Illustration of Nardostachys grandiflora (spikenard) by Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) – Curtis’s botanical magazine vol. 107 series 3. Public Domain.
A reflection on John 12:1-8 posted on the Pulpit Fiction Podcast page for Lent 5C entitled “Beautiful Reflection on this passage from Iona Community in Scotland”:
It was on the Wednesday that they called him a waster. The place smelled like the perfume department of a mall. It was as if somebody had bumped their elbow against a bottle and sent it crashing to the floor, setting off the most expensive stink bomb on earth. But it happened in a house, not a shop. And the woman who broke the bottle was no casual afternoon shopper. She was the penniless poorest of the poor, giving away the only precious thing she had. And he sat still while she poured the liquid all over his head... as unnecessary as aftershave on a full crop of hair and a bearded chin. And those who smelled it, and those who saw it, and those who remembered that he was against extravagance, called him a waster. They forgot that he was also the poorest of the poor. And they who had much and who had given him nothing, objected to a pauper giving him everything. Jealousy was in the air when a poor woman's generosity became an embarrassment to their tight-fistedness... That was on the Wednesday, when they called him a waster. -Iona Community, Scotland
"The Object of economic effort is not money, but livelihood," Wrote, Scott Nearing in his celebrated book Living the Good Life. First published in 1954 chronicles Scott and Helen Nearing's back to the land ideal of living as two folks that moved from New York City to the Green Mountains of Winhall, Vermont. They aimed to live a life of simplicity, healthy living, and to do so in community. They sought to grow and raise as much of their food as possible, barter more than buy, heat with wood cut themselves (because it warms you twice that way), and have as property only what is necessary.
It's safe to assume that each of us has a definition of what it means to live a good life. And while there may be a few general principles that we can hold in common, what defines a good life for each of us is as personalized as taste, preference, and upbringing. Perhaps it means living close to family and getting together as much as possible. Maybe it means having a perfect job that pays well. Perhaps it means being able to provide fun experiences for your children or having the flexibility to watch your children grow up. Maybe it means staying busy, eating healthy, or making time for creativity or reading or singing or whatever is life-giving. And accordingly, this is where we spend our money.
Today's gospel reading is about the good life and money. Prior to our lesson, something big has just happened. Jesus had very close friends – Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Lazarus had been ill for some time and news was sent from the sisters that Lazarus was near death. As Jesus travelled to them, Lazarus died. But Jesus continues on, arrive four days after Lazarus has been put to rest. He goes to his tomb and calls Lazarus to "come out." And that's that, humanity's most significant problem erased. The dead are raised. Lazarus comes out still dressed in his funeral clothes. Later on, as Jesus and his troupe travel to Jerusalem for Passover for the last time, they stop in Bethany and are welcomed by Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. At the party, Mary anointed Jesus' feet with pure nard and wiped his feet with her hair. The fragrance of the nard filled the house.
Nard, also called spikenard or muskroot, was expensive. It would have been imported from India or China. The gospel of Mark has the nard contained in an alabaster jar. Judas takes exception to this show of extravagance. The perfume, according to Judas, is worth a year's wages for a day laborer. Should not it have been sold and the money given to the poor? The lesson betrays Judas' real concern, that he didn't care for the poor, but handled the money bag and often took from it.
"Leave her alone; this is for my burial," Jesus says. Spikenard, was used for many things. One of its uses was to anoint the dead. The line is a little difficult to understand because it seems premature. Jesus isn't dead yet. Perhaps this was a "Bring My Flowers Now" (see Explore Further) move by Mary. Or, we might hope that the aroma stayed with Jesus throughout the week, even while he was being crucified as a reminder that in a time of oppressing sorrow and grief, someone cared deeply for him.
The added wrinkle to this passage is his next statement to Judas. "The poor you will always have with you, but you not always have me with you." This statement doesn't sound much like Jesus. This is the same Jesus that tells the rich young man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. This is the same Jesus that when sending out twelve disciples, he commanded them to take no money, no bread, and no supplies. He once said that it was easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. This is the same Jesus that was born in a stable and laid in a food trough for a crib. And here – his feet are being anointed with expensive perfume. Maybe Jesus has gone corporate.
Or maybe this is part of his rebuke of Judas and his impoverished economy. The scholar Dorothy Lee points out the Judas was "surrounded by those from whom he takes, victims of his self-centered greed." Judas' economy was based on scarcity, thievery, and death. The poor will always exist in this type of economy. Standing in opposition is Mary's economy of abundance, resurrection, and new life. It resists monetizing sacred and reverent acts or putting a price on human life.
Many of us are affected by the economic shutdown stemming from the Coronavirus pandemic these days. Some of us have been laid off, and nearly all of us have family members or friends that are no longer working. Some who already lived in poverty find themselves today in dire situations. At the same time, at least three of our politicians are under investigation for insider trading for selling off millions of dollars in stocks after a closed-door briefing on the coronavirus.
Eventually, the economy will return, and many who are laid off will return to their jobs. But what if we did it better the next go-round? What if we resisted our "Judas" economy and strived for something more like Mary's? What if we resisted the notions of scarcity, inequality, and tribalism, the foundation for statements like 'the poor will always be with you?" What if we embraced principles like needing less, honoring all life, and living abundantly? It seems worth exploring.
Whatever our situation, may you find yourself living a good life today.