What a difference the passage of time makes. John lets us down here in one way, he doesn’t let us know how much time has passed from chapter 11, where Lazarus is resurrected, to this dinner party in chapter 12. I’m going to assume only a few days or a week or two at the most, this is presented as something of a thank you dinner for Jesus after he brought Lazarus back to life and while I don’t know exactly what the etiquette is when it comes to thank you dinners for bringing your brother back to life I feel like that’s something you do pretty quickly. This isn’t wedding thank you notes where you’ve got six months or however long it is. Which means we’re probably only days or weeks removed from Martha’s attempt to keep Jesus from going towards Lazarus tomb by uttering the words (from the King James) “My Lord, he doth stinketh.”
What a difference the passage of time makes. Now it isn’t the stench of death and decay that hovers over the house. In this moment it is the sweet smell of perfume, a high enough quality and large enough amount of perfume to be worth a year’s wages, that fills the room. There’s an irony in the story, because Jesus declares that this sweet smell is in fact the smell of death and that he is being marked and prepared for his own burial, but we’ve got no indication that Mary was thinking that when she opened the jar in the first place. For her it seems this was an act of pure joy, the best way a thankful sister could think of to thank the one who brought her brother back. For Mary it is the smell of gratitude, and it fills the house and radiates out of the doors and windows so that passers by can catch the scent as well.
You know the way smells can fill a room. There’s an obvious joke about Davis here but I’ve decided that’s beneath me. Come up here on a Wednesday afternoon sometime, you don’t even have to go downstairs, you can stay up in the third floor with me and you’ll smell whatever is coming for supper that night filling the church (you’ll also get an appreciation for how hard Norma and Amanda work to have those meals week after week). My Grandmother’s sister sold Avon lotion and all that and that smell would get into my nose when we went to visit and linger for the rest of the day.
Smell plays an important role in scripture as well; it was central to the process of offering sacrifices. The belief was that when an animal or incense or whatever they were sacrificing was burned the scent reached heaven and was pleasing to God. That’s one of the reasons people have gifen for Able’s offering of a lamb being accepted and Cain’s offering of fruit and vegetables being rejected, with Able’s offering you got the smell of meat cooking and roasted vegetables just can’t match that. So Mary’s act of perfuming Jesus’ feet takes on some new meaning there, she is giving the thing with the most pleasant scent she has access to. She’s bringing the most precious offering she has and laying it at Jesus’ feet.
Paul takes this idea of scent as well and uses it to call his readers to action on behalf of the kingdom. First he turns their mind to something that might not bring thoughts of pleasant smells to our minds, war. Specifically the end of war. When the Romans finished a conquest they would hold a parade for the conquering general through the streets of Rome to celebrate the victory. The first part of the parade would be a procession of the conquered, they would trot out prisoners to show off the victory before the army and general would march through. They brought the prisoners looking haggered and defeated and paraded them through, which might seem counter-intuitive. We’d think that you’d want your enemy to look strong and terrifying so that your victory was more impressive. Instead, they wanted to enemy to look pitiful and backwards so that everyone would see how much better off those people were now that Rome had brought civilization to them so that people wouldn’t complain about how high taxes were to fund Rome’s constant wars. The point was to show how much better off the conquered were after being conquered than they were before. It was an act of submission by these conquered groups. Paul says the church should be the same way. Our lives show how much better off we are because we’ve submitted to Christ. Our lives show that the results are worth the cost.
There was another aspect to the victory parade: on the sides, nearest the crowds, were folks carrying what the historians refer to as “aromatic substances.” Because hygiene in this period wasn’t they had people walking along with incense or something like that to keep the crowd in a good mood by covering up other potential smells with the pleasing ones. Paul wants the folks reading to think of themselves that way. An aroma that first and foremost goes to God. Think back to Romans 12, “resent your bodies as a living sacrifice,” if we’re a sacrifice to God then we’re sending of an aroma that is either pleasing or not. In fact there’s a specific scent that Paul calls us to put off, “the pleasing aroma of Christ.” Our lives should reflect the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of power for service, the sacrifice of praise for humility, the sacrifice of ourselves for others. That’s the kind of life we’re called to live. That’s the kind of sacrifice we’re called to offer God. If you were with us Wednesday night we talked about Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Matthew and one of the things he says is that they worry so much about sacrificing a tenth of everything – dill, cumin, tiny things, but they’ve forgotten about justice and peace and faith. They’re focusing on the wrong kind of sacrifice. And they’re putting off the wrong kind of scent.
But the smell isn’t only for God, other people can get a whiff of it too. We’re putting off an aroma that is either pleasing or disgusting to the crowd, that either draws them in or puts them off. Paul uses language that could be interpreted, we either smell like life or death. Going back to John, we either give off the scent of Lazarus’ tomb, which people would have avoided because “it doth stinketh” or we give off the scent of Mary’s perfume. Filling the room. Attracting the attention of passersby. Serving as a complete and precious offering to God.
How are we smelling? Is our aroma pleasing to God? Is it attractive to others? Does it make people want to stick around and learn more? Does it turn them away because they don’t want to find the source of the stench? Do our lives show that following Christ has made them better? Do folks see the difference, see that it was worth it? How are we smelling? That’s a good question to ask here two weeks from Easter, and every day. “We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ to those that are being saved,” Paul said. May it be so.