(Peter Paul Reubens, Christ at Simon the Pharisee, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Lectionary Readings for Sunday, April 9, 2019:
When Mary of Bethany goes out and purchases a pound of nard (we’d know it as oil from the spikenard plant), it’s not like she came back with a bottle of Aqua Velva. Even Chanel #5 would not be as pricey. Spikenard plants only grow in the Himalayas, in northern India, China, and Nepal. It would have been priced out of the reach of most folks in Palestine–a year’s worth of wages at minimum wage–because of the distance it had to be shipped. So, at one level in our Gospel reading today, we can understand Judas’ grumbling. Mary’s act was over-the-top lavish.
That said, any of us who have followed the stories in the Gospel of John know that John tells the stories of the Gospel at multiple levels. At another level, John’s audience would have recognized spikenard as a “burial perfume”–it was effective in masking the smell of decomposition, and it was the kind of lavishness saved only for burial. John’s audience is being shown a portent of things to come–Jesus’ own burial. We are not immune to “burial lavishness” in our time, either…ever had to price even the simplest of funerals? The standard funeral in the U.S. can cost well beyond a year’s worth of wages at minimum wage.
Perhaps, though, it’s not the cost that is the true source of Judas’ grumbling, it’s the cover for what’s really bugging him. What we also see in this passage is that Mary combines this lavishness with intimacy. She anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her own hair–insuring that the “smell of death and burial” is intimately connected to her own body and wafts in the air throughout the house wherever she goes.
The intimacy of death is uncomfortable. When the Benedictines ask the followers of their order to “keep death daily before their eyes”, it’s not meant as a brief glance over the shoulder. It’s to be aware of the intimacy that we share in death. Any of us who have sat with a dying relative or volunteered or worked with Hospice patients know that intimacy in various ways. Many of us at the end, depend on others to help us attend to our most intimate bodily functions. Body parts one doesn’t always expose are exposed frequently. In death, our bodies will be washed, dressed, our hair combed (When’s the last time you let someone else comb your hair?). Some of us will be even opened and examined part by part if we’re autopsied, bit and pieces embedded in paraffin blocks and scrutinized under a microscope.
Ultimately, I have to wonder if what was really bugging Judas was not the cost, but the intimacy of death, and his own sense of fear and self-unease around what would play out in the days to come. We see soon enough how he manages his own avoidance of his own possible death, and how that doesn’t really work out for him in the end. The ease of which Mary can be both lavish and intimate scares him…and as we all do when we’re scared, we cover our own vulnerabilities first.
Following Jesus asks us to be both lavish and intimate. I suspect many of us who are reading this are even wincing a little at the word “intimate” because the English language tends to favor the use of the word for sexual activity and ladies’ underwear! “Intimate” in the Gospel sense is to simply be open to our deepest vulnerabilities as human beings. We’re asked to be beyond the cozy level of what secular society deems charitable–to give more than we can ever expect to “get back on our investment” with our money, our skills, and our time. That’s uncomfortable enough, yet we are additionally asked to put that self-investment in places that make us feel vulnerable–the poor, the infirm, the imprisoned, the stranger, and the outcast–and again runs us afoul of polite society.
It’s a great question to ask of ourselves in these waning days of Lent, as we plunge headlong into Holy Week–”When I complain about the lavishness of something, am I really complaining about the cost, or am I complaining about the intimacy?”
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri . She is presently enjoying a brief hiatus as a “free range priest”, awaiting her next call as an interim.