In Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the characters keeps saying over and over to the character of Big Daddy that you can just smell “the mendacity in the air.” This was a play with many layers of deception and lying and it became so very nearly palpable to some of the characters that it was as though the air was filled with mendacity, with lies. You could smell the untruthfulness that was afoot.
In John 12 there may be a little mendacity in the air but mostly what is in the air—for those with noses finely tuned enough to sniff it out—was the smell of death.
True, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead and although his being raised on the fourth day caused some folks to fear that the tomb would be stinky, Lazarus emerged fresh and alive and unsmelly. Nevertheless, the stench of death hangs heavy here in John 12. Jesus’ grand miracle of raising up Lazarus has clinched the case against him as far as the religious authorities are concerned. If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’d be no stopping him.
So at the end of John 11 we read of a plot to kill Jesus. Were we to read just a couple of verses beyond where the Lectionary stops this reading of John 12, we’d see that while they’re at it, the Pharisees plot to kill Lazarus, too. (This is a detail—a grim one—that we often overlook, so much so that years ago when I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, when I saw a scene in which some thug kills the recently raised Lazarus by sticking a knife in his back, I thought to myself, “That never happened!” So I went to my Bible and found that, sure enough, although we have no account of their having pulled it off, there was indeed a plot to murder Lazarus as a way to cover up his having been raised. Terrible.)
Eventually in John 12 Jesus will have a few more overt things to say about also his own impending doom. But right in the middle of all that deathliness is this reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C. Mary and Martha are throwing a dinner party in Jesus’ honor. Considering what Jesus had recently done for their little family unit in raising a beloved brother back from the dead, you can understand why they maybe think Jesus is worth a little fuss! Yet the text is largely understated. We’re told (almost casually) that Lazarus is reclining at the table along with Jesus. Given that he’d been dead and buried only a short while earlier, this portrait of Lazarus sipping wine and munching on food is startling. It’s almost funny!
But we don’t linger over the fact that this recently deceased man is now back in circulation. We’re not made privy to any conversations about what Lazarus experienced between death and resuscitation. We have no ancient world equivalent of Anderson Cooper hovering around to interview Lazarus and asking questions like, “What did you see? Any bright lights? Bump into Moses or anybody we’d know?”
Instead the focus of the scene quickly shifts to Mary and to her anointing of Jesus’ feet with a highly expensive and fragrant perfume. It’s hard to know what was in Mary’s mind. The most likely scenario is that this was a token of moving, profound gratitude to Jesus for restoring her dear brother to life. As Judas finally notes, it was a costly gift. And as many of us know, there are always those who sneer at anything that smacks of the extravagant. Even on a wedding anniversary, why go out to that nice (but expensive) restaurant that will charge you $28 for chicken dijonnaise with new potatoes when the Family Diner over there has a perfectly good patty melt for $6.95? (And it comes with fries too yet!) Judas is chintzy in this way but he’s also a pilferer, as John notes in one of his many parenthetical comments.
But lavish or not, Mary anoints Jesus this way out of true affection. Jesus, however, sees it differently. He sees it as a pre-burial prepping of his corpse for the tomb. Jesus says that she should be left alone in that (and the Greek here is a little dicey) it was necessary for her to keep this for the day of his burial. It’s a powerfully difficult sentence to translate, much less make sense of.
First, that was not the day of his burial. Second, she could not keep the perfume in that she had just then already poured it out. It was gone. Third, therefore, she could not keep for the day of Jesus’ burial (some six days off) that which she had poured out on his feet on that very evening.
But maybe we are being too literal here. As noted above, death hangs heavy in the air here. So heavy, in fact, that perhaps it was true that to Jesus’ mind, there was no significant difference between everything happening in that final week of his life and the nitty-gritty details of his actual entombment. He was as good as dead already. He was, to borrow a phrase a “dead man walking.” So whatever Mary may have had in mind in pouring this onto Jesus, Jesus himself regarded it as yet another indication of death.
We are told in verse 3 that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and no doubt most dinner guests regarded it as pleasant. Lazarus was alive again. Martha had, as usual, outdone herself in the kitchen and was serving up a dandy meal. Mary now honored the guest of honor with a traditional ritual of hospitality. What a fine evening!
Only Jesus seems to know that in this world, without someone’s being able to make the ultimate sacrifice for sins, even the finest evening is shot-through with death. Without the hope that Jesus’ death alone would make possible for this death-enthralled world, no amount of perfume, no amount of glitz, no amount of red-carpet gala events can ever escape the fact that we’re all on a collision course with death. Jesus alone seemed to know this that night. As latter-day followers of Jesus, we need to know it, too, and so do all we can to point our world to Jesus as our only hope.
Because even yet today, in the power citadels of Washington and London and Moscow, in the haute cuisine restaurants in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, along the runways of fashion shows in Paris and on the tony beaches in Cancun and Aruba where the rich and famous go to play, despite all that we try to do to escape this fact or cover it over with this-or-that costly perfume (or wine or flowers or chocolate or martinis) the fact is that death is everywhere.
The New York Times often fills its weekly Travel section with Spring Break ideas for families. The “budget” ideas might include going to Orlando where a family of four might expend a “mere” $5,000 or so. But there was also the option of renting a yacht with full crew for seven days to make seven Caribbean ports of call. A family of four for this jaunt could have the whole thing for a cool $1.06 million. (The blurb for this option even included a possible extra “Splurge” of taking advantage of the on-board masseuse. But can you speak meaningfully of “splurging” when spending over a million bucks for a one-week vacation???? Sometimes when I read the NY Times I wonder if it’s actually The Onion I am reading . . .)
We all try to escape and deny death. But it doesn’t work. Not finally and not for all the money in the world. Jesus knows it and knows what to do about it. If we are Jesus’ disciples, then we know what needs doing, too. That’s why in Lent, and always, we’re not ashamed to cling to that old rugged cross.
For us, when we smell the aroma of Mary’s perfume rising up off the biblical page, we know it has something to do with death but by faith and through grace, we also sense that there is a definite sweetness to this aroma—it actually feels like the kind of thing that might move right through death to arrive at a higher life.
Note: Our Year C Lent and Easter resources are available on our website. In addition to the weekly postings here on the CEP homepage, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas.
I would encourage anyone preaching on this lection to extend the reading to verse 11. It’s important to see that Jesus’ fame is spreading. It’s important to see that Lazarus had himself become (quite understandably) something of a curiosity. And it’s important to see how death roars back onto this otherwise happy scene when we read of the plot to kill Lazarus. As noted elsewhere in this sermon commentary, we do not know if they succeeded in killing Lazarus the same way they did indeed succeed with killing Jesus but if they did . . . well, one can only imagine the sorrow of Mary and Martha if they lost their brother all over again. Of course, one day they lost him again anyway—he had been resuscitated, not yet raised to immortality. Either way, it is a reminder of why we needed Jesus to be anointed for burial and to later die the way he did. Death is everywhere. Only Christ proffers hope in the midst of all that.
In the fine story and film Babette’s Feast we see an example of sacrificial self-giving in action. We also see how such sacrifice can restore much that is broken in this world. Many of you know the story: one of the most talented chefs in the world, Babette, is banished from her native Paris due to political turmoil and persecution. She (almost literally) washes ashore in a small Danish fishing village whose small religious community is enduring a time of fractious bickering. The once tight-knit band of believers has taken to sniping and snipping, to the heartbreak of the spinster sisters who head up the community (their father had founded the church in the village) and who had taken in Babette to be a scullery maid and cook. Mostly the sisters ask Babette to prepare only the blandest of foods as that is what they were accustomed to eating.
But then one day Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris and so offers to cook a true feast for the sisters and their whole little religious community. They agree and are eventually treated to a feast of rare delicacies, excellent vintages of wine, and just flat out some of the best gourmet fare anyone in the world could ever wish for.
The religious community has no idea what it’s consuming and yet through this meal they also find their community restored. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. And when the evening is finished, they join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars.
Only then do the sisters discover what Babette had really done: she had spent ALL the money she had won, not just a portion of it as they had thought. She had, in so doing, foreclosed her own options. She could never return to Paris, never take up any post as the chef at one of the world’s leading restaurants. She had wasted it all on the sisters and their community.
And this prodigal “waste” brought life.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 7, 2019
John 12:1-8 Commentary