Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(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.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
I had never met him until tonight. Of course I’d heard about him. Everyone had. But I didn’t know exactly what to think of him. And to be honest, there really wasn’t much of a consensus. My best friends, of course, had staked their entire lives on following him. And I guess that’s why they invited me to dinner. They wanted me to meet him. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary had staked their entire lives on following him, and I assume they wanted me to do the same.
But I didn’t know what to think, because like I said, there isn’t really much of a consensus. Some are claiming that he’s the Messiah – the Son of the Living God. But some people think he’s John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. His own leaders for God’s sake are telling people he’s got a demon. And apparently, his own family thinks he’s crazy.
And so when my friends told me that they’ve come to believe that he’s the Anointed One the prophets had written about, and that he just “happened” to be coming over for dinner tonight, I didn’t know what to say. For all I knew, my friends were the crazy ones.
You see, tonight isn’t just any other night. It’s the first night of Passover week, which is why I’m in town by the way. And Passover in Jerusalem – it’s kind of a weighty week. The Temple is loud and busy, and by the end of the week, the city reeks of death. You see, we sacrifice goats and lambs, one after the other, a ritual that for us is all about freedom. It’s about remembering that God set us free in the past. It’s about remembering God’s promise to send the Anointed One – someone to set us free once and for all. Passover in Jerusalem is a festival of freedom. And so when you live under Roman rule, it’s kind of a weighty week.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always feel that free. And that’s why I wanted to meet him. After all, my friends’ devotion to this man may have struck me as extreme, but they weren’t alone. I had spoken to others who had met him, and the vast majority claimed to see in this one man something they’d never seen before. “Beauty, truth, compassion, holiness, power, humility, service, love, life, freedom, and God” – over and over again people spoke these words to me through tear stained eyes as they struggled to explain what their encounter with this man was like.
You see, it’s not that my life is bad or tragic, and God knows that a lot of people have it a lot worse than I do. But at the same time, there’s something missing – because I’m starving for more. I yearn for beauty and truth and compassion. I hunger for holiness. I long for love. And Lazarus and Mary and Martha – and I don’t know the reason – have come to believe that they’ve found all of these things in and through this one man.
OK, I do know the reason. It’s just weird. My friend Lazarus used to be dead – or so he claims. Lazarus doesn’t say a whole lot, but I’ve heard the story from Mary, from Martha, from the entire village of Bethany. In fact, the chief priests can’t even deny that it happened – they’re just telling everyone it was the Devil’s work. But I’m not so sure. You should hear Martha tell the story. In fact, she’s been telling it all day. She says the stench was awful because Lazarus had already been dead four days when they took away the stone; and that this man – whether he be a misfit or the Messiah – commanded Lazarus to come out of his grave. She says her brother looked like a mummy before they finally took off his burial clothes. And then she gets this goofy grin and makes another crack about how bad the house smelled.
Anyway, that’s the same house that I ate dinner at tonight – in the presence of the One who people are saying gives life to the dead. Mary introduced me right before dinner. And she told him my name, but when I looked into his eyes – I knew, and Mary knew, that he knew. Before I knew him, I can tell you for certain, this man knew me.
I tried not to stare at him during dinner, but I couldn’t help it. And I don’t think he seemed to mind too much. In fact, it’s almost like he welcomed it, because when I’d stare, he’d look right back at me – not in an awkward way or in an anxious way – but in way that no one had ever looked at me before. Because when he looks at you, he looks through you. And when this man looks through you – just for that moment – you’re free.
Anyway, towards the end of the meal Mary did something strange. She took this jug of expensive perfume, anointed his feet, and then used her own hair as a towel – right there in front of us all. For minutes we watched transfixed in silence, each contemplating the significance of this act. This house once full of my dead friend’s stench was now filled with the fragrance of the perfume. This house that once reeked of death now smelled of life. The smell was beautiful. The moment was beautiful. The silence was beautiful.
Until one of his best friends finally broke the silence – scolding Mary for what he saw as an empty and wasteful gesture. And I have to admit, what Mary did for him was extravagant. But this anointed one seemed to welcome Mary’s extravagance – as if he was being anointed for a purpose. And he told us why, but I’m not sure I understand. He said it was for his burial. His words will forever be etched in my soul. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Like I said, I had never met him until tonight. But it’s the first night of Passover week, and the weight of the week looms large. And to be honest, I still don’t know what to think of him. But I know he’s not crazy. And if he is the Devil, then I’ll be damned. Because I saw in this one man something I’d never seen before – something I yearn for, something I hunger for, something I long for, something I’m starving for. In the presence of this man, I felt free. Because when this man enters your house, the reek of death becomes the fragrance of life.
Tonight definitely wasn’t just any other night, and by the end of the week, the city’s going to reek of death. This man that called my friend out of the grave – he’s now talking about his own. My friends – they’ve staked their entire lives on following him. And I’m still pretty sure they’re hoping that I’m going to do the same.