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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

What Fragrance Are You Leaving?

Palm Sunday


Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Mark 14:1-11


In the city of Boston there’s a memorial to the Holocaust. On one of the clear plastic walls of the memorial, built in a corridor that runs for about a city block, is a moving story attributed to Gerda Weissman Klein. Gerda experienced first-hand the horror of the German concentration camps in World War II. It’s hard for us to imagine the stark conditions in those camps. And yet, in the midst of the hate and violence of the Nazi regime, Gerda tells a lovely story of beauty and grace. Gerda is befriended by a young Jewish girl named Ilse. One day, coming back from a work party, Ilse finds a lush raspberry. Now a raspberry was a real delicacy in such an environment. But Ilse puts the raspberry in the pocket of her ragged overcoat – to lovingly share it with Gerda that night.


Gerda writes, “Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and that person is such a friend that she shares it with you.” It’s a haunting story. To think that in such a hostile place, such a loving act could still live on, is a testimony to the enduring power of love, and the triumph of the human spirit over great odds. Ilse left a lovey fragrance that helps us overcome the stench of hatred and evil from that terrible time in history.


There was another Jewish woman, who left a fragrance in Jesus’ life. You know, the last week of our Lord’s earthly life and ministry was like a Hollywood movie. It was lights – cameras – action. The opening act of this dramatic week was the Palm Sunday parade. You’d think that Jesus was leaving a trail of shekels, the way the crowds followed Him on that first Palm Sunday. Jesus began the week as a hero. Now, if He could just leave well enough alone. But He doesn’t, of course.


In Mark’s Gospel, we move quickly from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem to His return from Bethany back to Jerusalem. This time He goes into the temple area, which He declared the money changers and sellers of animals had made into “a den of robbers.” It’s quite a scene: Jesus chasing out the cattle and sheep, overturning the benches of doves and kicking over the tables of the money changers. Just picture all those men trying to catch their animals and birds, and scrambling for all the coins rolling around. I think it’s pretty funny, but the chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders didn’t!


As we look at our Gospel lesson for today, Mark seems to indicate that it’s Wednesday. Jesus didn’t  go into Jerusalem that day, but He’s a few miles away in the town of Bethany. He’s eating at the home of a man known as Simon the Leper. Maybe Simon is one of the lepers whom Jesus had cleansed. Certainly he had experienced the life-changing grace of God in Jesus. The Law had condemned him – the grace of Christ had redeemed him. The fragrance of grace is wonderful indeed! This meal was probably Simon’s way of saying “Thank you” for what Jesus had done for him.


Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the forces that would nail Jesus to the cross are beginning to make their move: “The chief priests and the teachers of the Law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill Him. ‘But not during the Feast (of Passover)’ they said, ‘or the people may riot’.”


The crowds are still with Jesus as the plot to murder Him thickens. And in the midst of the gathering storm clouds we find a beautiful little story.


While Jesus was reclining at the table – that’s how they ate in those days – “A woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, broke the jar and poured the perfume on His head.” Now this might seem to us to be a strange thing to do, and even one we wouldn’t enjoy having done to us. But in those days it had a lot of meaning. In the Bible, three types of people were anointed by pouring oil or perfume on their heads: prophets, priests, and kings. This woman, who may have been Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, realizes that all three of these offices are found in Jesus Christ. She appears to realize the identity of Jesus even before the twelve men who had walked with Him for three years did. And if she didn’t know it, God did. She anoints Jesus as King. His Kingdom alone is worthy of her best. She crowns Jesus with her anointing. And as the perfume was poured on Jesus, so would His life be “poured out for many.”


This was the last act of kindness that Jesus experienced before the ordeal of His trial and crucifixion. And when opposition comes to her act from some who were there, Jesus says, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” We might say that this is a Kodak moment in Jesus’ ministry. And how does He describe it? “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”


But some of the people at the dinner thought it was a waste. The expensive perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Here’s an example of the constant tension in the church about the use of funds entrusted to our care. Should we pave the parking lot, or give the money to the poor? Should we make the church beautiful and attractive, or give the money to Habitat for Humanity for building homes for the disadvantaged? Are stained-glass windows food for our hungry souls, or should the money be spent to buy bread for the hungry?


The Biblical answer is that both are essential. The hungry are to be fed. The sick are to be cared for. And no one has been responsible for meeting humanity’s physical needs more that the Church of Jesus Christ. No one has built more hospitals, cared for more orphans, ministered to needs of every kind. But Jesus knew what we all know deep in our hearts: humanity’s greatest needs are not physical. Feeding a person’s soul will often do more for him than feeding his stomach – though he’s not apt to hear our message if we neglect his stomach.


We are charged with filling people’s souls as well as their stomachs. And one way we minister to people’s souls is through providing a sanctuary filled with inspiring music and beauty. Mary, if that’s who the woman was, needed to give this gift to Jesus to show Him her love and devotion. Judas’ agenda was different. Judas was the treasurer of the group. He was the bookkeeper, the accountant. And he was driven by the bottom line. One man wrote that “Mary was lifted clear out of arithmetic into love.” That wasn’t true for Judas. For Judas, faith was a careful balancing of benefits and costs. What faith he had was in his head, but not in his heart.


Mary is criticized for her extravagance because the money could have been used to feed the poor. Jesus responds by saying that they will always have opportunities to help those in need, but at this moment Mary is expressing a greater need – a need to satisfy the deepest longings of heart and spirit – to express devotion to God!


For the first 14 chapters of Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus teaching His followers to reach out and help others, so that isn’t the issue here. What is at stake here is the need to move beyond an approach to religion that asks how much is a reasonable amount of devotion to Christ? To move beyond that minimum kind of thinking to the all-out, unqualified devotion of this woman who gave her finest treasure to say to the world that Jesus Christ is King of Kings!


Some people – maybe most people – never understand that kind of complete, unrestrained giving of oneself – with no reservations, no limits, no strings attached. Obviously Judas didn’t. Maybe that was the heart of Judas’ sin – being incapable of unqualified love. When his heart moved him toward saying, “Yes!” his head said, “Maybe I shouldn’t rush into this.” So, when Jesus didn’t meet Judas’ mental standard of what a Messiah should be, it was easy for Judas to forget just how much Jesus had done for the very people Judas pretended to care about – and Judas sold Him out.


Mary, on the other hand, was full of joy because of her encounter with Jesus, and her life and spirit had to express it. If it hadn’t been with precious ointment, she would have found another way. Different people express their devotion in different ways.


The late British writer, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote of one of his visits to a then-unknown nun in Calcutta, India, named Mother Teresa. He wrote this of her work: “Doing something beautiful for God is, for Mother Teresa, what life is all about. Everything, in that it is for God, becomes beautiful. The light of Jesus shines in her. One of their leper settlements is near a slaughterhouse whose stench could easily make one vomit. However, there with Mother Teresa I scarcely noticed it – another fragrance had swallowed it up.” I like that. Another fragrance had swallowed it. Mother Teresa’s devotion to the least and lowest of this world was her bottle of precious ointment broken for the Master.


And so, on this Palm Sunday, you and I are left with the question: What is the fragrance we are leaving with the world? Are we offering up the fragrance of complete devotion to Christ, and to the world for which Christ died? Or are we still standing off at a distance, calculating whether Christ is worthy of our devotion?


Think about it. What fragrance are you leaving?



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