Olives and the Stench of Death

I hate olives. I wish I didn’t. They seem like such a convenient and fun bite-sized snack. They are
versatile enough to add to a wide range of dishes. But they are one food I just can’t stand. Like the refined
senses of the princess in the old fairytale of the princess and the pea, even if there’s one olive piece mixed in
with a vast amount of food, I feel certain I could taste it. Jackie, on the other hand, loves green olives. The kids
have each chosen a side in this critical debate. How can one food divide so deeply? To one group it’s one of the
most cherished topping on a pizza. To the other it’s anathema, and any pizza sullied by the putrid touch of
olives must be disposed of promptly.

Paul, in 2 Corinthians, says, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in
Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma
of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death;
to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16, NIV84)
 
To one, the smell of death, to the other, the fragrance of life? What is Paul talking about here? While I
admit that olives are a good fit for the “smell of death,” Paul isn’t talking about olives. He’s referencing the
triumphal procession that the Roman army would do after a victory. They would march prisoners through the
streets to the Roman temples, where, often, the captives would be slain. As they neared the temple of the
Roman gods, the scent of the sacrifices would begin wafting through the air, getting progressively stronger the
closer they got. The parade was, to some, a celebration of victory. The smell of the incense was the smell of
victory. To the captives, however, the parade humiliates them. They are led like animals through the streets,
weak, defeated, and facing death. As the smell of the incense hits them, they know their death is imminent. To
one, the fragrance of life, to the other, the stench of death.
 
Paul, interestingly, leaves some ambiguity as to who the Christians are in this analogy. Are they the
victors? Or the persecuted facing death. Perhaps the best answer is both. To the world, the Christians (and Paul himself) faced troubles and persecution daily. They seemed, from the outside looking in, to be the defeated captives. But in reality, Paul knew the Christians, in spite of the outward appearance, were the victors. Christ is leading them, not to death like it seemed to many, but to life eternal. As Paul says in his previous letter to this same group of believers, “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”” (1 Corinthians 15:54).