The Fragrance of Life

Sunday, April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year C

Focus Theme:
The Fragrance of Life

Focus Prayer:
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness and your grace waters the desert. Help us to recognize your hand working miracles beyond our imagining. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, so that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love for all, and its presence in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Focus Questions:

1. How do you define “extravagance”? How would your congregation define it?

2. Is there a difference between extravagance and excess? Are you put off by the word “lavish”?

3. What sorts of limits have you placed on your giving that define what is “reasonable,” and what is “excessive”?

4. Have you ever felt that you were changed by an act of generosity, your own or another’s?

5. What is the “fragrant offering” you might bring to Jesus this Holy Week?

by Kate Matthews

Just as we began our Lenten journey by remembering who we are, and then whose we are, by reflecting on the story of Abraham and Sarah, we are brought back here, near the end of Lent, to the question of who Jesus is, and who we are as his disciples.

Our teacher in this story is a woman, which happens so often in the Bible, especially the Gospels, where the last and the least seem to hit just the right note while the Apparently Chosen stumble and blunder their way along.

We reach a turning point

This anointing at Bethany, the home of Lazarus, isn’t just a nice little story in the middle of John’s Gospel. It’s set at the turning point of that Gospel, literally and figuratively. Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem instead of remaining a popular but mysterious and elusive troublemaker in the outlands, out of the reach of the religious authorities and the Roman Empire.

His raising of Lazarus from the dead, just a few verses before this passage, in chapter 11, has set into motion the wheels of the machinery that will kill him in just a few more days.

Word is spreading

The high priest and the Pharisees hear the reports–from eyewitnesses–that this Jesus has really outdone himself this time: not “just” curing a leper or driving out a demon but bringing back to life a man who had been in the tomb four long days. When the word spreads that Jesus has brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead–such a sign, such a promise of what was to come–the religious leaders panic.

We’ve got to put a stop to this, they say: people will believe in him, and that will provoke the powers that be, the Romans, to come in and destroy our holy place and our nation. We’ll have to raise the terror alert to orange at least, maybe even red! “So,” the text says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

Time for a party?

Right in the midst of all of this anxiety, plotting, and threat, or perhaps in spite of it, Jesus’ friends, Martha the earnest, hard-working hostess and her brother Lazarus, fresh from the tomb, and her sister Mary, the passionate one, throw a dinner party. That’s right. It’s time to have a party, they say.

And who can blame them? For heaven’s sake, Lazarus wasn’t just sort-of dead or metaphorically dead, like the Prodigal Son last week–“This son of mine was dead, and come back to life”–he was dead-dead. Dead long enough to cause a stench, Martha worried, remember?

Long enough to bring the whole family and the town and his good friend Jesus together in grief, but not long enough to deter Jesus and the power of life and love, even if the consequences of all this is Jesus’ own death.

A story of extravagant love

This beautiful story of extravagant love, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume, is set just on the edge of Jerusalem…Jerusalem, soon to be the site of an offering of love, the most extravagant offering of all.

So the family of Lazarus gathers to honor and to try to thank Jesus, and to celebrate the restoration of their loved one. Still, at this party, death itself lingers in the air around them, even here, at a party with friends, in a home that should feel safe, a refuge from controversy and questioning.

Lazarus sits and talks with his friend, Jesus, who will soon be laid in a tomb himself. Can you imagine the conversation between them, one so lately returned from the tomb and the other on his way?

Things get tense

The wonderful preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, says that Jesus must know he’s a marked man, that he’s on “the religious right’s ‘most wanted’ list,” and his days are numbered. The establishment, always so easily threatened, even by one single truth-telling prophet, is coming after him.

Everyone else must suspect it, too. All around them are the smell and the feel of death: the tomb outside, probably still open, available for the next occupant, the expensive nard waiting.

Mary and Martha know something about anointing, and nard, and death, having just experienced the death of their brother Lazarus. Things are tense, and you know what happens when people get tense and anxious…they start picking at one another, criticizing one another, they get into scarcity mode and start counting the cost of every little thing, losing sight of the big picture and missing the point. They–we–tighten up, worry, maybe even strike out at others. It happens.

Seeing what others miss

But not Mary. Not Mary the passionate one, the one who loves Jesus with her whole heart, loves to sit at his feet and listen to him, Mary, full of love and gratitude and very little inhibition, even in the face of Judas’ sputtering and self-righteous, not to mention hypocritical, objections.

No, Mary doesn’t let anything hold her back, and more than anyone else, even the men who have been following Jesus all this time, hearing his words, watching him in action, even more than these, Mary sees the big picture.

Acting on what she sees

Mary senses who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for him, and she acts on it, embodying her response, her gratitude and her grief, with an extravagant anointing of Jesus’ body. She does things not acceptable in polite company in that culture and time: she unbinds her hair, loosens it as women did only for their husbands or when they were in mourning; she pours expensive balm on the feet of Jesus (his feet, as one would anoint a corpse, not a king; a king would be anointed on the head).

And Mary touches Jesus even though she’s a single woman–again, not “appropriate”–and then she wipes his feet with her hair.

The extravagance of God’s love

No inhibition indeed! Barbara Brown Taylor says that Mary is prophetically witnessing to the extravagance, the lavishness of God’s love and mercy, something Mary had experienced in Jesus himself, just as we can even today. Just as Jesus began his ministry with an extravagance of excellent wine at a wedding feast, so his ministry comes to a close here in an extravagance of expensive ointment, a passionate display of love and caring that even the woman who offers it does not fully understand. (Taylor’s sermon in Bread of Angels is a beautiful read to begin your Holy Week reflection.)

There’s nothing stingy, nothing miserly, about God’s love. Isn’t that the real meaning in what’s about to happen, in Jerusalem, on Calvary?

No ordinary dinner party

What in the world is going on here? It certainly isn’t your everyday run-of-the-mill dinner party, with a man returned from the dead and his sister wiping the guest’s feet with her hair. You and I are accustomed in our generation to having news commentators explain to us what is happening before our eyes.

My mother, however, was often annoyed (even before the age of cable news) by the television commentators who tell us what a president, for example, just said, right after we’ve listened to his speech. But John doesn’t annoy us. He adds only a few words, in parentheses, a few important ones and helpful to us as we look on.

Isn’t this a waste?

Let’s be honest: in all our commitment to the poor, wouldn’t we be tempted to say, “Hey, what are we about here, anyway? Where’s our mission? Didn’t Jesus always express his concern for the poor? Why are we wasting expensive perfume instead of selling it and buying, say, food for the hungry?”

I could almost agree with Judas here, but John pulls us back, whispers in our ear: don’t. You know, John says, Judas doesn’t really care about the poor; he steals from the rest of the disciples; his heart is not in the right place. Watch out.

Pretending to care

Perhaps the only thing worse than not caring about the poor is pretending to care about them. Here, on the edge of his act of betrayal, Judas pretends to know what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

However, it’s Mary, not Judas the self-righteous voice of criticism, who teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She recognizes, even if only partially, who Jesus is. Just as importantly, she recognizes who she is as his follower: one who serves, one who anoints, one who gives extravagantly without counting the cost…one whose response to Jesus is an act of love.

Setting an example for his followers

Consider this: in the Gospel of John, at his last meal with the disciples, in the very next chapter after this one, Jesus doesn’t take bread and bless and break it and say, Take this and eat…no, actually, the way John tells the story, Jesus gets up and ties a towel around himself and pours water in a basin and washes the disciples’ feet.

That is what he wants his followers to do, but he doesn’t just tell them, he shows them, too. Do as I say, he says, and do as I do. Mary, our unexpected teacher for today, anticipates that lesson beautifully, acting from her heart, responding to all that Jesus has been in her life.

Giving from a full and breaking heart

This woman who takes an expensive jar of perfume and lavishes it upon Jesus’ feet is making a gesture, a heartfelt gesture, with a broken-hearted sense of what is to come at the end of the journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps her heart is full, and perhaps it is breaking, too. When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, we don’t waste time calculating our expenses.

When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, when we’re not sure what’s coming but we feel deep down that it may mean loss and grief anew, we don’t waste time computing and calculating the cost of our commitment.

Considering the cost

Can you picture Mary, while Martha (as usual) is doing all the kitchen work, and Lazarus (as usual) is sitting in the living room talking with the other men–Mary, in the storeroom, the one with a lock, I suppose, looking at that last jar of expensive perfume….looking long and hard…thinking about Jesus, who had risked his life to come back and help her and her sister, to grieve with them for a moment and then to bring life out of death…amazing!

What amazing and wonderful thing can she do, what can she say not with words but with her whole self: Mary takes the best she has to give and in an hour of need, as death looms over this little band of disciples, Mary takes the best and breaks it open over the feet of Jesus, the one she loves, the one she is about to lose…even if only for awhile…but we suspect she does not know that, yet.

A great story of stewardship

This is my very favorite stewardship text. Not very many people think about stewardship when they hear this story, because we think stewardship has to do with conserving and saving and using things, especially money, very carefully. I don’t.

Actually, I do think taking care of the earth and appreciating our gifts and not wasting them are all part of being responsible, grateful caretakers of God’s creation. But I also believe that extravagant sharing, extravagant giving, from the heart, is the best stewardship of all.

Choosing to give lavishly

I believe that it’s never a waste to give, lavishly, from the heart and not count the cost. When we love someone, really love someone, it just comes from our heart: we want to give them not just our stuff, whatever it is and however expensive it is, but we want them to know how we feel, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the last jar of expensive nard on our shelf–we want to crack it open, break it open, pour it out…our hearts full to the brim and overflowing….

Generosity that transforms

We wonder then about our own hearts and our own giving, our hearts broken open to one another and to the world God loves…those moments when a gesture of love and unexpected generosity transforms a situation: a generous spirit that offers forgiveness and healing, a spirit of kindness that offers healing and hope and speaks words of encouragement, a spirit of freedom that gives out of the abundance we live in so that others have enough to live.

This woman, Mary, even in the face of criticism, held nothing back, not the most expensive gift she could give and not the gift of her own breaking heart, full of love. This woman, so full of love, is our teacher today. She helps us to recognize who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as his faithful followers.

Our hearts, broken open for giving

I can only wonder then about our own hearts and our own giving, our hearts broken open to one another and to the world God loves…those moments when a gesture of love and generosity transforms a situation. A generous spirit offers forgiveness and healing, a spirit of kindness offers healing and hope and speaks words of encouragement, a spirit of freedom gives out of the abundance we live in so that others have enough to live.

This woman, Mary, even in the face of criticism, held nothing back, not the most expensive gift she could give and not the gift of her own breaking heart, full of love. This woman, so full of love, is our teacher today. She helps us to recognize who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as his faithful followers.

And then, the next day…

How do you think Mary felt the next day? Did she clean up the remnants of the perfume, changed in any way by her act? She had “seized the day,” sensing she would not have Jesus much longer so close at hand. How are the day and the moment before us in such a way that our acts of extravagant generosity can wait no longer?

Jesus is on the edge of Jerusalem now, waiting to enter the holy city as the King of Peace, even as others–Pontius Pilate and other petty rulers–prepare to enter it in military pomp and power. Though Jesus has no weapons or legions behind him, he strikes fear in the heart of every petty ruler, and he is headed toward an awful confrontation with that fear, with those would-be powers that be.

Time for a rest, and then Jerusalem

But first, he rests for a while with his friends, with the people who love him even if they don’t fully understand him. They are doing what they can, even though the time is short and the hour is at hand to lose the one they love. They cannot see the suffering that lies ahead, or the resurrection and new life, the possibility, that will come after it.

And so, with them, we turn now toward Jerusalem. May our vision be clear and our hope fixed on the one we follow.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews ( retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page:

For further reflection:

Nigerian saying
“It is the heart that does the giving; the fingers only let go.”

Bernard Williams, 20th century
“An extravagance is something that your spirit thinks is a necessity.”

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

Gabriel García Márquez, 20th century
“Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.”

José N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love, 21st century
“Tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.”

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 20th century
“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

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