Paul writes from a Roman prison where he expects to be killed for preaching faith in Jesus as Messiah, Christ, and Lord. His letter is to the church in Philippe. Philippians 3:4b-14
John begins his story of the final two weeks of Jesus’ life by telling us of Jesus returning to Bethany, where Lazarus has been raised from the dead. John 12:1-8
Are some people more heaven bound than others?
Consider the child whose parents are both pastors, she went to a private Christian school. Her grandfather help found the Christian university she attends. She has all the best Bible apps on her phone and has never missed a mission trip.
On the other hand, consider the child whose parents are both in prison. She went to public school until she dropped out at 16. She sells drugs on a university campus. She has all the best dating apps on her phone and has never missed a good party.
Paul is like the first child. He lists out all the ways he is perfect. And then calls them rubbish. These are appearance things. Things of the flesh. And a lot of them are not due to any personal morals… but just luck and happenstance. Paul didn’t choose his parents any more than either of these children. And the situations we’re born into affect our whole lives: the social groups we’re in, the opportunities we have, and the ways we learn to get food, shelter, and love.
Press on, he says. Press on, toward the goal, for the prize of the heavenly call of God, known to us in the Christ, Jesus. The first girl may be doing that… or she may not. The second girl may be doing that… or she may not. We don’t know. We don’t know because people’s life situations, and births, and jobs, and families are parts of people… but not the whole of who they are.
Consider our second reading…
Judas is heaven bound, right? He is one of the 12 men following Jesus. One of the few who actually was verbally called by Jesus to be part of this new world from the very beginning. But we know, in his heart, he is a torn man who wavers between faith in Jesus and faith in money.
Mary does not look heaven bound. She takes a years’ wages and buys a pound of perfume. She puts that entire bottle on Jesus’ dirty feet and then uses her own hair to wipe the mud and camel poop from Jesus’ toes. Even today, a woman using her hair to clean someone’s feet makes us uncomfortable. Imagine how much more uncomfortable everyone at that table is, when custom was that a woman ought never touch a rabbi… let alone take her ‘crowning glory’ of hair – expose it from her head covering – and use it as a sponge on FEET. Sensual, taboo, wasteful.
But Jesus praises Mary and chastises Judas.
Jesus is concerned about WHY we do things. He’s concerned about what is in our hearts. If any of these people have good intentions and compassionate hearts – Jesus is happy. If any have bad intentions and callused hearts, Jesus is sad.
The saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” bothers me. Yes, often, “no good deed goes unpunished” but… our faith is about our hearts. So much in our life we can’t control. We can control trying to do good, love God and our neighbor and ourselves, and help one another. We can try in whatever situations we find ourselves in – great life set ups or poor life set ups. Great histories or ignoble histories.
Jesus is about hearts…. Because God is about hearts and writes God’s own love on them.
Mary’s heart is in the right place. Paul’s heart has moved to the right place. Judas’s heart wavers.
Mary’s heart came to this shelter of Jesus through her brother. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus – sisters and brother – live together. We know this story from the chapter before the part we read today. In the story, Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, dies. But Jesus raises him from the dead.
People were upset to see Lazarus return to life, and that resurrection is what began the plots to kill Jesus. They refused to celebrate.
People are upset to see Mary anoint Jesus, and Judas, who will betray Jesus for money, is introduced regarding money for the first time. The disciples refuse to celebrate.
Their hearts are not with Jesus and life and the moment. Judas claims he is only thinking of the poor.
Jesus replies, Judas, “you always have the poor with you.” For Judas is poor. Not financially, but spiritually. His heart has not moved from the death tomb to the lively feasting table.
“But you do not always have me.” Judas does not always have Jesus with him. Does not always have the heart of Christ. Sometimes Judas is a good disciple of Jesus. And sometimes he is not. Judas is… mixed.
Mary is shown as such a good disciple that Jesus follows HER example, and after this scene, anoints and washes the feet of his disciples, after Mary has done the same to him. Mary, we’re told, does not flee from the crucifixion. Mary is the first to see Jesus’ empty tomb, and first to know Jesus has come back to life. Mary always has Jesus with her.
And that heart of Jesus is what moves her to love extravagantly wherever she is, now.
In our reading we’re told they share dinner six days before Passover. Six days before the death of Jesus, Jesus shares life with these siblings. Perhaps this is the first time Jesus has spent time with them since bringing Lazarus back to life. In that meantime, Martha has worked to get the very best meal she can make to serve Jesus and her back-to-life brother. Martha intends a celebration feast. And Mary has taken a years’ wages and bought an anointing perfume for Jesus. Mary, like Martha, wants to show her love and gratitude.
In ancient Israel, people are anointed when they die, when they are healed, and if they become a king. The word for anointed one is ‘Christ.’ Jesus the Christ means Jesus the Anointed One. Mary anoints Jesus. Mary declares him her king. She also prepares him for death. Mary has been listening – she knows. She knows Jesus the Anointed Christ is also Jesus the Messiah, the Savior from God. And he has said he will suffer and die.
Mary knows this because Jesus is who healed her brother – her only beloved brother – and brought Lazarus back from the dead. He taught and she sat at his feet learning. Mary knows this because Jesus sees her not as a dangerous woman, lose even, and only as valuable as her womb for children… but Jesus sees her as MARY – beloved child of God.
Do you remember one of my favorite lines from the King James Version? “He stinkith, my lord!” Lazarus stunk in his tomb. The sisters warned Jesus not to open the tomb because it stunk so much. Their brother had been dead for days.
Now the house of Lazarus stinks. But instead of the sickly sweet smell of rotting corpses… it is the heady sweet smell of the perfume nard. Nard is heavy, sweet, spicy and woody all at once. Like crushed moss, wet dirt, or a wet woods.
Like… growing things.
Our brains are wired for scents. Scents stick in our heads and even though it can be hard to recall a certain smell, as soon as we smell it, we suddenly remember all kinds of things related to that scent.
I asked the children… what does Jesus smell like? And I ask you too: What DOES Jesus smell like?
I’m not asking about the historical man, who likely smelled like most people who live in hot places and bathe once a week.
I’m asking about the Jesus you know.
What smells invoke in your mind the memories and moments of when you have known God is with you as close as your own shadow? The very shade of your heart?
Jesus smells of Easter Sunday to me. Dizzying hyacinths and lilies. Jesus also smells of my mother’s hands after they’ve been in bleach – salty. Clean. Callused against my face tenderly. Jesus smells of Fast Orange garage soap on my Papa. And the lingering tinge of house fire smoke on my father. Jesus smells like the greenhouse in March, when the kerosene heater is struck and tinging, the planted tomato flats are filling the air with the smell of plants and humid soil, and life.
To me, Jesus smells of the fragrance of life.
A loving, hopeful, life that still grows even after the stink of callused hearts and cold graves.
An extravagant life that is found in every place – from the depths of the sea to the great cosmos – to the smallest bacteria of our own bodies to the great oak trees – life that, against all odds, comes back from the grave again and again.
That’s worth a year’s wages! Worth a victory feast. Life after death is worth extravagant celebration!