Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Heaven Scent

Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Heaven Scent

Article excerpt

Sunday, March 25 John 12:1-18

WHAT DOES GOD'S LOVE smell like? Like honeysuckle on a warm spring day? Like a salty ocean breeze? Can God's love also smell like a person who hasn't bathed for days? For the people in the story in John 12, God's love smells like their brother Lazarus, who has just been raised after four days in a tomb. Now his friends and loved ones are sharing a dinner in celebration and thanking Jesus, who has come out of hiding to see his friend Lazarus enjoying his new life.

How do they feel that night as they gather in Lazarus's home at Bethany for dinner? Perhaps Lazarus is reclining at the table, recounting what it was like being dead and how blinding the light was as he stumbled out of the tomb. He has bathed, of course, but there is still a faint scent of myrrh about him, still a few twigs of cloves stuck in his hair. The smells of freshly baked bread and of the fattened calf roasting reach the guests, and soon they're at the table. Then, while everyone is eating and talking, Mary comes in quietly, carrying her best bottle of fragrant oil. She walks over to Jesus and without a word kneels, uncorks the bottle and pours all of the oil over his feet. Jesus closes his eyes and lets the cool oil soothe his dusty, calloused, aching feet. Soon the others are sniffing the air, wondering what strong, sweet smell is cutting through the aroma of beef and wine. The smell of death has been with these friends, but Mary shows us that God's persistent love smells even stronger, and that it will triumph in the defeat of Jesus' death.

When I was an associate pastor in a large church in Atlanta, part of my responsibility was to tend people who came off the street seeking balm for the outward signs of their poverty. One afternoon I met with a man who seemed to have gone many days without bathing. I spent at least 30 minutes counseling him in a small office. When I came out, others nearby asked how I could breathe in his presence. In addition to having doubts about tolerating the smell, some might consider it wasteful to spend time listening to the man's paranoid rants. But the old Brylcreem ad that "a little dab'll do ya" has never been in God's plan when it comes to the generosity of spirit that we are to show to those who need us.

Judas gets a good whiff of Mary's perfume and remarks, "Isn't it better for that precious bottle of perfume to benefit more than just one person?" Surely Jesus, who always taught the disciples about caring for the poor and downtrodden, will see it Judas's way. But Jesus wants us to see Mary's confidence in the boundless capacity of God's love. He knows that piecemeal acts of charity will not dissipate the aroma of poverty--spiritual, emotional, physical and economic--that clings to us. …

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