Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for $45,000 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.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
I vacillate between images of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, my “alternative” family dinners, and what I imagine this scene to have looked like with the benefit of a few Hollywood movies about Jesus. There we are Jesus is all wise like. Sitting at the table. Mary and Martha are busy lifting pots, stirring dishes, and baking bread. The Disciples are there setting the table as they banter witty lines back and forth, laughing as they work. Jesus smiles as he takes it all in. There is Lazarus. He is back from the dead. In his resurrected self, Lazarus enjoys the festivity in honor of him.
Martha notices something. Something really, really strong. A smell. A strong odor emanates from Lazarus that cannot be contained by open windows of deliciously wafting dishes. It is the smell of death. Lazarus has been retrieved from the sting of death but he smells like he has traipsed through the pits of hell. Lazarus is stained with sulfur and the stench of decaying flesh. So Martha grabs that perfume to help everyone out.
Martha baths Jesus’ feet with it as an attempt to eliminate the odor from the room. She even uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet to get an extra bit of help in soothing her weary nostrils. The smell of death overcomes everyone but Jesus.
Jesus is not overcome by the smell of death. He has seemed to make peace with it. Similarly, Jesus has seemed to make peace with what is about to happen in Jerusalem. Jesus is no stranger to death. He moves towards it as others flee. Death does not intimidate Jesus.
Death is an intimate act. Growing up I encountered death early. My grandfather died in the house I lived in, in the room next door to mine. We were ushered out in to the backyard when he died so my uncle Andy could perform a ceremony to liberate his spirit from this world and guide him on to the eternal walk towards God.
There was Miss Barbara, with her Charlie the Tuna watch, who cared for the schoolyard as we had recess. She went to lunch one day at her home across the street and never returned. She died on her lunch break. Then there was the janitor that had a massive heart attack in the school cafeteria and died lying there on the floor. I do not remember his name but I will never forget the funeral and outpouring of emotions my 7-year-old mind could not comprehend.
In all these instances I was comforted with things to occupy my mind and emotions and was essentially taught that death was something to fear. Death is sanitized in the news. Death is not talked about in the church but once a year and we clean it up with bunnies, chocolate, and eggs.
Here is Lazarus, fresh out of death. There were only two resurrections spoken of in the Biblical canon. Lazarus and Jesus. If you have ever had something crawl in your walls or under your house and die in the summer, you know what kind of smell we are talking about. Death is not pretty.
Death is messy. Death is as far from sunshine and rainbows as you can get. Then why did Jesus resurrect Lazarus? What was Lazarus doing at the table dinning with Jesus?
It makes me wonder, what does Jesus know about death that we do not?
I’m stuck on Lazarus at the dinner table & the perfume there masking his smell. Is Jesus assuming that the perfume is there for his death? Why would Martha use this costly item on Jesus? We are talking about something that costs a year’s wage being used on someone that Martha has no idea that he will die.
Then there is the Judas angle. Judas is a bad person, full of evil. He wants the perfume to be sold and then he can skim from the profits. Jesus calms the situation with a reminder that the poor will always be with us. Lazarus continues to eat as the heavy scent of perfume dances in the air, covering the smell of death in the room.
Lazarus is there in the room. A physical reminder of the finitude all of us bear. We shall not live forever. This mortal coil expires. As we were reminded 4 and a half weeks ago, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This not so subtle proclamation calling us to remember that from the muddied soil of this earth we were given life and to the same earth we shall return. With enough time in this world we witness the circle of life and death that keep this crazy rock turning.
Yet, death is difficult to bear. We can run ahead and get to Easter but that is not where we are today. We are eating a meal with death in that air and there at the table death is shoveling food in to his mouth. Deaths smell permeating the air and Martha doing her best to offer hospitality to her guests, reaches for the best she has and anoints Jesus masking deaths smell.
We’ll do anything to keep death at bay. The fastest growing markets these days deal in combating age, delivering youth and vitality, and prolonging ones life. Everyone promises to bring you to that everlasting life. What are we afraid of? There is no market exclusion to these proclaimed fountains. Christians are lining up just the same as everyone else seeking to mask the smell of death.
If you want to stop a conversation real fast, talk about death. Death is an odd topic in polite conversation. Death is not to be discussed. It is offensive. Death is a constant reminder that we are not in control of this journey.
Jesus seems to be at peace with death. Jesus brought death to dinner. Jesus sits at the table with death. But death is not acting like itself. There is something different about death. Did death get a haircut? Death did her nails? Death is wearing something new?
What does Jesus know about death that we do not?
Jesus knows that death itself is an illusion. An illusion that we are mired in. An illusion that has conquered our life. An illusion that escapes our understanding. A illusion that shall be revealed, but not today. Today, death is still an illusion.