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Reflections on the Gospel, Week before March 17, 2013

John 12:1-11

 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

What I am Learning:

Bethany is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Word has spread fast about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. They are sitting at a dinner in Jesus' honor. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead it really raised the stakes and the expectations about Jesus. The messiah was expected to:

  • Cleanse the lepers
  • Heal the sick
  • Make the blind to see
  • The deaf to hear
  • To preach good news to the poor (that is that in God's kingdom there are no poor)
  • Do away with the oppressive occupation of the Romans
  • AND the Big Finale - to raise the faithful dead to enjoy the wonder of life as God intends it to be

In the Gospel of John, Jesus has now done all but kill the Romans.

But Mary knows this is one expectation that Jesus is not going to meet. She has heard Jesus' sermons, she sat at his feet and was a good student. She knows that Jesus will not sow the seeds of God's Reign of Mutuality with violence. She knows what he is going to do.

So in front of everyone she begins to anoint his feet with perfume — to anoint him for his funeral.

She wipes his feet with her hair. How a woman kept her hair revealed her desire to maintain the honor of her family. By wiping Jesus' feet with her hair, she is giving away her honor and that of her family in service of Jesus.

The cleaning of other people's feet was not a common practice, it was considered a shaming thing to ask of someone.

And Jesus lets her do it. Jesus himself loses honor because he lets a woman not related to him touch him, and touch him in such a public way. Jesus gave up the constricting search for status/honor and its rules along time ago.

Judas the Zealot does not approve. He wants Jesus to use all his power and status to force the God's Kingdom into being. Jesus will need all the honor rating he can get in Jerusalem. He sees this anointing for death and doesn't like it. He does a typical Middle Eastern thing: instead of shaming Jesus for allowing Mary to touch him in this way, he shifts the blame to a woman - to Mary for not selling the ointment and giving it to the poor.

Jesus, as he did when Martha wanted to put Mary in her place, defends Mary. He says that if Judas is so interested in the well being of the poor, then he can work on that every day. Mary bought the ointment, Jesus says, for his burial.

This part of the text has been used to justify domination cultures in their status quo. Jesus is not saying that poor people are inevitable and so we should just throw them some scraps. Creating a society in which there is no poor is a part of the messiah's job. He is calling Judas out - "Put your money where your mouth is, Judas!"

Jesus is not going to kill the Romans, he is not going to resist the ways of domination by dominating them back. He is going to expose their participation in exploiting the Jewish people and invite them to live another way. His resurrection will be God's affirmation that Jesus' way is God's way.

A few days later, Jesus takes the lead from Mary his seminary student. In a few days, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus washes his disciples' feet. Jesus accepts her leadership, he senses the power of what she did.

In God's way of mutuality status does not matter. What matters is a capacity for self-giving, serving love. Even Jesus, teacher of such love, learns from another practitioner of servant love.

May we.