God is still speaking—and we're trying to listen.

by Ellen Sims
text: John 13: 1-8

What I remember most about that day was the fragrance flowing over him, then all of us, like scented waters. At the time, I was stunned by my sister’s drama and extravagance. But our brother Lazarus, so newly brought forth from his tomb by the one who would himself soon be entombed, sensed the rightness of it all—to use his burial ointment to anoint our still-living Lord. Only later did I recall the story I’d once heard that Jesus’ first gifts included fragrant offerings visitors from the East. Only later could my orderly, analytical mind measure the rightness of Mary’s rashness and weigh that symbolic pound of nard on the scales of love. Only later, much later, could I see my sister’s gesture as the perfect picture of the love Jesus had been teaching with his life.

If Mary were here, she would dance for you the story. She would show you what that love is like in her expressive eyes, in her outstretched hands. But I will arrange the story for you like a well-planned meal, like the tidy household I manage. So the first thing I want you to appreciate about that fragrant evening is Mary’s humility. She was not trying to gain attention. Rather, she risked humiliation to express love. Her gesture of love’s selflessness anticipated the kind of love Jesus would pour out from the cross. Mary offered her expensive gift with the grace of a dancer who dares a public act with sureness of body but humbleness of heart.

A few evenings after Jesus left our house in Bethany, we learned he gathered his disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem, and he washed their feet! The men of our little company never speculated about this, but I’ve always suspected that Mary’s humble act inspired Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet. Did he recognize the power in her pantomime of love as she loosened her long hair—a social taboo in our day—and knelt and washed his feet with the oil and then made of her own hair a cloth to dry them? Did he at that moment think: “Yes, this is the perfect image of love that I want to share with my other disciples”? Later, when Jesus bent over the feet of the twelve, Peter, it is said, voiced the group’s horror to see Jesus assuming this self-abasing role, but Jesus insisted that his way is humble. As Mary knew. And of course that image of love’s humble duties would be exceeded only by the humble picture of love Jesus made when he hung on a cross between thieves. Love is not proud, Paul later wrote to the Corinthians. Love is not proud, Mary expressed beautifully.

I tell you now a second way that Mary’s fragrant gift was itself so like the love that Jesus taught. Not only is love humble, it is also uncontainable. The sense of smell is the most generous of sensory experiences. That which we see and hear and taste and touch can be owned or parceled out, distributed or withheld. But smells are hard to reserve for certain people and not for others. Only paying customers can eat the barley bread and rich honey cakes sold by the baker near the center of our village, but the smells waft out to any beggar on the street. We can prevent others from tasting or seeing or touching or even from hearing most things of beauty—but there’s something inherently unbounded and free about a lovely fragrance. The lemon trees in my courtyard are surrounded by a high wall, but I couldn’t prevent them from scenting my neighbor’s home if I tried. Fragrance just will not be confined. Nor will love.

You see, that was a unique feature to the gift Mary chose to lavish upon Jesus in the last days of his life on earth. Mary chose not only an expensive gift but she chose to give it in an expansive way. The fragrance of the outpoured perfume “filled the house” that day, so say your scriptures. Everyone in the house breathed in the rare luxury of Mary’s perfume—and all these years later even you can receive some blessing from this story, some understanding about the unbounded nature of love.

When Jesus later washed his disciples’ feet, he then instructed them to wash one another’s feet. Continue doing this, he explained. This love doesn’t stop here. It must not be confined to this time and this place.

But I didn’t appreciate that point at the time. It brings me sorrow to admit that I took Judas’ part when he complained that Mary had wasted an expensive resource that could have been used to help the poor. I wish I could be as extravagant in loving Jesus, as impetuous as she. But the truth is, Judas said what I had been thinking. Shouldn’t we be practical with our resources? Can’t we love Jesus in more measured and careful ways? Would anyone of you pour out the equivalent of a year’s wages onto someone’s feet? I understand why Judas disapproved.

But Mary’s heart judged Judas more rightly than my head. Judas was wrong for thinking love a scarce commodity. He set up what you call a false dichotomy. He assumed that Mary had to decide between either adoring the Christ or serving the world. Yet Mary did both. Imagine again how the perfume Mary poured out soon filled the whole house with the fragrance. When we love Jesus, others are inevitably affected by that love. As he put it, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” In other words, when we love others, especially the misfits and the marginalized Jesus used to bring to our doorstep, we are loving him. When we love him, we are loving others. I recall Jesus once was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He refused to isolate the commandment to love God from the commandment to love others. He linked them together as ONE unified command. Over and over Jesus told us it’s one and the same.

I’m finally learning that when we try to cordon off our love to give it to only a select few, we put love into a bottle, and close it with a stopper, and the sweetest smelling love stops flowing out to anyone. When I love this person but not that person, my love to everyone is stunted. We may try to partition off the fragrance of love, but that is not possible. We either stop up that fragrant oil, or it spills out and splashes onto everyone, liberally, freely. The love we might intend to give only to a select few—our children, our lovers, our friends—that love, too, is inevitably constricted and distorted unless we are practicing love in all areas of our life. Jesus, gift of God, poured out his life without counting the cost. Self-giving love is fragrance breathed in by all, even those who cannot name its source.

Poor Judas thought that love was a commodity to be doled. Judas wanted love to be a stack of coins he could count and own and sort into categories–not an uncontrollable fragrance. But love is not about control, not about dutifully attending to what is customary. Neither is love the same thing as almsgiving. Dropping coins into a beggar’s hand is different from being in relationship with a person in need. Judas wanted to separate worship from service—and service from love, to give only in a conventional, detached way. He wanted to judge others. He wanted to limit love.

And Judas was wrong for another reason. When Judas chided my sister for wasting the expensive ointment instead of selling it for money to give to the poor, he was masking his real intentions with a religious veneer. Judas had been stealing money from the common purse, we later learned. If Mary had sold her nard and given the money into Judas’s keeping, it soon would have lined his pockets. I suspect he’d even approached her already in hopes she would sell that perfume soon. But of course he didn’t say, “Oh Mary, I was counting on the proceeds of that nard to pay for a little vineyard for myself I’ve had my eye on.” No, Judas used religious language to cover his ulterior motives. Maybe there are religious leaders in this present day who likewise quote holy scripture for selfish aims and redirect the faithful’s offerings for selfish purposes. Judas criticized Mary’s way of loving Jesus because her actions exposed or impinged on his selfish intents. By accusing her of loving Jesus in an unconventional, impractical way, he covered over his own lack of love.

That’s why his ostensible concern for the poor was completely discredited. I didn’t see it then. But Jesus did. Jesus affirmed Mary and corrected Judas by quoting a passage from the Torah. He said Mary did the appropriate thing by expressing her love while there was still time. “Leave her alone.” Jesus told Judas. “She bought it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” In saying this, Jesus was also implying, “But after I’m gone, you’ll keep loving me by taking care of the poor.”

Finally, I tell you, love, like Mary’s perfume, is evocative and memorable. What can create and evoke memories more powerfully than the sense of smell? Have you ever breathed in a scent that unexpectedly transported you to a time long ago? One scent—and we’re awash in memories. It is the memorable quality of Mary’s expression of love that was most ingenious. We didn’t know it then, but research from your time shows that humans learn best and retain what we learn most when all senses are engaged and strong positive emotions are present. Wisdom from your culture teaches that students retain, long term, only about 5% of what they hear in a lecture; about 10% if they read the information and hear it. But learning retention increases to 20% if what they hear and read is supported with other sensory stimulation. Adding the sense of smell to a teachable moment, for example, can dramatically increase a learner’s ability to recall information. Let the learner participate actively in some way—and learning generally increases to 75%. Plus, memory is enhanced whenever learning is grounded in some positive strong emotion: joy, love, affirmation. No wonder Mary’s anointing of Jesus was impossible to forget.

Maybe only twelve male disciples participated in the meal you now call the Last Supper. But Mary, Lazarus and I and our many ragtag guests had our own “last supper” with Jesus, a meal of memory with all the senses engaged, when we all were actively learning, when emotions ran high and deep. At the very last supper a few evenings later, Jesus gave bread and wine and said, I’m told, “Whenever you eat and drink this, you will remember me.” On the night of our supper with Jesus, all of us who gathered thought, “Whenever we smell this fragrance, we will remember him.” We all need moments we can savor and treasure, that we can hold in memory as occasions when we have been with the Lord and have been truly present with others. And perhaps in some way WE are held eternally in the memory of God, like some unforgettable fragrance.

My beloved sister Mary, whom Jesus held up as a model disciple, embodied the love commandment. Like the scent of perfume that lingers long after the wearer has left, I hope her story will linger in your memory as it lingered in the memory of disciples long ago, as it wafts into the future to instruct disciples yet to be. Breathe in. Maybe you can catch the fragrance of Mary’s love: humble, boundless, memorable.

PRAYER. Thank you, God, for the gift of memory. May we, like Mary, recall Jesus’ humble, inclusive way of loving. May we, like Mary, not miss opportunities to express our love to those around us. Amen.

Category Love, memory
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