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

5 Lent C 2022

This Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent is intimately connected with the Raising of Lazarus in chapter 11. Lazarus’ “presence at the anointing of Jesus is critical,” Karoline Lewis writes, “for interpreting his [Jesus’] own resurrection” (page 151). The fourth Gospel, Lewis reminds us, is concerned that we remember that resurrection is about life both now and in the future. “Rather,” Lewis writes, “the consequences of this final sign for the Fourth Gospel are that resurrection lays claim on our lives today” (page 152).

Jesus proclaims to Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life” (see John 11:25). This is not a redundancy. Instead, both dimensions, life now and life forever, are necessary if we are to know and experience the abundant life which Jesus promises in John 10:10. “Reading further in the story,” Lewis continues, “we will find Lazarus reclining on Jesus and eating dinner (12:2). This post-resurrection [as in post-Lazarus’ resurrection] picture of Lazarus’s existence after the tomb,” Lewis argues, “validates the implications of ‘and the life’” (page 153).

Photo by Alesia Kozik on Pexels.com

We have, therefore, a meal celebrating the resurrected life of Lazarus and celebrating, by extension, the resurrection life of all Jesus followers. Nonetheless, “the anointing of Jesus must inform the interpretation of the raising of Lazarus,” Lewis declares. We are reminded twice in John 12:1-11 that Lazarus was raised from the dead. A third reminder exists in the text if we take the testimony of a number of early manuscripts that describe Lazarus as “the one who died, whom Jesus raised from the dead” (see John 12:1 and footnotes).

Lazarus was the one who died, “yet there he is, eating and drinking and hosting a meal in his house,” Lewis continues. “The fact that we find the man who was formerly dead now having dinner with friends,” Lewis urges, “has every bit to do with what ‘life’ here and now entails” (page 153). Eating with Jesus is what discipleship looks like. It is an experience of the life Jesus offers.” For the disciples, gathered around a table with Jesus the night before his arrest,” Lewis writes, “they would remember not only the raising of Lazarus but where Lazarus ended up after being unbound” (page 153).

Another sign of the intimate connection between our text and the story of the raising of Lazarus is the foreshadowing we get in John 11:2. Mary is introduced in the narrative as “the one who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” (my translation). We should take this as a clue that the anointing in the next chapter is a big deal – part of the chain of events that leads through death to resurrection for Jesus.

While our text looks back to the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, it also looks forward to the foot-washing and meal in chapter 13. “Though the narrative echo in John 13 reverberating from the Bethany anointing leads to the inescapable conclusion that Mary of Bethany is presented in the Fourth Gospel as a true disciple of Jesus Christ,” Blanke writes, “the life-giving crucifixion of Jesus, the central event of the Fourth Gospel which the foot washing anticipates, has important ramifications for Jesus’ interpretation of Mary’s action.” Blanke (page 46).

“Like previous events in the Gospel of John, particularly the signs, the actual anointing is narrated with only one verse, signaling that the meaning of the anointing lies beyond the act itself,” Lewis writes. “The description of Mary’s actions foreshadows the foot washing only a chapter later, inviting a direct comparison between Mary’s act for Jesus and Jesus’ act for his disciples. As a result, the foot washing will need to be interpreted in light of Mary’s devotion and expression of love,” Lewis continues. “The same verb that is used for Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet (12:3) is used for Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ (sic) feet in 13:5” (page 165).

In addition, Jesus tells us that this anointing foreshadows his own death and burial. “My thesis is that from John 12:1-7 two narrative echoes in the narrative of the Fourth Gospel occur,” Blanke argues in his rich essay 1) Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 and 2) the burial preparation of Jesus, in John 19” (page 46). “To simplify her act as one of only gratitude overlooks the connection to the foot washing in chapter 13 and discounts the larger theme of abundance throughout the Gospel as a whole,” Lewis argues, “Mary’s act foreshadows Jesus’ act, and his recalls hers” (page 166).

Blanke argues that the meal and the anointing combine a family meal at the beginning of the Passover week with a family funeral banquet commemorating the death of a close loved one. Those present at the meal function as and are constituted as Jesus’ intimate family. “If Mary, Martha, and Lazarus become children of the Father through the death of God’s only Son Jesus, we might expect to find indications of a household relationship with Jesus already in the narrative of the Bethany anointing. After all, the scene at Bethany is the first place Jesus explicitly mentions his own imminent death (12:7-8), and the anointing episode is the origin of the echo narratives we find in 13:2-30 and 19:38-42.” (pages 47-48).

Two household elements immediately appear in the story. Passover is a household festival, more than a Temple festival. The meal is with family and friends. The sixth day before the Passover “the day upon which the Passover Lamb was known to have been set apart for slaughter by each household of the House of Israel (cf. Exod 12:3), “Blanke writes, “ould have served to define the beginning of a week during which households would have gathered at the Jerusalem temple for rites of self-purification (11:55- 57)” (page 49). This sixth day before would have been the beginning the gathering for families for the celebration. So, this is no ordinary dinner party.

“Jesus’ closing words [in verse 8] point again to the presence of a household theme in two important aspects: (1) several features of ancient funerary practice as the activity of first-century households would have been evoked by Jesus’ words and by the evangelist’s depiction of the anointing;” Blanke continues, “and (2) Mary’s membership in a new household of God about to be gathered by Jesus, as his death, would have been suggested by Jesus’ manner of embracing her unwitting participation in his burial preparation” (page 52).

This story evokes for us both the gratitude of a family Passover that would not have happened without Jesus’ gift of life, and the grief of people who have (at least symbolically) lost the head of their household and dearest friend. “Jesus’ interpretation of Mary’s anointing as a funeral anointing changes the atmosphere of the supper from a predominantly joyous celebration of Lazarus’ resurrection,” Blanke notes, “to a sober foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death” (page 53).

The story is so rich with details in such a short span that it’s hard to take them all in. For example, there is the note that Mary loosens her hair. Some commentators find this to be a morally questionable action. But Blanke makes the case for another and more compelling view of this action. “Jesus’ interpretation of Mary’s action depicts Mary as a person belonging to his household by referencing her loosened hair. A woman’s loosened hair was no immediate indication of a lack of propriety. In certain contexts,” he writes, “it would have indicated that she was grieving the loss of a beloved member of her household. Though she offered herself to Jesus in a manner that resembles the conduct of a slave,” Blanke continues, “Jesus receives her and those present with her as if they were family preparing his body for burial” (page 53).

Thus, Judas’ response is wildly inappropriate in the context. “Several features of ancient funerary practice as the activity of a first-century household would have been evoked by Jesus’ words and by the evangelist’s depiction of the anointing,” Blanke observes, “Mary, while offering Jesus thanks, at the same time also prepares his body for burial. His is a household that simultaneously celebrates life as it unwittingly prepares for his impending death” (page 54).

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God” (John 1:11, NRSV). Lazarus, Mary, and Martha welcome and receive Jesus (along with those who gather with them) and are constituted as God’s family with Jesus. “At Bethany Mary and her household anticipate the eating of the Passover, their receiving of the lamb of God, and the new community that God would make of them. No longer merely brother and sister of one another,” Blanke suggests, “they will then become children of God and brothers and sisters of the Son of God” (page 55).

In contrast, Judas does not receive Jesus and thus is not part of the family. Instead, he takes. He is the “thief” who only comes to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10a). He does not receive Jesus and therefore cannot and will not have life in abundance.

“In this Gospel,” Blanke concludes, “God saves by gathering. Far from being a text that merely reflects unintelligible corruption from parallel synoptic accounts of a similar anointing episode, John 12:1-7 reflects the unique interests of this Gospel’s passion narrative. It is carefully structured so as to depict a community gathered to Jesus, and so gathered also to the Father, so as to live as brothers and sisters and as disciples of Christ.” Blanke (page 55).

As we come to this penultimate Sunday in Lent, we get a preview of Holy Week and Easter. If we attend to this part of the journey, our gatherings as well will have the twin features of gratitude and grief.

References and Resources

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.

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

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