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 15:26-16:15 (Pt. 3); Day of Pentecost B, 2021

3. Convincing and Convicting

I have been a mild to moderate “Trekkie” for over fifty years. So, I am reminded of the first two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “Encounter at Farpoint.” There is much to commend those episodes, but in the context of our reading from the Gospel of John, I am focusing on one element.

The framework of the episodes is a trial – the ongoing trial of humanity, staged by the victims of humanity’s cruelties. The charge is that humanity is essentially evil, regardless the veneer of civilization we may lay over the top of that perverse nature. The burden of proving the opposite rests with the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise (D). Through a combination of wit, empathy, courage, and compassion, they make the case and escape oblivion.

For the present. The story ends with the warning from “Q,” who acts as judge and Lord High Executioner, that the trial is not over. In fact, the trial never ends – not as long as humanity continues to grow and explore. That idea of the unending trial reappears at periodic intervals and frames the seven-year run of the Next Generation series. The verdict of the trial is often questioned, but in the end the outcome is not in doubt.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

The trial continues. I think that’s part of the framework of the Gospel of John as well. Just as the world believes it is putting Jesus on trial in the court of Pilate, so the world continues to believe it is putting the followers of Jesus on trial, according to the Johannine perspective. Just as the real trial has Jesus as the judge and the world as the “defendant,” so the real trial continues to have the world in the dock and disciples offering testimony in the case. The ironic reversal of the obvious is central to the Johannine style.

In fact, defending the disciples and prosecuting the ongoing trial is part of the task of the Holy Spirit, in the Gospel of John. “And when that One is coming, that One shall expose the world concerning sin and justice and judgment” we read in John 16:8 (my translation). The writer explains what this means – “concerning sin, because they are not putting their faith in me, concerning justice as well, because I am going to the Father and you are no longer perceiving me, and concerning judgment, because the Ruler of this cosmos has been judged” (John 16:9-11, my translation).

The verb the NRSV translates as “prove wrong” can also be translated as “expose” or “convince” or even “convict.” The Defender now becomes the Prosecutor – laying out the facts of the case in such a way that the conclusion is unavoidable. “Sin” in John is always about refusing to put one’s trust in Jesus. “Judgment” is the word we have reviewed often in the past – “krisis” – which can be translated as “crisis,” or “decision point” or “judgment.” The “Ruler of this world” is represented most clearly in the Fourth Gospel by Pilate in the trial scenes upcoming.

The word the NRSV translates as “righteousness” is the familiar one Paul uses often. However, I don’t think it’s all that helpful to translate it in the same way here. It is another question whether Paul might intend us to use the word “justice” rather than “righteousness.” But in our current reading, a different translation can keep us from confusing Paul’s usage with that in the Gospel of John. This gospel is not talking about forensic justification but rather about setting the world right under the rule of the Messiah who is Jesus.

More on that notion in a bit. But first, let’s look at the political background of the Gospel of John as we think about the work of the Defender, aka the Holy Spirit.

Scholars have framed and understood the Gospel of John as an extended trial, rooted in Jesus’ trial before Pilate during John’s passion narrative. In particular we should read Andrew Lincoln’s Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (which is, unfortunately, currently out of print). Paul Ricoeur approached this topic from the perspective of philosophy and it worth reading on the topic (if one has hours to devote to wading through the dense prose).

Scholars have also noted the overtly political and polemical nature of John’s gospel in contrast to the traditional view that the Gospel of John is the most “spiritual” of the canonical gospels and therefore the least concerned with issues and events in the “real” world of the first-century Mediterranean. The fact that the trial narrative in John’s gospel is almost exclusively in the courtroom of Pilate, the Roman governor, should push against this view.

In “The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” David Resenberger outlines the political awareness and concerns one can read between the lines in the Gospel of John. He reviews C. H. Dodd’s work in this regard.

The desire to make Jesus a “bread king” in John 6 describes the social and economic disruption and unrest in the Roman province of Palestine prior to 70 C.E. The worries in the Sanhedrin that the Jesus movement could activate a large-scale violent response by the Romans reflects the ferment in Jerusalem regarding the continuing foreign occupation and Gentile control of the Temple complex.

Resenberg observes that this background is always incorporated into the Gospel’s Christological concerns. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “the possibility is raised that Christology and politics were not necessarily unrelated for the Fourth Evangelist” (page 396). Resenberg observes that the Gospel of John uses the Greek term for “king” twice as often as do the Synoptics in reporting Jesus’ passion. The Gospel of John may not be quite so “spiritual” as many interpreters have concluded.

He concludes that the politics in the Gospel of John has two emphases. Jesus’ trial shows that a confrontation with Empire is not to be avoided. Instead, as he quotes Wayne Meeks, disciples will always have to decide “whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is” (page 410). In terms of our gospel reading, disciples must discern whether the “ruler of this world” has been judged or not.

On the other hand, disciples must discern whether the violence of Barabbas is preferable to the love of the Good Shepherd (John 10), the friend of the disciples (John 15) – the one who lays down His life for those he loves. The questions posed in the trial, then are, “Who is the real King?” and “what does the real King do?” Notice that in each of those questions, the issue is about “truth” as being authentic, genuine, and steadfast.

Resenberg sums up his evidence and argument in these words. “The Fourth Gospel thus confronts the issue of Israel’s freedom in the late first-century Roman Empire with an alternative both to Zealotry and collaboration, by calling for an adherence to the king who is not of this world, whose servants do not fight, but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of both synagogue and Empire” (page 411).

In “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Fourth Gospel,” Cornelius Bennema suggests that in the Gospel of John, Jesus is “depicted as a messianic liberator who will set people free from” social oppression (the Samaritan woman), physical oppression (healings), and spiritual oppression. Jesus judges and conquers the “world” in this liberating work and establishes a new era of justice and peace. He carries out this justice work through the sword of the Word made flesh, rather than any sword of violence.

In our reading, we see, according to Bennema, that Jesus passes that work on to the disciple community through the agency of the Paraclete. “As ‘the Spirit of truth,’” Bennema writes, “the Paraclete will mediate the liberating truth present in Jesus’ words to the disciples to inform and empower their liberating witness to the world” (page 54). It is the witness of the disciples that is the vehicle through which the Paraclete will expose sin, enact justice, and deliver judgment against the Ruler(s) of this world. Just as Jesus carries out this campaign by his Word(s), so the disciple community continues the world through witness – testimony which may result in suffering and even death (the Greek meaning of marturia in our texts).

“Therefore,” Bennema concludes, “liberation in the Fourth Gospel should be seen as holistic. Jesus liberates people from oppression primarily by means of his Spirit-imbued word of truth, which is double-edged in that it liberates and gives life to those who accept it, but it results in (immediate) judgment, continued oppression and eventually death for those who reject it” (page 55).

If I had known more of this about the Gospel of John, I might not have avoided it for so long.

Lewis agrees with this assessment. “Righteousness is both God’s revelation of God’s very self, but also the ability to witness this revelation,” she writes. “The Spirit’s role will be to continue to bring to light what we have seen about God in Jesus. At the same time, reclaiming the translation ‘justice’ for this term may be helpful in this circumstance, especially as Jesus invites manifestations of justice and condemnation in light of his own ministry” (page 205).

It should not be surprising that the downplaying of “justice” in the Fourth Gospel coincides approximately with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nor should it be surprising that this downplaying of justice continues to fit with the imperial accommodation of Christendom with empire. We need to be aware of this interpretive tendency.

The trial continues.

References and Resources

Behm, TDNT V:800-814.

Bennema, Cornelius. “The Sword of the Messiah and the Concept of Liberation in the Forth Gospel.” Biblica 86 (2005), 35-38.

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

O’Day, Gail.  “John’s Voice and the Church’s Preaching” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/21-4_John/21-4_O’Day.pdf.

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

Rensberger, D. (1984). The Politics of John: The Trial of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 103(3), 395-411. doi:10.2307/3260780

Shillington, V. George. “The Spirit-Paraclete as Jesus’ alter ego in the Fourth Gospel (John 14–16). https://press.palni.org/ojs/index.php/vision/article/download/238/194.