Tara Ingrid Ludmer
6 April, 2000
New Testament Studies 260-312B
This passage is full of active verbs and I think it will be interesting to examine the actors and their actions to learn about the meaning of this gobbet. The first actor is Jesus, who comes to Bethany, which is identified as "home of Lazarus whom [Jesus] had raised from the dead" (Jn 12:1). From the previous chapter, we know that Bethany is just two miles from Jerusalem, so by coming there Jesus is moving very close to Jerusalem for his last Passover ever. In the previous chapter, furthermore, Bethany is described as "the village of Mary and her sister Martha" (Jn 11:2). Thus Bethany is very strongly associated with this trio of characters who appear in this short story.
The next actor is ‘They,’ who give a supper in Jesus’ honor. It is not clear who this is. Martha is serving, so possibly it is in her home, but then who would the rest of the they be? Why, anyway, is it necessary to tell us that Martha, the third actor, is serving? To me this theme of serving is one of the most fascinating parts of this gobbet.
The theme of Martha serving recalls Luke 10:38,40 where Martha makes Jesus welcome, but is also distracted "by her many tasks." Jesus chastises her for resenting Mary’s lack of help, saying "Mary has chosen what is best; it shall not be taken away from her" (Lk 10:42). Here again, Mary and Martha are serving Jesus in different ways. Martha is serving the guests, and Mary "anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair" (Jn 12:3). Although Jesus does not specifically praise Mary’s actions here, he does defend her from Judas’ accusation of thoughtless spending. In addition, we can understand her actions here better by looking elsewhere in John. John 11:2 impresses upon us the significance of Mary’s action when it identifies Mary as "the woman who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair." The idea of wiping feet with hair is in itself startling, especially in light of the fact that a woman would normally not unbind her hair at all in public view (Malina 203). Perhaps the unbinding of her hair signals a departure from the norm. Another related such departure in John is in 13, when Jesus washes the feet of the twelve! It is interesting too that this episode is also presented in the time context of the upcoming Passover festival. In any case, as Mary unbound her hair, Jesus "rose from the supper table, took off his outer garment, and taking a towel, tied it round him" (Jn 13:4). Then he proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. After doing so he explains himself; "You call me Teacher and Lord… Then if I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… In very truth I tell you, a servant is not greater than his master" (Jn 13:13-16). From this we can understand that while Martha serves, Mary serves also, in washing Jesus’ feet, and in a more sacred way. Furthermore, in John 13 Jesus makes the connection between bathing and washing – "Anyone who has bathed needs no further washing; he is clean all over; and you are clean, though not every one of you" (Jn 13:10). This is relevant because John 12:1-11 is bracketed on one side by the description of people going to "Jerusalem to purify themselves before the festival" (Jn 11:55). Just as Jesus does not wash Simon Peter’s hands and head as well, because he is already clean, so Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is not a purification, but contrasts the purification going on in Jerusalem and builds the idea that true purity or cleanliness is not ritual but spiritual. It is also ironic that while the other evangelists insist that the woman who anoints Jesus should always be remembered, John does not, and yet he records a name for her.
The next actor is Judas Iscariot, who protests about the wisdom of spending money on perfumes that could be given to the needy. This objection is raised also in Luke, Matthew, and Mark, but only John puts it into the mouth of Judas. John explains Judas’ behaviour by explaining that Judas is a thief who pilfers money from the common purse. I’m not sure how this makes sense because how would Judas benefit personally if Mary had given her money to charity instead of towards purchasing nard? It seems only to establish that Judas loves money, perhaps he would rather see it in the form of denarii than in the form of nard. It is also the case of course that there is, I have heard taught, no greater act of altruism than to care for a corpse because there is no chance of recompense. Judas is introduced as "the one who was to betray [Jesus]," perhaps his unwillingness to see resources spent on him reflects a basic greed that John wants us to see in Judas, although he omits the story that Judas accepted payment for his betrayal of Jesus (Jn 12:4).
Jesus’ answer is to reply that "the poor you have always among you, but you will not always have me" (Jn 12:8). This is a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11, where Moses instructs the people about the year of remission. Even when they know it is approaching, and therefore they may be reluctant to give a loan to their kinsman, they must "Give to him readily and have no regrets when [they] do so." In other words, give even when you will not receive in return (Deut 15:8-10). This may seem to be the case with the needy to whom Judas suggest giving money, but Judas does not give readily. We know this because we are told that he pilfers the community purse, which was often also the source for charity (Malina 204).
Finally, the last actors are the Jews and the chief priests. The Jews come too "see Lazarus whom [Jesus] had raised from the dead," and in consequence the priests "resolved to do away with Lazarus as well" (Jn 12:9-10). It is interesting that here again, Lazarus is a passive object. He is the only character in this sketch who does not act. Perhaps this is because if Mary acts in the model of Jesus as servant, Lazarus acts in the model of the passion of Jesus and of the future martyrs who will be done away with because they call the world to faith in Jesus. Like Jesus, he is targeted for martyrdom. He is also raised from the dead, as Jesus will also rise. Then I would add that Judas acts in the model of the chief priests, who count the value Jesus’ life by cost-benefit analysis of what they believe will be the retribution for his survival (Jn 11:47-53). Yet finally, they too, like Judas, do not act of their own autonomy against Jesus. John specifies that the high priest suggests Jesus’ death not "of his own accord, but as the high priest that year he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation," and that Jesus deliberately chooses Judas, though Jesus knows that Judas will betray him. John acts when Jesus gives him a piece of bread and Satan enters him (Jn 6:70-1, 13:26-27).
In conclusion, I have tried to show how the characters of the actors drive the story and also give it meaning in the larger context of the book of John.
The Apocrypha and the New Testament. Tran. Revised English Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.
MacGregor. The Gospel of John. The Moffatt New Testament Commentary. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
Malina, Bruce & Rohrbough, Richard. Social-science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Trans. Kurt Aland. Ed. Kurt Aland. USA: United Bible