Text Study for John 12:1-11 (Part Three)

Mary of Bethany is portrayed as the paradigm of disciple devotion here in John 12. When Jesus gives life to the dead, at least for the Johannine author, this is how disciples respond. I don’t know if this is a prescription for how we disciples ought to respond. It is, however, certainly a report of how at least one disciple does respond. I think this response made sense to the Johannine audience, gave approval to how some of them responded, and modeled and encouraged such behavior within the community.

I’m not sure I’m up to it. I am awestruck by Mary’s courageous vulnerability. And I am jealous of her spontaneous and extravagant outpouring of grateful love. She loves without limits. This is a way of loving which I envy but which I also find almost completely alien to my temperament and experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been that overwhelmed by love. I’ve been overtaken by fear or rage at times. More’s the pity that violent negative emotions are the ones most likely to get me “off script.”

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Last week, in the Parable of the Generous Father, we reflected on the extravagant, exuberant love of the father for both of the sons in the story. That love worked itself out in different ways for each son, but the overflowing nature of that love lies at the heart of the parable. This week, we meet the human response to that love – a reciprocal, abundant, passionate love in return. And we meet that human response in ways that don’t fit my cultural habits and assumptions about grateful behavior (at least for men).

Mary Ann Beavis notes that the meal, in the Johannine narrative, was probably a way for the family to thank Jesus for restoring Lazarus to life. But she suggests an additional “nuptial motif in keeping with the Johannine theme of Jesus as the messianic bridegroom” (page 285). She refers us back to the Wedding at Cana and to Jesus’ cryptic reference to himself as the “bridegroom” in John 3:29. Beavis quotes Adeline Fehribach in this regard. “Because the wife would generally be portrayed as sitting at her husband’s feet at these dinners, “ Fehribach writes, “the reader could very well have envisioned Mary as the affectionate bethrothed/bride of Jesus as she sits at his feet, anointing them with perfume” (Beavis, page 285).

I’m routinely judgmental toward and dismissive of contemporary worship experiences that seem to foster “performative praise.” I turn up my nose at such “out of control” demonstrations. I note that they typically function according to local norms and expectations and are therefore not really “spontaneous.” Most of all, I dislike all the “Jesus is my boyfriend” tonality in contemporary Christian music. I find it shallow and formulaic.

And then I meet Mary at Jesus’ feet.

Fehribach encourages us to connect this anointing scene with passages from the Song of Songs. Scholars have demonstrated that the Song of Songs was a focus of meditation and commentary in the centuries around the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Of course, that focus continued well into the life and thought of the early Christian church – especially, but not limited to the Eastern expressions of the Church.

When I was a naughty confirmation student, fantasizing my way through Song of Songs during really boring class sessions, I had no idea I was participating in such a noble theological tradition!

For example, Song of Songs 1:12 (NRSV) declares, “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.” That’s a fairly compelling foreshadowing of events in our text. Beavis notes the twelve times that the Johannine author refers to Jesus as “king.” In our text he is “reclining” at the table with Lazarus. The verb in the Septuagint for the king “reclining” in Song of Songs 1:12 is the same as the verb used in John 12:2.

Beavis also points to the six times that Song of Songs refers to myrrh, the two times the book refers to nard, and the five times the book refers to fragrance or perfume “In descriptions of the lovers and their surroundings” (page 286).  Our text intimately connects Mary’s anointing as well to the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial and associates Mary of Bethany with Jesus’ entombment.

Hippolytus of Rome, as Beavis reminds us, identified “Martha and Mary” at the tomb seeking Christ. He paralleled this seeking with the woman in Song of Songs 3 who has been separated from her lover. She wakes early to try to find him but initially does not. She asks men how she might find her beloved. Then she joyfully comes upon him. She holds on to him and will not let him go until they are safely home. The Johannine author is not bashful about using love between the bridegroom and the bride as a way to demonstrate love between Jesus and Jesus followers.

Beavis makes a couple of points. First, she is not suggesting that Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany are the same person – whether in the Johannine account or elsewhere. Nor is she suggesting that Mary of Bethany (or Mary of Magdala) is Jesus’ “girlfriend,” so no help here for those who still like the argument in The DaVinci Code. Instead, the Johannine account is not bashful in using either or both of the Mary’s to invite us into a deeper, more passionate, less circumscribed devotion to our Lord and Savior.

Richard Swanson suggests that perhaps the way to proclaim this scene is to play it. “When the anointing is connected with the raising of the brother, Lazarus, Mary’s intense joy will overwhelm you,” Swanson writes. “The act is powerful, intimate, astonishing, breath-taking. The entire community is gathered to celebrate the joy of (for once) receiving back from death an essential person who had died. Their joy is focused by the specific act of a sister who had lost a brother. The power of the scene makes sense. The intimacy makes sense. But,” Swanson cautions, “you will be surprised by how powerful and how intimate if you actually play the scene.”

That suggestion makes complete sense to me, but I would want to “play” Mary in the scene. Of course, I doubt if I could actually do that. But I know from other performance and “first-person” experiences, that the script can sneak out and ambush me while I’m focused on other things. While I want to flee from performative joy and devotion (portrayed to create impressions on others), I long to embrace a performance of joy and devotion that will leave me moved and changed.

I am thinking about a production of Godspell we did in a congregation some years ago. I was honored to have a part in the production, and I brought an inordinate amount of thinking and theologizing to the role. But as we went along, my head became less and less important. My heart – no, my guts – took the lead in my acting.

I can remember with crystal clarity the scenes in the live performance when the followers of Jesus confront the reality of his death. I could not get through those performances without weeping. I didn’t muster up the tears as part of my portrayal. They just showed up because I gave myself to the story and to the moment. I remember the experience vividly, but I don’t remember much self-awareness. As I think about it, those performances were the kind of experiences I wish worship could be – if I would permit that (which I don’t).

I imagine that this must have been something like the experience of Mary of Bethany. She wasn’t doing something unheard of. Anointing the feet of a guest happened sometimes. Demonstrating visible gratitude for such a gift would not be surprising. But then the moment took over. It wasn’t just a few drops of the ointment. It was the whole blessed batch. Perhaps without thinking, she found herself uncoiling her hair and wiping up the excess. And I am sure the ointment was diluted with tears of joy and gratitude.

“And all of this is held in Mary’s hand with the container of ointment,” Swanson writes. “All of this is held in her powerful actions: kneeling, unveiling, unbinding, bending, and wiping. And the entire story is bound up in the joy that Mary embodies. This ties Mary to the disciples at the end. This ties Mary also to the God’s joy at the beginning of creating and loving the cosmos. Mary,” Swanson concludes, “embodies John’s whole story.”

I pray that I might let Jesus evoke such joy and love in me at least once in a while.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2012): 281-297.

Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.

Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.  Kindle Edition.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/28/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-in-lent-year-c-april-3-2022-john-121-8/.

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