Scent-sensitive disciples, fraught public meetings, and acts of true compassion

The woman makes a scene. They are seated at the table. People are finishing the meal, and instead of doing something useful, like offering to bring out the after-dinner coffee, this woman basically hijacks the party. In the Gospel of John, at least it is not an unnamed random woman. Rather, it is one of the hosts, Mary (not that Mary, or his mother Mary – the other Mary). But in all three versions of the story, she must have ruined everyone’s appetites when she broke open an entire jar of heavily scented perfume (Matt. 26: 6; Mark 14: 3; John 12:3).

The poor scent-sensitive disciples flee the room, and as she massages his head (or in John, his feet), everyone left at the table witnesses one of the most awkward scenes in Jesus’ ministry.

Is it their great discomfort that leads them to judge her? Or is it their jealousy? After all, hasn’t everyone at the table been vying for the teacher’s attention all night? And now a woman (!) has entirely captivated him without a word. How to phrase it so that Jesus knows their judgment is righteous?

I know! one of them thinks. I’ll talk about the poor. Jesus loves talking the poor.

Such waste! That jar was worth a year’s wages, and it could have been sold to give money to the poor, the line is spoken by different people in each scripture.

Fitting – no one is immune to the hypocrisy. All sorts of people invoke the generic “poor” when they are uncomfortable or displeased.

I won’t give out money to homeless people. They’ll only use it for drugs.

We shouldn’t be giving hand-outs. People gain self respect when they work for a living.

On their face, these comments seem to come from a place of concern, but I know from personal experience, that there can be a more insidious intent. When I made the decision in college to no longer give cash to homeless people, it was not because I was committed to supporting drug treatment centers and 12-Step programs. Rather, it was because I was seeking justification for why I could not bear to look panhandlers in the eye as I walked past them.

Similarly, a few years back, when our church held a public meeting to discuss an organized encampment we hoped to sanction on our property, many neighbors (and “neighbors”) voiced their concern.

Why is it that you are offering tents? These people deserve housing!

We agreed with them, that tents were not ideal, but reminded them that developing housing takes time, and people need places to stay right now. The crowd would not placated, however, and the encampment idea had to be terminated. Perhaps their concern was genuine, but I never saw any of those people at homeless advocacy meetings. And a few years later, when we held a public meeting to discuss our plans for developing affordable housing on the church property, some of those same people voiced concerns about traffic patterns and neighborhood impact. They also had ideas of all of the other places in other neighborhoods (far from them) that would be better suited to this development. I have come to believe that this is the soundtrack of every public meeting on affordable housing.

And Jesus cuts through that noise.

The poor will be with you always, Jesus says one of his most misinterpreted lines. For generations, Christians have used these words to justify their ambivalence about the poor. But Jesus is not ambivalent, rather he is instructive. And like any good rabbi, he is quoting Torah as means of instruction. The earliest readers of the Gospel would have known the allusion:

For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ – Deuteronomy 15:11

Jesus is reminding everyone at the table that they have a ever-present responsibility to care for those who are on the edge. And when he alludes to the Law with this woman still in the room, he is offering his critique of those who only follow the Law as a rote exercise, and worse, those who invoke the Law only to judge others.

She has done a beautiful thing to me, Jesus says, in his “on the edge” moment, the eve of his arrest. She has prepared me for burial.

In Mark and Matthew, this is the last story before the preparation for Passover. It takes place about 24 hours before Jesus is arrest, and perhaps just 36 hours before Jesus is condemned to die. And in the course of that time, Jesus loses everything. His friend betrays him, his followers abandon him, and his clothing is stripped from him. He walks the road to Calvary with nothing from his former life to comfort.

Except for this: The scent of that perfume from the alabaster jar. After all, she anoints his head and his hair with the entire bottle. It’s unlikely so much fragrance could dissipate in such a short time. And so, as his fear and anxiety grows, the extravagance and sensuousness of her gift is made even more known to him. When he breathes his last, he breathes in perfume. It is she, alone among his followers, who accompanies him to the cross.

It may seem like such a small thing, but it isn’t to Jesus. He says that wherever the Gospel is preached, her story will be shared. Perhaps this is not just to memorialize her, but also, to encourage us. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that in such an hour of great suffering, any person could be filled with fear and anxiety. Any person could be edge. And so, any one of us could anoint another in an act of compassion.

These days, perhaps we can only anoint from a distance. But from a distance we can anoint the work of those who are serving the poor. We can sign petitions, and call our elected officials. We can give money to food banks, non-profits, churches, and charities.

We can also anoint each other. We may only be able to anoint with words; words we can only share by phone call, email, or text message. But in my experience, words can remain in the air even longer than the scent of perfume. Words of kindness can surround and enfold us. Words of love can remind us that even if we are presently by ourselves, none of us is walking this road alone.

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