This Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 5 in Year C takes a break from our reading of Luke’s gospel to focus on the anointing of Jesus in Bethany by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, in John 12.1–8. (If anyone can explain this move, I would love to hear!). This is an unusual narrative since, if we accept one line of interpretation (which assumes the account of the anointing in Luke 7.36–50 records the same incident), then this is the only other incident in the ministry of Jesus apart from the feeding of the five thousand which occurs in all four gospels. The parallel accounts are worth exploring briefly, before looking in more detail at way John uses language to weave the story seamlessly into his narrative.
The accounts in Matthew, Mark and John are strikingly similar; this is one moment where we might think that it is these three gospels which are the ‘synoptics’!
|Matthew 26:6–13||Mark 14:3–9||John 12:1–8|
|While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”||While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”||Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”|
The accounts are of similar length (though, not untypically, there is more detail in Mark than in Matthew). All three accounts agree that the incident happened in Bethany, near the time of Jesus’ Passion, that a woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, that there were objections to what she had done, that Jesus defended her action as a sign of his impending death, and that he included reference to ‘always having the poor with you’. Mark includes a few more details than Matthew, and John tends to agree with Mark (mentioning the perfume as (spike)nard, and it being worth a year’s wages).
The account in Luke 7.36–50 is quite different, with the incident there happening in the north of the country, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, at the home of a Pharisee (though also called Simon, a very common Jewish name) where Jesus is anointed by a ‘sinful woman’ and he responds with teaching not about the poor but about devotion in response to forgiveness. Despite all these differences, the accounts have repeatedly been conflated—indeed, it is almost impossible to find in the history of art a depiction of the anointing at Bethany faithful to the first three accounts (my picture is by Rubens of the anointing according to Luke!). Based on the assumption that there could not have been two different anointings (which I don’t think is justified) and noting the one connection of the wiping of Jesus’ feet with the woman’s hair in both John’s and Luke’s stories, it has been assumed that the Mary of Bethany is the same as Mary Magdalene and that she is also the sinful woman, as an interpretation of the statement in Luke 8.2 that Mary Magdalene has been delivered of ‘seven demons’. The conflation of the three figures (Mary of B, Mary M, the sinful woman) and the association of demons with sinfulness, are all unhelpful and unwarranted.
Turning to the account in John 12.1–8, as we are reading we need to note particularly two pairs of features of the Johannine narratives. The first is the combination of ‘reality effects’ which give realistic detail with the use of heavy symbolic significance. A good example of this from earlier in the gospel is the timing of Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus and the woman at the well in chapters 3 and 4: the evening is a realistic time to hold a conversation, yet the twilight also signifies Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, whilst the woman comes to the well at noon having been shunned by her peers, yet the broad daylight symbolises her clear understanding by the end of the encounter. The second pair of features we need to note is analepsis (making connections with what has gone before) and prolepsis (making connections in anticipation of what will come).
Where the previous incident of the raising of Lazarus lacked a time reference, John now resumes his characteristic counting of days (see the sequence of references to ‘the next day’ in the opening chapters). The mention of ‘six days before the Passover’ both connects this narrative to Jesus’ coming death, starting a kind of Passion week countdown (so that this passage is often read on the Monday of Holy Week), but also offers the third mention of Passover, giving us a chronological shape to the ministry of Jesus (covering all or part of three years) but more importantly connecting Jesus’ ministry with the Jewish festivals and symbolically signifying Jesus as the Passover lamb. This began with John the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’ in John 1.36 and will be completed by John’s scheduling of the crucifixion at the time of the sacrifice of the passover lamb—a schedule which might well be more historically accurate than the traditional timing.
The explicit mention of Lazarus and his being raised is the first example of analepsis, connecting this story with the narrative of the preceding chapter—though John notes that this meal did not take place in the house of Lazarus, thus agreeing with Matthew and Mark. Martha serves in a practical way, contrasted with Mary’s more extravagant action; this concurs both with the difference we already saw in chapter 11, but also with the distinction in Luke’s unique account of the sisters in Luke 10.38–42, though here in John Martha’s service is depicted positively, using the discipleship term diakoneo. Lazarus is ‘reclining at table’ with Jesus, a prolepsis (anticipation) of the intimacy of the ‘beloved disciple’ at the Last Supper in John 13.23, but that is no reason to suppose that these two are the same figure (if so, why mention Lazarus’ name here but not in the next chapter?).
The introduction of Mary needs no explanation, since we know from chapter 11 who all three characters are—and their introduction there includes a proleptic mention of this very episode in anticipation. Like Mark, John includes mention of the name of the perfume and its value, but also includes details of the quantity (a Roman ‘pound’, litra) and its effect—that it fills the whole house (which might have been a single room) with its fragrance. Perhaps this also symbolically signifies that such a costly act of worship has an impact on all who are close enough to witness it. Mary’s action at Jesus’ feet (in contrast to Matthew and Mark, who mention only his head) functions both as analepsis and prolepsis, recalling Mary’s falling at Jesus’ feet in John 11.32 and anticipating Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.5.
Where Matthew and Mark ascribe the complaint to the disciples in general, John specifies it as coming from Judas. The name is mentioned twelve times in this gospel, and the very first mention of Judas Iscariot in John 6.71 already anticipates his betrayal. The connection of Judas with the common purse is continued in John 13.29; the word for ‘purse’ here is glossokomon, which occurs only in these two places in the New Testament (contrast pera in Luke 9.3 and 10.4) and more usually means ‘coffin’. The contrast of responses to Jesus represented by Mary and Judas matches the conflicted responses to the raising of Lazarus explored in John 11.45–57; the division amongst the people is matched by a division amongst the disciples, and the conflict beyond Jesus’ circle is now felt as a conflict within Jesus’ circle. And this narrative is typical of John’s overall positive depiction of women, often in contrast to men; the understanding of the woman at the well contrasts with the bafflement of Nicodemus, and at the cross the women remain as witnesses when most of the men (with the exception of the ‘beloved disciple’) have fled. Even at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, the men leave the garden whilst Mary Magdalene lingers and encounters Jesus. It is worth noting, though, that John’s purpose in describing these characters is never primarily to make us focus on them—rather, he tells their story in order to teach us something about Jesus.
John agrees with Matthew and Mark in quoting Jesus’ understanding that Mary’s action anticipated his death (using the metonym of ‘burial’). But he sharpens the emphasis by describing Mary as ‘keeping this’ for the occasion. Some commentators have inferred that she has held back some of the perfume, and what remains will actually be used in the anointing of Jesus’ body, thus actually connecting this action with his death (which is why John omits mention of ‘breaking’ the bottle). But I think a better reading is to see Jesus understanding that she has waited until this moment to anoint him, signifying the imminence of his death and the coming of ‘the hour’ which has, until now, been delayed (see John 2.4).
As in Matthew and Mark’s account, Jesus here alludes to the command in Deut 15.11 to always be ready to care for the poor, since there will always be people in need of our compassion and open hands. There is no need to see here a sharp contrast between extravagant worship and service; after all, the very next chapter sees Jesus in humble service to his disciples, and we hear his command to emulate his example. Jesus is the one who merits our most extravagant worship, but who also merits our obedience; whatever we can offer him is as nothing in comparison with the extravagant gift he has given us in pouring out his life as an atoning sacrifice and a precious gift of love for each one of us.
Drawing some of these insights together, this is the short devotion I wrote for Scripture Union’s Encounter with God notes a couple of years ago:
John did not tell us anything about the timing of the raising of Lazarus. But he now returns to his usual practice, and links the anointing at Bethany in time forwards with the coming Passover (agreeing with the accounts in Matthew and Mark), and backwards with both place and person. The connection with Lazarus is not mentioned in the other gospels; the fact that he himself was in danger of betrayal (v 10) might have led them to omit mention of him.
John’s gospel is full of conflict, and this story crackles with tension. As in Luke 10, Martha is busy with serving, as she no doubt thinks fit. How does she view Mary’s action? Extravagant? Unnecessary? Improper? Attention-seeking? Why can’t Mary show her love in unobtrusive practical action as she is doing? What about the men there; how do they view Mary? As profligate? And provocative? To let down one’s hair in that culture could easily be seen as flaunting your sexuality. The disciples (in Matthew and Mark, personified in John by Judas) see another problem. The have a common purse, and relied on the generosity of others (Luke 8.3), and if Mary really wanted to support Jesus, she should have donated the money. After all, Beth-any means ‘House of the Poor’, so she could hardly have missed the point.
Jesus’ comment is difficult to translate, but points yet again to a deeper meaning of her action. She has made this sacrifice out of her love and devotion to Jesus. And her action points beyond this, to Jesus’ own sacrifice out of his love and devotion to the world. Her sacrifice is not an alternative to care for the poor; Jesus quotes Deut 15.11 as a reminder that we must always care for them. But such care must testify to our devotion to Jesus and his love for the world.
What costly act of devotion is Jesus calling you to today? To what outward act of caring for others is he calling you, as an expression both of your devotion and of his love for the world?