I think her name was Anna. It’s difficult for me to remember her name because most people simply referred to her by her nickname. Of course, we never actually called her by that to her face because it was a nickname based upon the way she smelled. I knew her back in the 80s. We ran into each other at various different protest rallies or in meetings of advocacy groups. She part of many of the groups that I belonged to. Anna was an old hippie long before there were old hippies. She always wore sandals, a colourful peasant dress, and her long grey hair tied up in a bun on the very top of her head. Despite her funky attire, Anna wore a kind of elegance which allowed her to waft into any room and immediately command everyone’s attention. She was an absolute powerhouse, determined to seek justice for the oppressed whether they be members of First Nations, or women struggling for equal pay, the homeless seeking shelter, or banning the bomb. I remember going to my very first Earth Day rally, not because I was concerned about the environment back then in the 80s, but simply because Anna badgered a bunch of us into going with her. Anna never shut up about her many causes. So, much so that people would scatter when they knew was Anna coming into a room, lest she shame us into working for justice for this or that group of people who needed our advocacy.
To this day, I’m guessing that like me, everyone else who knew her was as afraid of Anna. Fortunately, we always knew when Anna was coming simply because her smell arrived long before she did. It also lingered long after she had left. Hence Anna’s nickname. As I say, I never did call her by her nickname to her face, nor did I ever hear anyone else use that name in her presence. But when her smell indicated that she was about to sweep into the room, or after we were left basking in her scent long after she had departed, that is when we used Anna’s nickname. To us, Anna was not so affectionately known as Coco. When I first heard “Coco”, I didn’t understand. Until, an old gentleman quietly explained, “Coco as in Coco Chanel.” My blank uncomprehending stare encouraged him to go on to explain that Anna’s unmistakable smell came from her liberal application of Chanel No.5. I didn’t know much about perfume back then. I still don’t know much about perfume. But one thing I did know is that Chanel No5 was and still is expensive. The only reason I knew this is because of all those cheap perfume bottles, I would buy to give to my mother and to my aunties. Chanel No.5 was way out of my price-range. I usually went for the larger bottles, The less expensive perfumes. You know the gift sets where you got bang for your buck – a big bottle of Yardley, with some dusting power thrown in for good measure. Those small bottles of Chanel No.5 couldn’t fool me.
I remember thinking at the time how odd it was for the ever-frugal Anna to buy such an expensive perfume. I’m mean, Anna was into recycling things long-before recycling was a thing. She never bought anything new. Everything was always on the cheap. For Anna to be wasting her money on expensive little bottles of perfume which she liberally splashed all over herself, well it just didn’t make sense. Especially, when she was always complaining about how she couldn’t afford to get her hair cut. And what about all those causes she was always collecting money for? Surely, her money would be better spent fighting for justice, all those she could never shut up about. “Coco” was our way of making fun of Anna’s extravagance.
Coco’s extravagance is one of the reasons I love the Parable of Jesus’ Anointing as it is recorded by the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John. The way John tells this parable, it takes place six days before Jesus’ last celebration of the Passover. John puts it like this, “Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served. Lazarus was one of those at the table. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, piping them with her hair. The house was full of the scent of the ointment. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—protested. “Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money been given to poor people!” Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it. So Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You have poor people with you always. But you won’t always have me.””
Thanks to Coco, this parable and the word extravagance are intimately entwined. Extravagance in the face of danger and poverty. Of all the stories that this anonymous gospel-storyteller could have told about Jesus, why did he tell this one, and why did he tell it the way that he told it? What is the storyteller trying to tell us about the character of Jesus? I’ve studied this passage for decades and I’m still surprised at how full and lush, how extravagant the details of this story are. I’m also aware that most of those lush and oh so extravagant details are all too often lost on 21st century ears.
We are not first century Jews, so the pungency of this particular extravagance can all too easily elude us. There are details that first century Jews would have been overcome by. Details that we need to sniff out if we want to smell the pungent aroma of the spikenard that oozes, soothes, and anoints the feet of the one we claim to follow. This story has but a dozen sentences, but each and every sentence positively oozes with details; details which can open us to a kind of extravagance of our own.
Six days before the Passover. Every first century Jew would have understood that six days before the Passover, the biggest festival of the year, the roads and pathways would have been crowded with people heading to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jesus too would have been on his way to Jerusalem; Jerusalem, each and every one of the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have known all too well what happened in Jerusalem. They like us, knew exactly what kind of execution awaited the political troublemaker, the justice seeking radical Jesus. Bethany, a small town just outside of Jerusalem, six days before the Passover and we all know that Jesus will not be passed over. Jesus will be just like a lamb to the slaughter when the Romans are done with him. There will be no Exodus for Jesus, no blood upon the lintels to save him. Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
Lazarus, with his sisters Martha and Mary are the only three people in the bible who earn the distinction of being named as people, “Jesus loved.” Lazarus, the rumors where ripe about Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb. “There they gave a banquet in Jesus’ honour, at which Martha served.”
Martha served; they would have heard of Martha’s service before. But do not think of housework here, the Greek word, dioconia is used here. At the end of the first century, the Greek word dioconia is a technical term used to refer to church leadership. Martha at the end of the first century would have been a name that the storyteller’s listeners would have been familiar with because Martha was a leader among the followers of the Way. Martha presided at the Passover, the Passover Meal the most important Jewish religious ritual of the first century. Mary brought a pound of costly ointment, pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair. Mary one of the three people in named in the bible as being loved by Jesus. Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ beloved, the woman the gospel-storyteller’s listeners would have remembered because Jesus praised her for concerning herself with Jesus’ teaching. Mary a student, a disciple of Jesus, interrupts the most important Jewish ritual of the year with a pound of costly ointment; a point of pure nard; spikenard, incredibly expensive, a whole year’s wages in the first century. Pungent, the smell would have been over-powering. All eyes on Mary; a woman, her hair down, first-century listeners would have had something to say about a woman in the company of men, with her hair down. She lets her hair down, no honourable woman would do such a thing, and with the pungent smell of expensive spikenard permeating the room, Mary proceeds to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. His feet, she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet. His feet, that would have sent tongues to waggin. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for a man’s feet is often used as a euphemism for another, part of a man’s anatomy which, even now, modesty prevents me from mentioning in church. Those first century listeners would have been wondering, his feet, does this storyteller mean Jesus’ feet, or does he mean his feet? You know what I’m talking about??? “Feet.” A woman who Jesus loves, pours a year’s worth of wages, over Jesus’ feet, and then has the audacity to wipe the oil with her hair. Wait a just a minute, you mean to tell us, that she anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, his feet, in the middle of a religious ritual, his head maybe, people do that for kings, but not the feet. Only the dead have their feet anointed with oil.
What is this gospel-storyteller trying to tell us about Jesus? “The house was full of the scent of the ointment.” Nard is not the only thing which smells here. Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples—the one who was to betray Jesus—Judas protested. Judas Iscariot, by the end of the first century the very mention of Judas Iscariot would have raised the hackles of any audience who knew of the execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans, the Romans who had by the end of the first century, executed tens of thousands in Palestine, destroyed the Temple, burnt Jerusalem to the ground, and sent each and every Jew into exile. The name Judas Iscariot had in just a few sort decades become synonymous with the word “betrayer.”
Whether or not Judas Iscariot ever existed, or was simply, as our fiend Jack Spong taught me, simply a literary character designed to stand in for every betrayer who has every betrayed, you can be sure that the gospel-storyteller’s audience would have perked up at the mere mention of the name Judas. Just imagine the audacity of this character, selling Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, and here he is protesting the use of a costly ointment as if he cares about the poor.
“Why wasn’t this ointment sold? It could have brought nearly a year’s wages, and the money given to the poor.” Even the gospel-storyteller can’t keep up the pretense when he adds: “Judas didn’t say this because he was concerned for poor people, but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the common fund and would help himself to it.” All these centuries later, we can hear them sniggering, Judas worried about the poor; indeed, pull the other one.
It is at this point that the anonymous gospel-storyteller, shows just what kind of storyteller he or she was when she/or he has Jesus say, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”
We know that Jesus is about to die, and Mary is doing what needs to be done, the problem is not the ritual, the problem is the extravagance of the ritual. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.” Here’s the rub, pardon the pun. The gospel storyteller has Jesus, Jesus of all people say:
“You have the poor people with you always. But you won’t have me.” Jesus, the champion of the poor, can he really be saying don’t worry about the poor because the poor aren’t going away. Of course not!!!
Jesus was, is, and forever shall be a Jew. The anonymous gospel-storyteller was Jewish. The first-century audiences would have been Jewish, or God-fearers, who were Jew’s in all but circumcision; the few Gentiles in the group would have been schooled in the Hebrew scriptures. What our 21st century ears rarely hear is the echo of the scriptures which would have sounded loudly and clearly in the minds of our first century ancestors. Remember, Jews learned their scriptures by heart. They could recite the words of Deuteronomy in the same way we can recite the words of commercial jingles.
So, hear what they would have heard, when the heard the words, “You have the poor with you always.” Hear the words of the 15th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy:
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that YAHWEH is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near.” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing: your neighbor might cry to YAHWEH against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account YAHWEH will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Now hear again, the words of Jesus the Jewish rabbi: “The poor you will have with you always, but you will not have me with you always.” Surely, we all know exactly what to do about the poor, enough said, take care of the poor. We know what we need to do about the poor. But do we know what to do with Jesus? There’s the rub. How do we deal with Jesus?
What are we to do about Jesus? Poverty and extravagance, two realities. What are we who claim to follow Jesus to do about poverty and extravagance?Injustice and extravagance? War and extravagance? Resistance and extravagance?Justice seeking and peace making and extravagance?
Well, I can tell you what were not supposed to do. We are not supposed to deal with the poor as if we don’t have enough to help the poor. All too often, we act as if we are poor ourselves, as if we can’t afford to help. We are among the wealthiest people on the planet and still we worry about whether or not we can afford to help the poor. We earn more than our ancestors could ever dream of earning, we have more than our forebears ever had, and still we want to pay less tax, and spend less money for the common good. We live as if we scarcely have enough to get by let alone to help a neighbour or to follow Jesus into the streets to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick. We have all been trained to worry and to be conservative, and to act like tomorrow it will all be taken from us. It is not in us to be extravagant. And yet, just look at the extravagance in Creation. Every single time I see a flower, I’m blown away by Creation’s extravagance, just one variety of flower would have been amazing, half a dozen varieties of flowers would have been wondrous, but the sheer number of varieties and colours is positively extravagant.
We are surrounded by such beautiful pungent extravagant examples of the wealth of nature. Yes, we are called to be good stewards of all our many blessings. But we are also called to breathe deeply and feel the soothing healing balm which our blessings are. Yes, the poor will always be with us. But we know what we are supposed to do about the poor. So, let’s take care of the poor. We have more than enough to take care of everyone’s needs. We can well afford to welcome the refugees.
We also have more than enough to breathe deeply of our blessings and be extravagant. Extravagant with the poor and extravagant with all those, who like Jesus won’t always be with us. Life is not only precious. Life is short.
I remember a potluck picnic on the beach. It was after a long protest march, for a cause I have long since forgotten. Anna and I were sitting on a log, staring out at the sun which was just beginning to set. We had just finished an extravagant meal, people were milling around sipping wine and strategizing about how to achieve justice for whoever or whatever cause urgently needed our attention next. Anna leaned over to me as she pointed to the others, “They think I don’t know what they say about me”
I didn’t have the courage to respond. Anna stood up, smiled down at me, untied her long grey hair, and proceed to take off her clothes. Standing there, stark naked, Anna the wise old hippie, shook her head. “Remember” she said to me, and to me alone, “life is too short to worry about what people think of you! I may just be Coco to them. But I am also Anna bathed in the scent of a woman who understands what it means to be alive. So, Coco I am, and Coco I shall be!”
Anna began to twirl around and around, a kind of dance which she accompanied with a beautiful litany of thanksgiving for: “the beauty of the sun, the majesty of the ocean, the sweet smell of salt in the air, the gentle breezes kissing our skin, the shortness of our life, the splendor of wisdom, and the freedom to enjoy it all!”
Anna’s twirling stopped and she leaned down, kissed my cheek, and gently said, “Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. Remember, we don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all!” Then she straightened up, offered her naked breasts to the gentle breezes, and shouted to the others: “This Coco is going for a swim. Who’s with me?” With that, Coco turned toward the setting sun and led us all into the embrace of Creation.
Enjoy it all. Enjoy it all. Life is very short. We don’t have much time and that’s as good a reason as any to enjoy it all! All the extravagant blessings showered upon us! Enjoy! Then be about the work of justice-seeking and peace-making. Then give as extravagantly as you have been given. Enjoy!
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