surgery, others heart transplants and yet others who shared medical induced out of body experiences.  For each of these people, it was a life altering moment.  It was like pushing a reset button on what they valued and how they wanted to use their life.  Lazarus had just that kind of experience.  “Behold” scriptures tells us “I make all things new!” 

 

But, as I said, Lazarus had been dead and four days in the tomb, now he is seated among the guests. Was that the abiding smell surrounding this meal?  Maybe it’s not all that  mysterious why Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with such expensive ointment during this meal.   We are told that the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus was pure nard, which was used in at least some occasions in antiquity to anoint a body before burial, like in Homer’s Iliad where Achilles’ companion Patroclus’ body is anointed with nard to prevent stench.

 

Against the common assumption, I think it’s important for us to know that Mary did not use the whole container in her anointing of Jesus. John makes that clear in Jesus’ statement to Judas, after the act, that she should be allowed to keep the ointment “till the day when she prepares for my burial”.  She had anointed his feet and then wiped the residue with her hair.  Now, I admit, Mark and Matthew give us quite a different take on this story.  But they also leave out Lazarus and his restoration to life and they have it that the anointing is on Jesus’ head, not his feet.  In one case the jar was broken, in the other it was poured out.  But in John we have a much more reasonable application of very expensive ointment. And the good news was that instead of a grotesque act of extravagance the house was filled with a very pleasant  fragrance.

 

For Judas Iscariot the aroma was too much.  Of course we need to understand the value that Judas places on this small container of ointment.  A denarii was one day’s wage for a laborer.  For Judas, this marketable commodity worth 300 denarii had an aroma all its own.  Scripture says that he was a thief, that it was his own greediness that was stirred by what he considered an unnecessary use of the ointment.  This wasn’t about good stewardship or an inappropriate use of a resource,  Judas smelled money in his own pocket and wasn’t he the treasurer and shouldn’t he be the one to take custody of such a precious commodity – so it wouldn’t be used in a wasteful way.     

 

Jesus’ response to Judas “that you always have the poor among you” has often been used to minimize the importance of our obligation to care for the poor and needy.  So it’s important to note that Jesus’ response is a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11. The whole of it 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.’”  Rather than minimize our obligation to care for the poor, Jesus quotes a verse which explicitly commands it.

 

What contrasting aromas there between Mary and Judas.  One, using the best arguments of conservative business practices has the intention to defraud.  The other turns a practical necessity into an act of affection. One is an intended abuse of authority the other a generous act of gratitude.  Both focused on one simple jar of a precious commodity. 

 

During this last week the Yearly Meetings Pastors had an email discussion which began with a misdirected call to boycott Walmart on behalf of illegal aliens.  It morphed into a wider discussion of shopping or not shopping at big box stores and then into buying goods produced in China or countries where forced labor is used.  Gar Mickelson raised the discussion to a much more basic question coming out of his reading of Gerald Sittser’s book Water From A Deep Well.  He reported that Sittser describes how early Christians influenced their local economies by what they didn’t buy.  The real power and influence of the early martyrs was found not only in their willingness to die for their faith, their greatest power and influence was in the way they chose to live.

 

Gar wondered whether our Christian message of ‘consume less and simplify’ might clash with the world’s message of consume more? “It seems to me”, he wrote, “that in our day we find ourselves in a position to again influence our local economies by the way we live as Christians, by both what we choose to buy and what we choose NOT to buy.”  Jason Minnix joined the discussion reflecting his reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which, he wrote “calls into question why the majority of my food comes to me in refrigerated boxes from somewhere else – even if it’s “organic”.” He suggested that eating locally and seasonally is a very different thing.  “I think it’s also cheaper in the long run.  But it involves gardening, farmer’s markets, and getting to know local farmers.  We all have people in our churches who are hurting.  How cool would it be to open garden spaces at church properties, in our yards and coordinate who’s growing what so we can supplement.  Food is an area were we can help that leaves people money to pay utilities, rent, etc.”

 

Another chimed in: “While I agree that Walmart is not “the enemy”…  The enemy for me, in this instance, is my acquiescence to the culturally imposed idea that “products” will make our lives easier and that if I don’t have product “x” than I must not be worth something. I think we have a query or two to help us as we consider these hidden cultural values: Query 13  Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?  Query 14 Are you careful to live within your income? Do you avoid involving yourself in business beyond your ability to manage or in highly speculative ventures? Are you willing to accept a lower economic standard rather than compromise Christian values?

 

I found it interesting how considering a jar of ointment can cause me to question just how I value the things of this world.  I admit I was shocked to realize that in Jesus day there was a market for an item worth a years wages and that one of Jesus’ followers had made such a purchase. I was pleased that Mary wasn’t all that extravagant in its use. In spite of his proclaimed character flaws I felt a strange unity with Judas about the wisdom of such an investment.  Like Lazarus, Judas and Mary we each make choices in how we use the resources at our disposal, our choices, most likely, won’t be remembered for a couple thousand years – but they each have consequences on our integrity and our testimony.   

 

 

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