During our first summer as ministerial students, the college sent us all out on six-week placements in circuits. Because I came from an urban area of London not known for its wealth, I was not exposed to poverty as some students were. Instead of ‘Mission Alongside the Poor’, as a certain church campaign of the time was known, I was sent on what amounted to ‘Mission Alongside the Rich’ in Surrey. (So perhaps it was a good experience for our forthcoming move to that county!)
The church was large, and well-to-do. When I heard what the weekly offerings averaged, they dwarfed my home church.
Until I did some Maths, that is. I realised that in this wealthy church, the average giving per member per week was exactly the same as in my home church. It didn’t seem quite so impressive then.
It was a story that came back to mind this week as I read the account of Mary lavishing her expensive perfume on Jesus.
Imagine you are in the house where the incident happened. The first thing that would strike you would most likely be the aroma. A strong, pervasive smell has a powerful effect upon people.
When I visited the Holy Land on a special trip for theological and ministerial students, we were a mixed bag ecumenically, from free church types to bells and smells. One of our number was an Indian. He was a Syrian Orthodox priest who had been studying in the UK. One evening he took prayers in the chapel at the institute where we were based. Before the service began, the pungent smell of incense from the censers filled the chapel. I found it so overpowering that I couldn’t stay for the service. As a result, a friend dubbed me ‘low church by reason of allergy’!
But other smells greatly appeal to me. Freshly baked bread. Our breadmaker has languished in the garage during our Chelmsford sojourn, but to set it to work overnight and come down in the morning to that aroma was a joy. Maybe in the new house?
I think we are meant to understand the aroma of Mary’s perfume as a beautiful sensory experience in this story. It contrasts with the stench present elsewhere. Firstly, it stands over against the thought of Jesus’ death. He says that
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial (verse 7)
And you can see why it would be a contrast. The beauty of the perfume counters the smell of a corpse as it degrades. Remember that when Jesus brought Mary’s brother Lazarus back to life four days after his death, people were fearful of the smell that would emanate from the tomb. But here, the beauty of Mary’s act symbolically says that death will not end in defeat. Decay will not have the final word.
After all, Mary has only recently had a glimpse of what that might be, through the miracle of her brother’s return to life. In that story we learn that she and her sister already believe in the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, but Jesus tells them he himself is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’, and then they witness him calling Lazarus from his tomb as a foretaste of what is to come. She may not have grasped that Jesus will be raised on the third day after his forthcoming execution any more than any of his disciples had, but she has had this glimpse of the kingdom coming. And the aroma of a perfume that quenches the stench of death is a suitable symbol. For that is what Jesus will bring to all who follow him.
Therefore we his disciples know here – as in so many places – that we need not be dismayed or discouraged by the prospect of death. There is plenty of stench around it for us, as we watch people suffer, or as we hear the taunts of militant atheists. But we have smelt a beautiful perfume – the Resurrection of Jesus – and we face death and suffering differently because of it.
That isn’t the only way in which the beautiful aroma of Mary’s perfume contrasts with a foul smell in the story, however. The miserable words of Judas, in despising her devotion, are words that stink, particularly when we hear what his heart was like when it came to money:
“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.) (Verses 5-6)
He hides behind a moral reason, but he isn’t going to get his hands on Mary’s cash, because it’s been spent on the perfume. It’s no surprise his loyalty will soon be bought for thirty pieces of silver. The perfume seems to represent the beauty of Mary’s devoted heart, in contrast to the polluted heart of Judas. Its beautiful smell here, then, becomes a warning that it is worth us examining our own hearts for unworthy motives that might grow into disloyalty to Christ. The story calls us to simple, whole-hearted commitment to our Lord.
Then there is the stench of the chief priests, so angry that people are beginning to follow Jesus because he raised Lazarus that at this point they don’t merely plan Jesus’ death, they plan an execution for Lazarus (verses 9-11). Here too are poisoned hearts, experienced religious people whose commitment has been twisted from the kingdom of God to personal empires. Why else would they be worried about desertions to Jesus? It’s like the spiteful comments you hear about different Christians and their churches in some parts of our religious world. Again, the contrast is with a woman who – by virtue of her sex – will not have had the education of these chief priests, yet she can outshine their commitment in one simple, beautiful act. All of which should make us pause to consider what our priorities are.
The second aspect of this story I’d like us to consider is that which strikes us so powerfully apart from the aroma. It’s the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. Her extravagance shocked people then, just as extravagant acts of devotion to Christ shock religious people today.
For example, you have heard me talk about a project I was involved in ten years ago. An Anglican rector I worked with in the last circuit had a vision for celebrating the Millennium. He wanted all the churches in Medway to close and gather together in Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium to worship Jesus. I was one of a number of local church leaders who were willingly co-opted onto the planning group for the project.
From beginning our plans to the date of the event was two and a half years. We held a morning service with an orchestra formed from local Christians and masterminded by a local Salvation Army musician. The late Rob Frost came to preach. We brought a Ugandan gospel choir over to sing (and tour Kent). In the afternoon and evening we planned a concert with leading Christian musicians such as Noel Richards, Ishmael and Phatfish, with Roger Forster as the preacher. In the event, about two and a half thousand people attended that concert, and in the morning six and a half thousand local Christians gathered for worship. Of the ninety churches in the area, over seventy closed their doors that Sunday morning for that united service. A few insisted on keeping their doors open, one at least saying they were doing so ‘in case a visitor turned up’.
The budget was somewhere around two hundred thousand pounds. Fifty thousand pounds of that was for a special covering over the pitch to protect it, which we had to hire from Wembley Stadium. The debt was not cleared by the day of the event – that took the best part of a further year.
Some scoffed at this enterprise, and some of the reasons given – apart from the church that wanted to stay open for the mythical visitor – were rather like Judas Iscariot’s protests about giving money to the poor. But my rector friend kept coming back to this story: sometimes it is simply the right thing to make an extravagant act of devotion to Jesus Christ as a sign of our love for him. It is one aspect of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We do not stint from showing extravagant love to other human beings on certain occasions. I was utterly moved by the gifts and special things arranged by Debbie and my children for my recent fiftieth birthday. In one respect they really didn’t need to do it, and I would certainly have been happy with less than what they did. Yet somehow the fact that they went to such expense and effort was a touching sign of their love. Might something a little bit similar be true of our relationship with God?
Maybe part of the problem is that extravagant giving and devotion challenges us. The other day, I was reading another minister’s blog. She was reflecting on this passage, and included a powerful story. She told of a grumpy missionary surgeon who was invited to lunch by a lady on whom he had operated. The woman and her husband were poor. They owned an angora rabbit and two chickens. The woman combed the rabbit for hair and span it to sell for income, and their diet was the eggs from the two chickens. What went in the pot for the meal? The rabbit and the two chickens. Truly a ‘widow’s mite’ story, and also one of extravagant love, just as Mary spent a year’s income on the perfume (verse 5).
And I think the reason these examples are challenges to us is that they make us feel uncomfortable about our own grudging love for Jesus Christ. How many times have I heard people with an amazing testimony to God’s forgiving and transforming grace be dismissed as nutters or patronised as immature by other Christians? Too often, I’m afraid. Is Judas alive and kicking in some church circles? I fear he is.
What’s the difference between extravagant Mary and her detractors? Mary has not lost her simple, passionate devotion to Jesus who will die for her and be raised from the dead for her. Judas may well have started out with a commitment to following Jesus, but he found other things more attractive – money, for one. The chief priests have become devoted to religion and the institution, much in the same way that many of us become caught up with maintaining a building.
All of which amounts to a warning for many of us. Mary’s despisers were consumed with the very things that dominate our thinking at Church Councils and the like – finances and institutional matters. But Mary kept the main thing the main thing. For her, faith and live were about unswerving devotion to Jesus. May that be true of us, also.