Each of the four canonical gospels has a report of a woman anointing Jesus at a meal. Only in the Lukan account does this report take place outside of the final days of Jesus’ ministry. Each of the gospel composers uses the story in a different way. We can see that this story has a critical and early place in the memories and traditions of Christian communities. And we can see the freedom that each gospel composer exercises in using the story to accomplish the composer’s rhetorical purposes.
In the Johannine account, Mary of Bethany is named as the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. Even though she is named, she speaks no words. Yet her actions not only fill the house with a beautiful fragrance. Her actions fill up the story with pathos and power, with emotion and energy. Mary’s actions do all the talking necessary here.
Judas, on the other hand, is all talk and no action. Let’s look at how Judas’ words function (or not), and what this says to us in our study and proclamation.
Judas engages in several male power moves in this scene. He speaks publicly to and for the whole group rather than engaging his concerns quietly or privately. The Johannine narrator undercuts this attempt at authority by reminding readers and listeners that Judas was the one who was going to hand Jesus over (John 12:4b). Even though Judas tries to control the responses of the group, the narrator will not allow him to get away with that move.
In this public display of woman-policing, Judas appeals to the dynamics of male solidarity and the patriarchal structure of his community. Jesus interrupts that appeal and tells Judas to back off. Jesus not only approves Mary’s actions, but he lifts her up as the epitome of a disciple in that moment. The power of Mary’s love and devotion overwhelms the normal structures of male power in the room and in the group. Jesus breaks with male solidarity and stands with Mary.
It is clear in Paul’s letters that early Christian communities struggled to integrate the gifts and leadership of women into their life together. On the one hand, Paul’s missionary work is financially underwritten, at least in part, by women of means such as Lydia. In addition, Paul relies on a theology of gifts rather than the restrictions of gender to select and mentor leaders in the movement. If we make an honest accounting of those Paul lists and greets as leaders in his letters, we can see that women play prominent and relatively equal roles in the mission.
On the other hand, the Corinthian correspondence shows that the congregation at Corinth was having some trouble implementing an egalitarian understanding of mission and service. I don’t think that Paul really got the issue settled in writing for the Corinthians. He fell back on the male solidarity of patriarchy to some degree in order to resolve the controversy.
In other parts of the church, we know that things did not develop any better in terms of the role of women in church leadership. In the generation after Paul, the counsel is that women should obey their husbands as is fitting in the Lord. Women are to keep silent in church, not to have teaching authority over men, and to find their salvation in childbearing. Those scriptural benchmarks continue to haunt the Church around the world today, as various traditions wrestle with and too often reject the gifts of women for church leadership.
It’s clear in the Johannine account that Mary’s gift is not only welcomed but also commended. Judas uses a kind of virtue signaling to control Mary’s behavior and to cover his own deceit and theft. How could he be a thief, after all, if he was so deeply concerned for the poor! It’s the perfect camouflage. He accuses Mary of misusing money when all along he is the one (according to the Johannine composer) misappropriating the funds.
The sheer hubris of this is obvious when we look for it. After all, Judas is in Mary’s house. He’s eating free food from her table. He’s protected, along with the other disciples, for the moment from the authorities by the status and position of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. And, with his mouth full of Mary’s food, he has the temerity to tell her that she’s wasting money! That’s an image of male privilege if I ever saw one.
Is this an issue in the Johannine community – “changing channels” in order to escape notice? I think that’s a legitimate consideration in our reflection and study. We can look at the First Letter of John, perhaps, for some clues. I think the channel changing begins early in the letter. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8, NRSV). It’s easiest to argue that we have no sin “in us” if we can offload that sin on to someone else.
This channel-changing becomes especially clear when the issue is using our goods for the sake of another. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” the writer asks. “Little children,” the writer continues, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:17-18, NRSV). Talk is cheap Judas, but real love costs money.
I wonder if in the Johannine community, there was a bit of pious cluck-clucking about the best ways to use money. In my experience, that sort of conversation is often a smokescreen for the desire to just keep “our” money rather than “wasting it” on “those people.” We want the biggest bang for the buck, the best use of our dollars, the surest return on our mission investments. Since we can’t really guarantee those sorts of things in the real world, it’s best if we keep our money to ourselves until the “right” set of circumstances arises. And best of all, we can portray ourselves as “good stewards” in the process.
What better way for Judas to change the channel than to “out” Mary as an irresponsible rich person who has no concern for the poor? In twelve-step communities, there’s a helpful rule of thumb that manages our tendency to judge others. “You spot it, you got it.” That rule of thumb is certainly being applied by Jesus in our text.
Judas is trying to use shame to control Mary and her behavior by this public calling out. He tries to alienate and separate her from the “real” disciples, who clearly don’t have that kind of money. So, he weaponizes a sort of class solidarity. He turns the spotlight from himself to her and waits for the recriminations to come. It’s a brand of “whataboutism” that would make twenty-first century practitioners of the craft proud.
This text presents an opportunity to examine and critique our own discourses of self-justification and self-service. I’m reading Robin DiAngelo’s newest book, Nice Racism: How Progressive People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Her specialty is discourse analysis, and she hits me right in my white supremacist guts over and over. When I see Judas’ discourse as an exercise in self-deception, domination, and deflection, I realize that I’m looking in a mirror much more than I’m looking through a window.
I think of the times over the years when I have had opportunities to live and work in less segregated spaces. Each time, I have taken the path of least resistance, the softer and easier path, and remained in Whites-only spaces. That’s been true in housing and education decisions, in financial decisions, and in church participation and membership. I can make all the self-justifying arguments about why these choices were the “right” ones (for me and my family). And all those arguments leave me in the same self-serving space I have occupied for a lifetime.
I’ve also been reading Kwon and Thompson in their powerful work, Reparations. When Judas is identified as a thief, I cringe with self-recognition. If White supremacy is, at its most basic, theft, as Kwon and Thompson convincingly argue, then I am a thief no better than Judas. I may not be taking the property of someone else directly (although I don’t think I can sustain even that innocence), but I am certainly guilty on a daily basis of receiving and benefitting from stolen property.
I live on and have legal title to land that was at some point in history taken from the original inhabitants. I live in neighborhoods that benefit disproportionately from city and county and state funding, simply because of my zip code. My kids and grandkids attend schools that have better funding at the expense of schools with majority Black and Brown student bodies. The value of my house has skyrocketed in part because it’s in an area that has never been surrounded by a red line on a real estate or banking map.
So, part of the point in the text, for me, is, “Don’t be Judas.” That may seem too obvious to bear mentioning. But the point is to not be Judas in the way he was Judas. If only he could have watched Mary’s actions. If only he could have seen her devotion for what it was. If only he could have been moved by what he witnessed, he might have chosen another path and become a different person. Am I willing to be led and taught and challenged and shaped by those who are not powerful? And am I willing to change even when that’s not in my self-interest?
That’s always the challenge for those of us in charge…
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.
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