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 2:1-11 (Part Three)

The gospel according to John begins with a poem, a party, and a protest. The poem is the Prologue in chapter one. The party is held at Cana in the first half of chapter two. The protest is in the Jerusalem temple in the second half of chapter two. The poem does not have the utility of a shopping list. The party could be seen by some as a waste of both time and wine. The protest may have made lots of noise, but it didn’t appear to change anything of substance in that historical moment.

The first two chapters of the Johannine account could be regarded, in the words of Marva Dawn’s great old book, as “a royal waste of time.” Don’t get me wrong here. The events may not be particularly “useful” in any social, political, or economic sense at the moment. But they are deeply significant, both in the Johannine account and in our walk as disciples.

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In the previous post, we talked about time and its meaning in the Johannine account. I was reminded of the Ephesian reference to “getting the most out of the time.” As I reflect further, I think I’d like to take that translation back. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. That translation can easily slide into a neoliberal, capitalist interpretation that reinforces our obsession with making every second productive in economic and political terms.

I’m reading Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. She notes that her book is “a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy…” (page xi). She argues that we live more and more in a system where what we do with our time can never be enough, how we accumulate our stuff can never be enough, and who we are as people can never be enough.

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it,” Odell writes, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive” (page xii). She wants us to wrestle ourselves away from the “attention economy,” where every waking second of our lives is available to be monetized by strangers in the virtual world and to replant our focus back in a public and physical space.

I think about an example which is not quite in Odell’s direct argument but makes the same point. Nearly twenty years ago, Andrew Fischer rented out his forehead to SnoreStop for over thirty-seven thousand dollars. This spawned a small industry dedicated to monetizing the physical geography of human bodies in order to promote a variety of products. It was a good deal for Mr. Fischer, and he made the whole enterprise into a business beyond serving as a walking billboard.

In effect, such an enterprise treats human bodies as spaces which can be commercially exploited for private gain. Let me be clear. No one forced Fischer to do anything. I’m not making that argument. But he viewed his body in the same way that our culture views time – as a tangible asset to be mined for everything it’s worth. And if we’re not producing something of economic value, then we’re “useless.”

The first thing Jesus does in the Johannine gospel, after responding to the curiosity of the first disciples with a call to following, is to attend a party. When he’s asked to do something “useful” at the party, he gets snarky with his own mother and says something like, “Hey, I’m off the clock, Mom.” Then when he does respond to the request, he makes a whole bunch of wine. He doesn’t give sight or hearing or anything else. He starts by being a bit less than “useful.”

And he does it for free. Now, that’s downright un-American.

In a neoliberal, capitalist worldview, regular worship makes no sense. Regular worship doesn’t produce any capital gains. We don’t make anything. We may not even learn anything. I had an inactive parishioner in a congregation once who finally came clean with me on why he didn’t attend worship. He couldn’t afford to waste time like that.

Sunday morning was a time when he could find lots of people at home. Since he was in direct sales, that time was one of his biggest earning blocks of the week. Spending a couple of hours getting ready for, traveling to, attending, and then traveling back from regular worship was, in his view, a bad investment. I thanked him for his honesty and stopped asking him questions.

Many folks deal with this lack of usefulness in worship and other church activities by turning these events into self-help or personal growth experiences. They may not be able to monetize their time at church, but they can justify the expenditure on the basis of “what they get out of it.” Consumerism remains the framework through which they understand worship and account for their time.

This is most obvious when someone changes churches (or synagogues or mosques or other communities, I assume) because “I’m not getting anything out of it.” The more spiritual and pious form of this complaint is that “I’m not being fed.” People have mismatches with faith communities, and I think people should participate where they can be of most service. But the arrow of causation tends to run from congregant as consumer to church as vendor.

“We live in an age and a culture that want instead to turn the worship of God into a matter of personal taste and time, convenience and comfort,” Marva Dawn writes. “Consequently, we need the biggest dose of God we can get when we gather for worship on Sunday morning – to shake us out of this societal sloth and somnambulism and summon us to behold God’s splendor and respond with adoration and service and sacrifice” (Kindle Locations 121-123).

But if our gospel reading is any indicator, sometimes making the most of the time might mean doing nothing really productive. “Worship is a royal waste of time that spirals into passion for living as Christians and back into more passionate worship,” Dawn argues. “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).

Worship is such a force for hope because it requires us to pay attention for the sake of attention rather than to fill someone’s pockets. Worship is not a means to an end but rather an end in itself. It is an expression of our love for God “for nothing.” We might want to love God for what produces, but that is not love for God. That is really love for self. Relating to God for God’s sake needs to justification and provides no profit.

No wonder most people don’t care much for it.

References:

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

Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Melville House. Kindle Edition.