Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
John 12:1-8 (There is also available a Voice Bible Study on John 11:45-12:36)
The anointing of Jesus by a woman occurs in all four gospels. It is not clear whether the account in Luke (7:36-50) recounts the same event as the one in the other three, even though some of the features of John's account are the same as that of Luke. But it is fairly certain that the account in John is the same as the one in Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9). Be that as it may, our concern here is to understand the theological significance of this story within the context of the Gospel of John rather than to trace the history of the story as it is used in the gospel tradition as a whole. From time to time, however, I will make references to the other gospels by way of comparison and contrast in order to highlight the theological particularity of the story in John.
The Gospel of John seems to have two major sections. The first twelve chapters present the ministry of Jesus among people in general. The second half of the Gospel, chapters 13-21, focuses on the last week of Jesus' life. This section presents the so-called farewell discourses of Jesus as he prepares his disciples for his death, which is also his glorification, followed by the passion narrative and the resurrection appearances.
Mary's anointing of Jesus is placed toward the end of the first section in the Gospel. In fact, John places the story here before Jesus enters Jerusalem, which is in contrast to Matthew and Mark, who place the story of the anointing after Jesus has entered Jerusalem. In John, the first section reaches its climax in Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead and the subsequent intensification of the plot by Jesus' enemies to kill not only him but also Lazarus. John places the story of the anointing in the middle of the deadly plot against Jesus and Lazarus.
By placing the anointing of Jesus in this context, John has given the story a peculiar theological meaning. The death of Jesus is not to be conceived of as the triumph of evil over good. A divine purpose is at work. In various ways John will show that the crucifixion of Jesus is intertwined with the glorification of the Father and of the Son, as indicated in the following words of Jesus.
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (12:23-24).
"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name." Then a voice came from haven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again" (12:27-28).
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you (17:1).
In the midst of the ugly schemes that are being plotted, Mary's anointing of Jesus offers a beautiful demonstration of gratitude, love, and devotion. The death of Jesus will not be in vain. There will be those who will love and believe in Jesus even when all of the political and religious powers of the day are at work against Jesus.
Mary and Martha, in gratitude to Jesus for raising their brother from the dead, host a dinner for Jesus, and Mary anoints him with the outrageously expensive perfume. Just prior to this story, however, and after the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and Pharisees have called an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we to do?" they ponder. "This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation" (11:47-48). Caiaphas, the high priest, has a plan: "You know nothing at all!" he says. "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (11:49-50).
John cannot help but note that Caiaphas spoke more than he knew: "being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God" (11:52). The Sanhedrin has made up its mind. They plan to put Jesus to death and give orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him (11:53, 57). That is the backdrop for Mary's anointing of Jesus.
There may be some historical questions about this story for which we have no clear answers. According to John, as well as Matthew and Mark, the anointing takes place in Bethany, "where Lazarus was" (my translation). There they gave a dinner for him. There is no antecedent for the pronoun "they." Presumably it is Martha, Mary, and Lazarus but it is not explicitly stated. We are only told that Martha served and that Lazarus was one of those who reclined with Jesus; that is, he was one of the guests. Nor does John identify the house where the anointing took place . According to Matthew 26:3 and Mark 14:3 it was the house of Simon the leper, but the woman who does the anointing is not named. Later Christian tradition identified the woman in all the gospels, including the one in Luke 7 as well as the one in our passage in John, with Mary Magdalene. However, there is no historical basis for such an identification.
Another element in the story that has puzzled scholars is that in John's version Mary anoints not the head of Jesus, as in Matthew and Mark, but his feet, which is contrary to the custom of the time. Not only that, but she also wipes his feet with her hair. That means that Mary had let hair her down. It was improper for a woman to have her hair down in public, since only prostitutes did that. But these actions are exactly the same as those of the unnamed woman in Luke 7. However, in the context of Luke 7 it is understandable why the woman would have had her hair down, given the possibility that she was a prostitute ("a woman in the city, who was a sinner" [Luke 7:37]). But that does not explain why Mary in John 12 would have let her hair down. It would also be understandable why the woman in Luke 7 anoints the feet of Jesus, since that would be a sign of repentance. But why would Mary anoint the feet?
It seems probable that John has conflated motifs from the tradition of Mark 14 (and Matthew 26) with motifs from the tradition of Luke 7. Some scholars have concluded that John confused the traditions. However, as careful a writer as John is, that seems improbable. There may be two other reasons why John has Mary anoint the feet of Jesus rather than his head.
First, in John's mind Mary's action would be indicative of her recognition of Jesus as Messiah and sovereign king and her submission before him in humility and adoration. That would be analogous to Luke's statement in 10:39 that Mary "sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying." Perhaps a great prophet and priest like Samuel can anoint the heads of Saul and David and make them kings, but Mary feels that her place is at the feet of Jesus.
It is not without reason that in John, unlike Matthew and Mark, the anointing comes immediately before the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, thus providing the latter event proper perspective and interpretation. Jesus will be acclaimed as the king of Israel (12:13). John states that Jesus intentionally found a young donkey and sat on it in accordance with Zechariah 9:9, "Look your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" Apparently this was so odd, according to John, that not even the disciples understood these things at first; "but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him" (12:16). John interprets Mary's anointing of Jesus as royal Messiah not in the same sense that the crowd in John 6 wanted to make Jesus king, but in the sense that kingship for Jesus meant suffering, death, and burial.
Second, John seems to make a connection between Mary's action in Bethany and Jesus' action at the Last Supper in chapter 13. What Mary does provides an interpretive key by which the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus should be understood. This Jesus who takes the role of a slave and washes the disciples' feet is the one who has had his feet anointed by Mary in recognition of his messiahship. It is significant that John introduces the foot-washing in chapter 13 with a fairly elaborate theological introduction: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself" (13:3-4).
The stark contrast between Mary and Martha's demonstration of love and the Sanhedrin plot to kill Jesus is matched by another contrast, namely, that of the sisters and Judas. Judas is upset that the costly perfume has been wasted rather than being sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor. Three hundred denarii would be a year's wages for a laborer. If we were to calculate the amount in today's economy at the rate of $5 an hour for an unskilled worker, the yearly amount would be $12,000. John comments that Judas was not concerned for the poor but that he was a thief and used to steal what was put into the common purse. Whether money was actually the motivation for his betrayal of Jesus cannot be determined from the little information that the gospels give us. There are indications that Judas had other concerns besides money. If money were the motivation, it would be difficult to understand why he would throw the thirty shekels down and go and hang himself. At any rate, this is not the place to pursue the historical situation with Judas. Suffice it to say that John presents Judas as a thief. If Judas had political leanings similar to those of the Zealots, who advocated guerrilla warfare against the Romans, we could conjecture that he siphoned off funds to the Zealot cause. But that is not our concern here.
By portraying Judas as a greedy thief, John contrasts him with Mary's extravagant gesture Judas is after money for himself or his cause. Mary gives away her precious possession with total abandon.
However, we must not so quickly dismiss Judas and the difficult issue he raises. Setting aside for the moment his motive, does he not have a legitimate concern? Twelve thousand dollars could feed a lot of hungry people. Did Mary do the right thing? Was it necessary to use that much perfume all at once? Yet, when these accusations of extravagance are raised against Mary, Jesus defends her. "Leave her alone," he says. "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me" (NRSV).
No one can accuse Jesus of being insensitive to the poor. In John 6 Jesus miraculously feeds a large crowd with five loaves and two fish. But the response of the crowd is not what Jesus wants. The crowd wants to take him by force and make him king. Jesus withdraws to the mountain by himself (6:15). Later, when they find him, he talks to them about the living bread from heaven. They say, "Sir, give us this bread always, " perhaps assuming that it is something like the manna that their ancestors ate in the wilderness. When Jesus comes out and says, "I am the bread of life," their response is astonishing. They complain (v. 41); they dispute (v. 52); they say, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" Finally, many of them turn back and no longer stay with him (v. 66). John understands that simply giving bread to a hungry crowd does not bring a resolution to the problem of human need. Jesus does give to the poor, but then the poor want to make him king. They resort to political activism instead of responding to Jesus as the source of spiritual sustenance.
Judas finds fault with Mary's extravagant demonstration of love and her apparent negligence of the poor because he has not understood the meaning of the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among the poor and needy of the world. Christ has come not simply to give a few denarii to the hungry and a few shekels to blind beggars. He has come to give the bread of life. He has come to bring sight to blind beggars (ch. 9). He has come to bring new life to a Pharisee like Nicodemus (ch. 3). He has come to give the water of life to a woman at a Samaritan well (ch. 4). He has come to bring healing to a lame man, who incidentally was expecting nothing more than that someone throw him into the healing waters of the pool (ch. 5). He has come to raise a dead Lazarus back to life (ch. 11). Mary felt that such extravagant love deserved extravagant gratitude. The Word has come to give himself to a needy world and thereby reveal the fullness of divine resources available to all. "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (1:16). But at what cost will this fullness of grace be made available?
As the first section of the Gospel draws to a close, John has ended the story of Lazarus in chapter 11 with the deadly design of the Sanhedrin to destroy Jesus. Now in the story of the anointing in chapter 12 Jesus is among friends who express their love. This is the calm before the storm. Yet even in this oasis of joy and celebration the thought of death is never very far. Jesus speaks of his burial and then says, "You do not always have me."
There is some ambiguity in the words of Jesus in John that is not present in Matthew and Mark. In the latter Jesus says, "She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" (Mark 14:8; cf. Matthew 26:12). Since in Matthew and Mark the resurrection of Jesus preempts the women from anointing the body of Jesus for proper burial after his death, the event in Bethany provides the proper anointing in advance. But in John the body of Jesus is properly anointed after his death by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (19:38-42).
What then is the function of Mary's anointing of Jesus? It is for this reason that the words of Jesus in John are somewhat tortuous. Jesus says, "Leave her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of my burial" (my translation). What is it that she will keep? The ointment? She has already poured it out? Since Joseph and Nicodemus will perform the required ritual, why is there a need for Mary to anoint Jesus? One attractive suggestion is to understand the Greek word for "keep" in the sense of "remember," even though there is no firm lexical evidence for such usage. Along with that, the direct object "it" may be taken to mean not the ointment but the act of anointing itself. The meaning then would be, "Leave her alone, so that she may remember what she has done until the day of my burial."
Be that as it may, it is clear that according to John, Jesus interprets Mary's action as anticipatory of his death and burial. Scholars often ask whether John understood the words of Jesus to mean that Mary knew the full meaning of her action, that is, whether she knew that her anointing of Jesus was an anticipation of his death and burial. In the final analysis, does it really matter what she intended her action to represent, as long as it came from a heart overflowing with love and adoration? She may have intended her action simply as an expression of gratitude to Jesus for restoring Lazarus her brother back to life. Perhaps John wants to say that it was Jesus who saw something precious in Mary's action and gave it a deeper meaning than what she herself could fully understand.
One of the theological issues raised in this passage is the interplay between the evil scheming going on behind the scenes to bring about the death of Jesus and the divine purpose working out in history. In the midst of the ugliness and hostility plotted against Jesus by the powers that be, common folk like Mary and Martha (women at that!) show hospitality to Jesus and recognize in him the Messiah. Apparently Mary and Martha are not guided by the decisions of religious authorities. Mary and Martha are not the shakers and movers of their day. They have experienced the love of Jesus and in response are reciprocating that love. The official position of the Sanhedrin does not hinder them from their devotion to Jesus. In fact, their devotion takes on added significance when we remember that it is in the midst of plans by the Sanhedrin to destroy not only Jesus but also their brother Lazarus. How determined are we to remain spiritually committed when the prevailing sentiment in the culture at large may run counter to it?
Mary's devotion to Jesus, however, is not an arrogant, "in your face" type of demonstration against religious authorities. In humility she pours the ointment on the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. Perhaps John understands Mary to feel unworthy to pour the ointment on the head of Jesus. She submits herself to the loving power and authority of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. We do not find in her the future triumphalism of a dominant Christendom that would at times assert its power against unbelievers in the same manner that the Sanhedrin did against Jesus and Lazarus. How ironic that even the cross of Jesus at times has been used in the history of the church to communicate a triumphalistic message of dominance in complete negation of what it meant originally in the life of Jesus.
Another issue for preaching that this passage raises is the total abandon and extravagance with which Mary responds to Jesus. She literally "wastes" $12,000 on Jesus! Mary and Martha have experienced the anguish of losing their brother and then the joy of gaining him back through the abundant love of Jesus for them. When one has gone through that kind of death and resurrection, nothing else matters. It is the Johannine equivalent of the Matthean parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl. The kingdom of God is like the case of a laborer who having found a treasure in the field, in his joy goes and sells everything he has and buys the field; or like the merchant who having found a pearl of great price, goes and sells everything and buys the pearl (Matthew 13:44-46). No cost is too much.
Yes, but what about the poor? The passage makes clear that in our kind of world we will never be able to solve the problem of poverty once and for all through economic reform or political action--"you always have the poor with you." The proper place to begin is a profound understanding of the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt in this world with all its woes, sin, and darkness. In turn, those of us who have responded to God's revelation in Christ are to become the incarnation of God's love in this world. But we cannot do that until we have come to understand and experience the life and love of God revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our concern for the poor must be rooted in incarnational theology. That means that our task is not finished when we have given away food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, or have donated used clothing to Habitat for Humanity. If the incarnation is taken seriously as a paradigm, it means that we live our whole life with the understanding that we have been called to a life of suffering servanthood in behalf of a needy world. That may mean different things to different people in concrete situations. Sometimes it means Mother Teresa ministering to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. At other times it means living a simpler lifestyle to be able to share our goods with those who are less fortunate. There is no single action that can be claimed as the exclusive embodiment of Christ in the world. Perhaps Christ becomes flesh in our world in a variety of ways as long as there are people who make themselves available to God for that purpose.
A further point in the passage that cries out for proclamation is what Jesus does to defend Mary against accusations and innuendoes brought against her by Judas. Jesus gives to her action a more profound meaning than what she may have had in mind. In other words, Jesus looks beyond the outward act and sees her heart and comes to her defense when others seem to be much less charitable. Mary has not stopped to resolve the issue of poverty in the world. She has one supreme desire: how to express her love for Jesus. Jesus sees that and affirms her. Maybe we do not have to get everything right before the Lord accepts us or looks on us with favor. Maybe God looks at the intention of the heart rather than the outward performance. Jesus sees more in Mary's action than perhaps what she herself was able to see. Here indeed is grace at work. When Judas points out Mary's failure, Jesus affirms her extravagant love.
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