103- The Most Expensive Perfume

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Peter: The first cup is for this rascal, Lazarus! His body was already infested with worms, and yet, God gave him back to us – fat as he always was. Praise God!

Old Man: Praise Him and bless Him, for he has given us eyes to see what we have seen! And long live the prophet from Nazareth!

All: Long live the prophet! Long live the prophet!

The “Beautiful Palm Trees” in Bethany, was teeming with people. Martha and Mary had prepared a big feast in the inn to celebrate Lazarus’ return to life. We all seemed to be dreaming when we saw that big-bellied man, always laughing, sharing his jokes and devouring two trays full of food. Peter and I would pinch ourselves every now and then to prove it was not a dream. Since it was not, we continued laughing and drinking to the new life the Lord had restored to our friend….

Peter: Not even my beloved Ruphi has ever cooked a lamb as delicious as this one.

Philip: Do all lambs of the Kingdom of God taste this good, Jesus?

Martha: Here, have another serving, Philip… and you too, Peter!… Hey, countrymen, we have more than enough food! And drinks, too! We can open another barrel if need be!

Mary: Not one but ten barrels! Or even a hundred barrels! Or a hundred thousand of them! Wine brings lots of happiness! Today is the happiest day in the history of “La Palmera Bonita!”… Friends, be our guests!

Lazarus: And tomorrow, we close down!… Ha, ha… at the rate you and Martha are going, I’ll be dead once again, not of any illness this time but because of enormous debts… ha, ha, ha…. Holy heavens, what crazy sisters I have!…. Tell me, Jesus, could it be that the Lord has taken me out of my grave so I may see how my two sisters could destroy me in just one day?… Just kidding… just kidding… Ha, ha, ha…. Hey, pour some more wine in the jug and bring me another lamb’s leg. I’ve been starved for four days!

With gusto, Lazarus laughed and ate all he could. Martha and Mary had ordered the slaughter of the ten fattest lambs in the fold, and spent all their savings during the previous months to buy wine, dates, figs and pastries for the feast. Then they went from house to house inviting all the village people to the inn….

Old Man: Well, what can I say, Lazarus? I thank your sisters for this madness, for this great splurging… I’ve almost forgotten what it meant to be eating warm food. And the truth is, having a full tummy comes as a blessing from heaven!

Peter: You’re right, old man Teclo! Eat and be merry!

Mary: It will be more fun if we start the dance now! C’mon, neighbors, to the patio everyone, and let’s all dance!… Then, there’ll be enough time to lick more lamb bones!… Who among you guys plays the “Dance of the Waves?”

Old Man: That’s my forte! I learned it from my grandfather. Give me that flute!

Mary: Can you play the drums, Philip?

Philip: I can only play my cart’s horn! Ha, ha, ha!

Mary: And you, Peter?

Peter: Well, I can just knock at my door’s house!

Mary: Let me play the drums! My goodness! I play better when I’m loaded!

Everyone headed for the patio. The music began to play, and sing, too. Everybody danced gayly, the men in one circle, and the women in another. We were all clapping and turning around. Mary was continuously laughing, dancing and leaping about, going from one side to another. She was flushed and sweating, greeting everyone and embracing her brother every minute. Martha was also ecstatic. Their joy had contaminated all of us….

It was getting dark and from afar Jerusalem had lighted her first lights when we went inside the inn. There were dates, figs and pastries left on the table. Mary lighted the lamps that were hanging on the walls, then again filled up the jugs with wine….

Peter: Life goes ’round like a spinning wheel! Today you laugh boisterously, tomorrow you weep bitterly! Let’s have another toast, buddies!

Philip: Exactly! Let there be no end of it!

Then we saw Mary, Lazarus’ sister, leave the table and run toward the patio….

Lazarus: This crazy and cross-eyed sister of mine, where could she have gone? Will she disguise herself as the Queen of Sabah? What do you think, guys? She’s capable of anything… you know… ha, ha, ha!

At that instant, Mary appeared again. She was hiding something under her green-striped tunic…

Mary: I tell you, gossip monger, if I had money to buy the elephants and camels of the queen of Sabah, I would have done so!… But, I could only afford this!

Mary took out from the folds of her tunic a flask of alabaster, the size of a squash….

Lazarus: Ha, ha, ha… and what’s that thing, woman?

Mary: Neighbors, we’ve had been dancing and eating too much! But this is not the end of it! I’ve heard that in big feasts, not only wine flows but perfumes too… so, here’s the perfume! It’s the only thing we lack!

With tears in her eyes, and with overwhelming joy, Mary went to Jesus….

Mary: Jesus! God be with you always, may you have the best of health, and may you live as long as Methuselah, and may your mother live long to witness that, and may death not befall to you!

Lazarus: But Mary, what’re you talking about? You’re drunk!

Mary: Yeah, I’m drunk with joy. And it’s Jesus’ fault. Bless be the day, Moreno, you set foot in this house! Before, I washed your feet with water, but now, let me wash them with perfume, like they do to a great master…!

Mary broke the neck of the flask and poured the oil of nard over Jesus’ feet. I think that was about half a liter of oil. All at once, the scent filled the whole inn….

Peter: Blazes! It seems I have the entire garden inside my nose!

Lazarus: But, silly woman, how much did you have to spend for such a silly idea?

Mary: You’ll get mad at me, so I won’t tell you. Anyway, this doesn’t happen everyday, my goodness!

Philip: This smells like heaven, yes sir!

Peter: If perfume is flowing, then let it be so for wine! C’mon, fellas! Let’s drink to the silliness of Mary!

The feast lasted until past midnight. The neighbors went back to their houses very contented. The women and some members of the group, exhausted, had gone to sleep. Soon, Lazarus, Martha and Mary followed suit. My brother James and I, Judas, Peter and Philip stayed for a while in the patio, conversing with Jesus… the moonlight had taken over the stars in heaven, illuminating our faces….

Philip: Hey, what’s bugging you, Moreno? You’ve not uttered a single word during dinner….

Peter: Yeah? He’s been eating and drinking! He can’t eat and talk at the same time! Ha! He was busy devouring one sparerib, while his other hand was ready to put another one inside his mouth!

Philip: I saw you do the same thing, Peter! I dunno the number of ribs a lamb can yield, but man, you and Jesus had your plates filled with those of the entire flock! Ha, ha, haay!

James: You’re a fool, Philip!… and so are you, Peter!…. Now, this is just among us, Jesus… Say it, straight to the point….

Jesus: Say what, James?

Judas: C’mon, Moreno… now, don’t deny it anymore. We know fully well why you have been very quiet all along. James and I have talked about it awhile ago. We share the same thoughts, you see.

Jesus: What’s all this about? Frankly, I don’t understand…

Judas: All this splurging, isn’t this a waste of money? Why don’t you render an account of all that’s been spent. The perfume alone was enough to feed ten families!

James: Or even more! Damn, we’re no different from those filthy rich we criticize: feasting lavishly while many go hungry!

Philip: And you’re the first among them, James!

James: That’s right, Philip, and this is what makes me furious…!

Judas: By this time in Jerusalem, a lot of people must have gone to sleep with a grumbling stomach. But here we are, preaching justice, yet gorging ourselves on good food. Then the expensive perfume…. This is what has hit me, you know. And you, Jesus?

James: C’mon, Moreno, speak up. Don’t worry, Lazarus will not know of it, so it won’t hurt him. But I know that this afternoon’s happening has pissed you off.

Jesus: No, James, not me…

Judas: Don’t tell us you approve of all these wasteful spendings and overflowing of wine at the tables….

Philip: With your feet dripping with perfume! Hahahaay!

James: I don’t find that funny, Philip.

Judas: Neither do I. In fact, I feel so ashamed having been in that binge.

Peter: Well, I’m making myself available for the next occasion. Damn it, it’s been a long time since I danced with too much gusto!

Philip: Next time, it shall be for Pentecost; so you know now, fellas, let’s all be here!

James: You sure will be, fake rebel. But you will never see my face ever in this lavish inn.

Jesus: But James, what’s all this about? What has got into your head, Judas and you… is it something that you ate in the party?… Didn’t Mary say what it was? A day is a day.

Philip: It only happens once in a blue moon, as they say, in my barrio!

Judas: What the hell do I care about your barrio? Not even in the whole country. This is precisely what the rich have to say. In one day they splurge on what is the equivalent of a monthly wage of a laborer, just like that… with no feeling of remorse….

Peter: Look, Judas, don’t make matters worse. Martha and Mary invited the whole neighborhood of Bethany. The party was for everybody. No one was left out. Is there anything wrong with that?… Or… aren’t we, poor people, entitled to a little fun, too? Damn!

James: Of course, Peter, but splurging is something else. Do say I’m right, Jesus…

Jesus: I dunno, James, but I think the happy-go-lucky are closer to the Kingdom of God than the misers. Yeah, really… now, don’t you put on that face… I think God is also a little nuts like Mary…. God does not keep too much account of everything, nor make use of scales and other measurements. What God has, God gives away, as a gift. No more, no less.

Judas: But Jesus, how can you justify all this, you who have used up all your spittle preaching justice and talking about the struggle of men and women who are deprived of even a piece of bread to feed their hungry mouths?

Jesus: Precisely, Judas, because there are thousands of them and the struggle is long, so there must be time for everything, There is time to keep and time to spend.

Peter: That’s what I’ve been telling Nathanael: take it easy, Nat. Time must take its natural course. Nat is also hard on himself: he goes from the shop to the house, and back… that’s how he’s lost all his hair and soon! Hahay! And you’ll suffer the same fate, James and Judas, since you work day in and day out, without even giving yourselves a break.

Jesus: Even the best wine, when neglected, becomes vinegar!

Peter: Right, Jesus. Don’t make things too difficult, buddies. Each day has so much in store for us, isn’t that right? We just have to open our hands and take what awaits us for the day. Today, we had a party. So be it. If tomorrow brings us tears, then tomorrow we weep.

Philip: If it brings us perfume of nard, then well and good, because my goodness, we wouldn’t be reeking of onions and fish forever!

Then we all went to sleep, exhausted but happy. As I shut my eyes, I remembered Mary, Lazarus’ sister, dancing joyfully, laughing, her whole body profuse with ecstatic glee. I think no one but she ever understood that the Kingdom of God is like one big banquet.

The banquet in Lazarus’ house is a celebration of life. In spite of the impending risk looming over Jesus and his group which everyone is conscious about, there unfolds an interlude from partying and relaxation. Amid work, struggle and hardship, there must be time for feasting. That is why a community celebration is not only a necessary break to recharge forces, but it is also an anticipation of definite triumph of life.

Stinginess is not an evangelical virtue. Certainly, the gospel proposes austerity and sobriety. From the social point of view, in a world traversed by inequality, austerity is necessary if this world wants to be in solidarity with the poor. From the human viewpoint, neither satiety nor abundance is the road to human happiness. Moderation and endeavor make the person, form and provide the person with a framework that enables him or her to face life better. This has nothing to do with stinginess or miserliness, however. If to squander is neither a strictly evangelical virtue, the act of freedom and “provisionality” which oftentimes hides itself in the extravagant ways of the poor is a lot closer to the gospel than the miserly attitude of not knowing how to pause a little in order the enjoy however little or much they have. Jesus was not an embittered ascetic. He knew how to laugh and enjoy life. He had friends and he shared with them. He never lacked a sense of humor. His words prove this aspect of his personality. In the midst of this effort to build the kingdom, one must find time for humor and enjoyment. (Mt 6:34; Ecl 3:1-9). Bitterness, inflexibility, extreme self-rigidity, may overshadow the work for the Kingdom. These are upsetting to the person concerned, and disconcerting to the rest. A good sense of community, where everyone helps one another to overcome these limitations and gives encouragement to all, is the best cure against this temptation of bitterness which may sometimes threaten the Christian.

Mary of Bethany provides Jesus an authentic gesture of lavishness. It is a sign of endless gratitude. It is “madness” from the logical point of view. In Jerusalem, there was an industry of the manufacture of perfumes and aromatic ointments. These perfumes were burned in the temple to emit a pleasant aroma during religious ceremonies. They were also sold to the public. They were generally considered luxurious items and most of them were imported from oriental countries. So were the alabaster containers of these essences. They came from Egypt, and some local artisans had succeeded in imitating these items. The nard is a plant that originated from India. Its oil is extracted from the stem and roots, and it has an intense but very pleasant odor, like most of the oriental perfumes.

This text, literally misunderstood, has been used to justify the idea that to proclaim the possibility of a society based on equality is not possible because Jesus said that “there will always be poor around you.” But, honestly speaking, this phrase cannot veer away from the rest of the Christian message which constantly points to the equality of men and women. What this phrase precisely wants to tell us is that Jesus is found only in the poor, that the dynamism of Christian life is rightfully a deed in favor of the poor.

In another false interpretation, this text is meant to justify the practice of filling up the temples with riches. When these tendencies extended to the ancient kingdoms, the Fathers of the Church raised the voice of protest. Saint John Crisostom said, four hundred years after the death of Christ: “God has no need for golden vases, but for golden souls…. The sacrament does not need precious mantles, but pure souls; the poor, however, are in much need of care… Of what use to the Lord is a table full of golden glasses, when He is consumed with hunger?” (Homily 50, 3 and 4)

(Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8)