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

“For the poor always you have with you, but me you do not always have” (John 12:8, my translation). Our appointed text ends with this quote from Jesus which produces confusion for many readers and interpreters. And it produces apathy and excuse for many of us who have some measure of wealth. It produced enough confusion and consternation in the earliest church that the verse is omitted from a number of manuscripts.

That omission may be explained by innocent scribal errors. It may have been added to a text that originally didn’t have the verse, although the Metzger textual commentary notes that this is not a strong argument. The commentary declares an overwhelming amount of manuscript support for the original placement of this verse within the text, in spite of other arguments to the contrary. So, there it is. We need to deal with it.

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In addition, this quote from Jesus shows up in different contexts in Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:17. It could be that the Johannine author remembers the quote from “earlier” work. But the relationships between the Johannine account and the Synoptic gospels are many, varied, and unclear. It is just as possible that the original Johannine memory, in oral form, influenced the Synoptic accounts. It is equally likely that this text comes from Jesus’ mouth to the disciples’ ears and passes into the general Christian tradition. Once again, there it is. We still need to deal with it.

The text has been read as a justification for treating ministry to and with the poor as a matter of some Christian indifference. After all, the argument goes, Jesus puts the need for this anointing ritual ahead of relief for the poor. Judas may have had bad motives. But that doesn’t mean his argument was wrong. In fact, perhaps Judas was smart enough to use an argument everyone could buy in order to cover his thieving tracks.

Since that’s the case in this text, the argument continues, we don’t have to be so terribly concerned about ministry to and with the poor. It sounds like Jesus is saying that no matter what we do, we will always have poor people in our midst. Therefore, we can exercise some moderation in our concern for the poor and pick our spots judiciously in offering help.

It’s a great way for me to hang on to my money in the face of another’s need.

On the way to our weekly worship, we pass an intersection regularly staffed by an unhoused person seeking donations. I don’t know how it goes for him on other days of the week, but I hope Sundays are productive of generous donations. We have planned that into our route and pray that the light is red so we can stop without causing an accident (that’s usually the case).

I know folks who sneer at such efforts as tantamount to spitting into the ocean to raise the water level. “No matter how much you give and how often,” they might say, “it won’t make any difference. There’ll always be another beggar at the corner. After all,” they might conclude, “Jesus said we would have the poor with us always. Why do you bother? For all you know, you’ll do just as much good tossing your money down a rat hole.”

Let’s take on the scriptural issue first and see where that leaves us in terms of behavior. This is an example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. Jesus quotes the words of Deuteronomy 15:11a (NRSV) – “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…” The text begins with “since,” so we should get a clue right away that this won’t work as a proof text all on its own.

Deuteronomy 15 contains teaching and guidance for the implementation of the Sabbatical Year. During this year, debts from Jew to Jew are to be forgiven. The purpose of this practice is to make sure that long-term and systemic poverty does not get a foothold in the Jewish community. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you,” Deuteronomy 15:7 (NRSV) exhorts, “do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor.”

Those who have means should be open-handed and generous toward those who do not have means. Those who hold the debts of their neighbors should not put the screws to them in year six so that they have nothing to remit in the Sabbatical year. Giving is to be liberal and without ill feelings. This will result in blessing from the Lord upon all of the work those with means do.

Because there will always be some economic inequity, since there will never cease to be some needy on the earth, the Lord commands those with means to open their hands to the poor and needy neighbor in the land. This extends up to and includes setting free those Jews who have sold themselves into slavery to satisfy a debt. Hebrew slaves shall be set free, without condition, in the Sabbatical year.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis offers comments on this and related texts in a 2015 presentation available online. She notes that in response to the question, “What is the most famous biblical text about the poor?” the most common answer is our text – “The poor you will always have with you.” Of course, the majority of respondents are those who have financial means they wish to protect. The self-serving response is thus not surprising.

The response is typically expanded in three ways. We can never end poverty. Christians can and should respond to poverty, but the government should not. And we should pay more attention to Jesus than to the poor. “But I believe the phrase ‘the poor will be with you always’ and the larger story of the anointing at Bethany actually means the exact opposite of how it has traditionally been interpreted. Indeed,” Theoharis argues, “I believe ‘the poor are with you always’ is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”

She suggests that the disciples (and even Judas, regardless of his real intentions) operate with the common understanding of how to respond to the poor. Collect sufficient resources for yourself and then give from the leftovers to assist those who are in need. But that’s not the way things are outlined in Deuteronomy 15, she continues. Instead, the emphasis in Deuteronomy 15 is not on how to help the poor but rather in how to have a system where poverty is eliminated.

“Deuteronomy 15 explains that if people follow God’s commandments there will be no poverty,” Theoharis notes. “In fact, this passage lays out the Sabbath and Jubilee prescriptions that are given so that the people of God know what to do to ensure that there is no poverty – that God’s bounty is enjoyed by all. It concludes that because people do not follow what God has laid out,” she continues, “’there will never cease to be some in need on the earth’ (or, ‘the poor you always have with you’), and because of that, it is our duty to God to ‘open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.’”

Judas and the rest of the disciples are getting things backward in their understanding of the Jubilee system of economics. A biblically just system is not content to continually fix the problems that an unjust system inevitably produces. Instead, a biblically just system does not produce those problems to begin with. “So when Jesus said this line to his followers, they would have understood his reference to Deuteronomy 15 and would have known that God had another program for addressing poverty,” Theoharis argues. “Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to enact the Jubilee. The woman anointed Jesus as king of an empire,” she concludes, “that had Jubilee and Sabbath at the center. What God demands of God’s followers is justice not charity.”

Therefore, if we use John 12:8 to make our giving a competition between Jesus and the poor, we will find ourselves on the Judas side of the conversation. Theoharis reminds us a great quote from Dr. King in this regard:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

It’s not the case that I should stop giving money to our new friend on the way to worship. But it is certainly the case that this is not the limit or definition of Christian virtue, ratified by a loose proof text from John. Instead, Theoharis writes, “The rules and norms of God’s kingdom are set by the Jubilee. There is no poverty in God’s empire; there is no exclusion. All of God’s children are valued and all life is affirmed.”

It is no stretch at all to extend this argument in other directions. Since we have with us the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed – all who suffer from systematic and systemic injustice, our call is not exhausted by individual acts of “charity.” Our call may begin with such acts but can only be addressed when we go after the systems that make such acts necessary in the short term.

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.

Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.

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

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.

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 Five)

The first thing that happens in our text is that Mary is seen. She steps forward and becomes visible. This is a primary threat to any domination system. Domination systems thrive on the invisibility of the oppressed. “I am invisible, understand,” Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man, “simply because people refuse to see me” (quoted in Kwon and Thompson, Reparations, page 29).

Invisibility is the product of social segregation and control of public space. Patriarchal systems tend to keep men and women separate, especially in public communal settings. And patriarchal systems give the power of public speech to men while limiting women, for the most part, to private communication behind the scenes. The result is that men do all the talking and acting in public. And men only see and hear men talking and acting in public. Thus, men only have to deal with the talking and acting of other men.

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Mary steps forward and makes herself visible and important. I imagine that’s one of the things that pisses off Judas (at least in the report of the Johannine author). Notice that he doesn’t even acknowledge Mary’s presence as a person. He addresses the perfume rather than the person. It is Jesus who refers to Mary as a person – with three pronouns in two sentences. Jesus sees Mary. He does not collude in the continuing system to render her invisible.

“The inhabitants of White Christian America don’t understand why African Americans were so angrily protesting in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore,” Robert P. Jones writes in The End of White Christian America, “because their communities and experiences are insulated from many of the problems facing black Americans.” We White Americans have small sympathy for our Black neighbors primarily because they are not our Black neighbors. I am a personal case study in the point Jones makes – at least in terms of my personal and social core networks.

“White Americans’ notions of race and fairness are shaped by their everyday experiences (already very different from those of African Americans),” Jones continues, “which are then reinforced by interactions with neighbors and friends. And these core social networks,” Jones observes, “the space where meaning is welded on to experience – tend to be extremely segregated” (page 160).

How does this social segregation function? It serves to keep the lives of Black people invisible to White people. It serves to sustain the White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort that are essential to the White experience of social reality. As long as we cannot see the lives of Black people, we White people can go about our daily business with not a thought about those lives or the system in place that privileges us with power, position, and property — at the expense of those we choose not to see.

Where are the primary places that invisibility can be dismantled, and White core social networks can be made part of the real world where color is the majority? One of those places is the public schools. “One of the important purposes of public schools, beyond their educational mission,” Jones writes, “is to bring together American children – and, more indirectly, their parents – across race and class lines” (page 161).

If the function of separation is to sustain the invisibility of the oppressed, it is no wonder that public schools have been and continue to be some of the frontlines in the battles regarding race. The history of public education before and after Brown v. Board of Education is clear and well-documented. With the advent of court-ordered desegregation, a boom began in the founding and support of private schools.

These schools were and are primarily for White, relatively affluent, children. And these schools were, and are, primarily owned and managed in the United States by Christian congregations and institutions. Battles are fought over school “choice” these days, regarding funding and vouchers. The real function of these battles is to sustain the Black and Brown and Indigenous invisibility necessary to sustain White supremacy, White innocence, and White comfort.

It’s clear in our text that Judas would have been more comfortable had Mary remained silent and in the shadows. The cocoon of male privilege would have remained intact. And thoughts about his own pilfering the common purse might not have been so much at the front of the Johannine author’s mind. Mary may have soothed Jesus’ feet with the expensive ointment, but she made Judas twitchy and irritable, to say the least.

One of the functions of the invisibility of the oppressed is to sustain the blissful ignorance and blithe comfort of the privileged. This is, of course, the social function of state laws that would prohibit the teaching of history that risks making White people uncomfortable. As Robin DiAngelo reminds us, White discomfort is not trauma. It is discomfort. Bringing the truth to light – whether it is Judas’ thievery or White oppression – should be uncomfortable. The discomfort means that the truth is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

As I’ve noted before, this anointing story appears in various forms in all four canonical gospels. Scholars debate the relationships between those four accounts, and we may get to some of that debate before the end of the week. Regardless of how these texts are related, seeing the woman is a feature in each and all of them. In the Lukan version (Luke 7:36-50), the meal takes place in the home of Simon, the Pharisee. I am always arrested by one sentence from Jesus – “Are you seeing this woman?” (Luke 7:44b, my translation).

It’s clear that Simon is not seeing that woman. Judas is not seeing Mary. The function of the not seeing is to sustain the existing power structure. The function of the not seeing is to keep the theft and oppression hidden along with the woman. Jesus is not having it.

Perhaps, the community of Jesus is the place to be seen and to see. Just as Jesus sees Mary – her gratitude and gift, her hurt and her heart – so we proclaim that Jesus sees us. Not only does Jesus see us as we are and love us nonetheless, but Jesus also sees us as the fully flourishing human beings God has created and imaged us to be. What a joy and privilege it is to see ourselves as Jesus sees us! I wonder if that is the real gift he gives Mary at that dinner table?

The community of Jesus is also the place to see – to see others as Jesus sees others. We cannot do that, however, if we insist that others remain invisible. “From the very beginning,” Kwon and Thompson write, “American culture was rooted in and dependent on an inviolable form of racial distance between White Europeans and the Africans they enslaved. Over time,” they continue, “as Americans chose to become more dependent on slave labor, this division was formalized into highly choreographed rituals of intimacy and distance that characterized the system of slavery that persisted in American from the early seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century” (pages 35-36).

That system of intimacy and distance was reformatted into Jim Crow segregation. That legal and institutional separation continues to persist in the de facto segregation of American life even as the de jure segregation no longer exists. My life is White. My core social network is White. My neighborhood is (mostly) White. My social media feed is White. My church is White – locally, regionally, and denominationally. I continue to collude in the system of invisibility designed for my supremacy, innocence, and comfort.

The most direct action I can take is to seek out settings where White is not the definition of right or might. I know that is the action required of me. It goes against all of the comfort I treasure and hoard to myself. Putting myself in places where I will be uncomfortable, where I will rightly be regarded with initial suspicion, where I will make mistakes and be foolish – that’s not the whole answer to the problems of racism in the world around me. But it’s one thing I can do.

And I wonder to what degree I can help and be helped by the congregation of which I am a member. I’m part of a denomination that has lots of good anti-racism statements and policies. And those statements and policies are clearly breaking down repeatedly in application and practice. Just as voting rights and fair housing legislation have not changed the behavior of millions of White Americans, so denominational pronouncements have not changed the behavior of thousands of Lutherans

But I’m part of a congregation where we do work to make the hidden visible in many ways. I’m hopeful that my church can be a resource in opening doors to new relationships and networks. But I dare not wait for that to happen and then just go along for the ride.

Perhaps the hardest part of this conversation is that I must admit and grapple with the fact that I am seen by others every day – just as I am. No matter how I deceive and delude myself about my own awareness of oppression, I have to come to terms with the reality that others will see me as I am, in my failings and brokenness, my privilege and posturing, my unwillingness to take risks and get it all wrong. Lord, I hate to be seen for who I am under the best of circumstances. But that’s nothing compared to what needs to happen for me to grow further.

I don’t know if any of this will preach on Sunday. But it certainly reaches out of our text and grabs me by the throat today.

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.

Coakley, J. F. “The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 107, no. 2 (1988): 241–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267698.

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

Jones, Robert P. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Kwon, Duke L., and Thompson, Gregory. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2021.

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 Four)

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.

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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.

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 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.”

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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 Two)

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the story of the anointing in John 12:1-8 is bracketed by two reports of those hostile to Jesus and his mission. John 11:55-57 clearly begins a new section of the narrative, at least in rhetorical terms. The third Passover in the Johannine account is getting close. For a moment, we are transported to the Jerusalem temple and pilgrims who have gone before the Passover to prepare themselves for the festival.

The pilgrims are wondering if Jesus will make another appearance in light of the fact that Jesus is now a wanted man. The chief priests and the Pharisees have issued orders that anyone with knowledge of Jesus’ whereabouts should contact the authorities. With that information in hand, then, the authorities would take Jesus into custody. This is the next step, in the Johannine account, after the council in Jerusalem had officially decided to execute Jesus.

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O’Day and Hylen include verse 54 in this bracketing and suggest that these verses “form the conclusion to the previous chapters and introduce the story of Jesus’ death” (Kindle Location 2552). They suggest that between John 7:14 and John 11:54, Jesus has spoken openly in the Temple. But that public presentation has now come to an end. The rest of Jesus’ teaching will be given privately to his disciples during the Farewell Discourse.

John 12:9-11 reports the plan on the part of the chief priests to execute Lazarus as well. It is the raising of Lazarus which precipitates the extreme measures decreed by the Jerusalem authorities. Lazarus has become, understandably both a minor celebrity and Exhibit A of Jesus’ power over death. Executing Lazarus along with Jesus would remove the evidence of Jesus’ power and the threat he presented to the established order.

The bracketing of our text by these two passages “suggests simultaneous action,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “while the Judeans were looking for Jesus and eventually found him, Jesus was at a meal” (page 204). Our text is a foreshadowing of all the themes we will find in the Johannine passion account in chapters 13-20.

“For John’s group members,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “this meal scenario is pregnant with the interpersonal overtones of their relationship to Jesus and to God, perhaps replicated at their own meals” (page 205). It is also, according to O’Day and Hylen, a depiction of how disciples act in the midst of threats of death and destruction. Disciples continue to embrace Jesus and celebrate life as the children of God.

The meal is a feast of life, a resurrection banquet, bracketed by the ongoing realities of death. I find that to be an interesting and fruitful path for reflection on our text. What if we preachers would help our listeners to experience Christian worship as precisely that sort of meal – a resurrection banquet bracketed by the ongoing realities of death? We bring with us the trials and traumas of life at this moment. We go back into the changes and challenges of the day.

In between, however, we dine with the Lord of Life who will not permit the forces of sin, death, and evil to have the last word. I think it is easy to forget that our eucharistic worship is protest as much as it is proclamation. Our family feast is as much resistance as it is renewal. It is as much hope as it is home. The forces of death which surround us cannot determine or dampen our celebration.

We gather in spite of the ways in which the powers of death seek to bracket our lives. I don’t often think about regular worship in this way, but I’m glad to be reminded of it today. Gathering in faith, hope, and love around the table of the Lord is a great statement of “Nevertheless.” Yes, threats seek to envelope us. Nevertheless, we are safe in the arms of the Lord. Yes, death seeks to overwhelm us. Nevertheless, we are alive by the power of the Cross. Yes, even internal divisions confront us. Nevertheless, we gather around the one table of the Lord.

As we come to the end of our Lenten journeys in the midst of so much darkness and death, locally and globally, we can proclaim our “Nevertheless” in the face of the world’s despair. This is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. This is not Dr. Pangloss declaring that this is the best of all possible worlds. This is a declaration of faith in the face of the world’s despair as we gather to be the Lord’s family in a world always trying to tear us apart.

We Protestants, reflecting to some degree our Puritan heritage (even we who are Lutherans in America), struggle with the place of beauty, of extravagance, of abundance in our worship spaces and lives. The protest we hear from Judas, that we should forgo such “waste” and give the money to the poor, is a sentiment that is echoed in many a church council or board meeting. Surely, we can find better things to do with that precious money than to make our worship “prettier.”

I have often found myself, at least temperamentally, in the Judas camp on this one. I have struggled with the costs of paraments and vestments, of musical instruments and worship furnishings, of liturgical art and architectural glory. If it were just up to me (and thank God, it never has been), most of us would probably worship in old warehouses and listen to lectures on biblical analysis and systematic theology. Thus, the rationale for why I was never part of a worship planning team for any judicatory event or gathering!

I would recommend that you might review Marva Dawn’s marvelous book, A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.” Taking God seriously,” Dawn writes, “being immersed in his splendor, unites us with a community that practices the alternative way of life of following Jesus, of participation in the kingdom of God” (Kindle Locations 123-124). Gathering for worship (even virtually) in lives bracketed by despair and death is evidence of that alternative way of life.

Dawn argues strenuously against applying a sort of cost-benefit analysis to our assessment of the value and importance of worship. “Worship is idolatry unless it is a total waste of time in earthly terms,” Dawn writes, “a total immersion in the eternity of God’s infinite splendor for the sole purpose of honoring God” (Kindle Locations 158-159).

Dawn was writing in response to the move toward “worship as evangelism” that was all the rage in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American Protestant churches. But her theological critique can be applied well beyond any particular fad in worship music and practice. Do we gather at the table of the Lord for God’s sake or for our own? Do we format our worship experiences to honor God or to produce concrete and specific results? Is our worship life commodified and consumerized (the answer is, for the most part, yes), or is it a “royal waste of time” showered in gratitude on the Lord who gives us life?

“Worship is a royal waste of time that spirals into passion for living as Christians and back into more passionate worship,” Dawn continues. “It is totally irrelevant, not efficient, not powerful, not spectacular, not productive, sometimes not even satisfying to us. It is also the only hope for changing the world” (Kindle Locations 245-246). Thus, Dawn argues, the worship of God – the grateful adoration of Jesus at the table – is an end in itself, never a means to an end. But just because it is an end in itself, does not mean that such worship has no outcomes or results.

Instead, worship for God’s sake rather than for ours can form us away from our inveterate self-absorption. If we can practice giving ourselves completely to God for God’s sake in worship, we might stand a better change of giving ourselves completely to our neighbors for our neighbors’ sake in love. “If we understand the genuine needs of our neighbors,” Dawn argues, “we will see that the best gift we could offer them is our faithfulness in royally wasting our time in worship. To be immersed in the prodigal splendor of God will lead us, in turn,” she continues, “to lavish extravagant care on the world” (Kindle Locations 251-253).

Such worship does not benefit from the presence of killjoys. We sit at the table with Jesus. On the couch next to him is Lazarus, the one who not long ago was bound up in funeral linens and moldering in a tomb. There he is, just as the authorities feared – a living, breathing billboard for the Resurrection! Here are his sisters – not long ago so angry with Jesus and grief-stricken over the loss of their brother. Now, Martha can prepare a festal meal. Mary can enact her heartfelt thanks.

It is no accident that Judas is lifted up as the foil to Mary’s extravagant act. A purely transactional, utilitarian view of life with Jesus might turn the best of us into thieves who earnestly desire to keep all the good stuff to ourselves. Such a perspective can lead us, in the end, to betray Jesus to the powers of death and despair.

“If our worship is continually focused on God as the Center of our existence,” Marva Dawn writes, “then those of us who are gathered learn the habits of God’s people – practices like generosity, nonviolence, hospitality, and the thoroughly royal time wasting of Sabbath keeping” (Kindle Locations 398-399). This may be a direction to go with the text as many of us enter into the most worship-intensive stretch of our annual liturgical calendars.

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.

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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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).

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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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