By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on the Gospel for Sunday, March 13, 2016
Of all the shocking aspects of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, Judas objects to the supposed waste of money. Why not first, though, object to her apparently shameless unveiling of her hair and intimate engagement with Jesus’ feet? As Lent comes to its climax, we enter into this wildly outrageous story.
With a surprise twist typical of Johannine narrative, the author has told us about this event in advance as if it had already happened, as we hear at John 11.2: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.” Now in John 12, after Lazarus has been called out of the tomb and the Jerusalem Sanhedrin has conducted its emergency meeting at which it agrees to “scapegoat” Jesus in order to save “the nation,” we hear Mary’s deed narrated.
Both the advance notice and the story itself describe her action as an “anointing” (Gk, aleipsō). In the Septuagint, the term is most commonly used for the ordinary act of putting oil on oneself as part of daily dressing (e.g., 2 Sam 12.20; Ruth 3.3; also Matt 6.17; cf. Ex 40.15). Here in our passage, Jesus tells Judas and us that Mary’s purpose is related to his burial. It is a point seemingly lost on everyone else in the room, as we hear in the Last Supper Discourse which follows (John 13-17), at which Jesus’ disciples have no clue where he is “going” (13.36; 14.5; 16.5). Mary, as so often with the women in the gospels, is the first to “get” it, even before Jesus announces that his “hour has come” (12.23). Whereas the male disciples sought to avoid and deny the reality of death (11.8, 12), Mary embraces it, having come to deeper trust in Jesus after he raised her brother back to life.
Mary could have anointed Jesus’ head, as Moses did to his brother, Aaron (Lev 8.12; cf. 21.10). But nowhere in Scripture are someone’s feet anointed, and never does a woman anoint anyone other than herself! Alert readers might recognize that a reference to a man’s “feet” can mean his genitals (Ruth 3.4-14), making her act even more outrageously suggestive. And when she uses her own hair to wipe his feet, any sense of decorum has been utterly left behind. In their cultural context, a woman with hair down was openly inviting sexual engagement (cf. Num 5.12-31; 1 Cor 11.15, Paul’s insistence that a woman’s long hair is meant for a “covering”).
Perhaps it was Mary’s creative, intimate action in preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection that inspired Jesus himself to call the disciples to wash each other’s feet (John 13). In both cases, a deep, physical intimacy becomes the manifestation of the greatness of God’s love being shared and experienced among people in preparation for death (15.18-16.3). It is the strength and comfort that flow from such an act that empowers Jesus—and, one hopes, the disciples—to walk courageously toward the cross and beyond.
Judas doesn’t seem a bit concerned with any of this. His focus is on the money, as the Johannine narrator tells us that he was a “thief” (kleptēs, recalling the “bad shepherds,” 10.1, 8, 10). Indeed, the value of the anointing myrrh is extremely high, beyond the means of all but the wealthiest people. The second half of Jesus’ response to Judas focuses on this point: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (12.8).
Of all the Bible verses taken out of context and used to justify an oppressive status quo, this one ranks near the top. Countless sermons, as well as colonialist actions, have been founded on the basis of the misreading of this statement as a prediction that poverty can’t be defeated, so there is no point in trying. But a closer look reveals a much more radical claim. The key is that the poor are to be “with [met’] you.” This simple, ordinary term conveys in John’s gospel the question of solidarity. Consider these examples:
“Some of the Pharisees with him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’” (9.40): Here, the author is distinguishing the Pharisees who expelled the formerly blind one from those who are with Jesus, i.e., the Nicodemus circle (see 3.2; 7.48-50). It is they who, while no longer “blind,” remain in sin, because they refuse to give up the benefits of being Pharisees.
“They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.” (18.5). Here, “with” signifies Judas’ choice to stand “with” the Roman soldiers and temple guards.
“Now the slaves and the guards had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (18.18). Finally, we hear that Peter, who had promised to lay down his life for his Lord (13.37), is now standing “with” the representatives of empire, as he speaks the predicted denial that he is one of Jesus’ disciples.
Thus, in our immediate passage, Jesus is not offering a banal surrender to the inevitability of poverty. Rather, he is reminding them—and us!—that the “poor” are to be “with” us always. The circle of discipleship must not simply “serve” the poor “out there,” but include them within the community.
Years ago, as we wended our way in community through John’s gospel over the course of eleven years of weekly meetings, one of our members stopped short as we engaged this passage. A classic, minivan-driving suburban mother of five, who had been born and raised in the Catholic Church, asked herself out loud within the group, “When have I ever had the poor with me?” She had not previously avoided the poor; the question of the poor simply hadn’t occurred to her in this way before. Soon thereafter, she put up a folding table outside the local food bank, laden with sandwiches and a pot of soup. Now, more than seven years later, this experiment in solidarity has blossomed into three weekly meals that each serve between 50-75 folks, shared at table so that there is no “them” and no “us.” Many real relationships with the poor have grown out of these meals, so that now, several of those folks initially drawn by a free lunch are part of our own discipleship circle!
And this is where the two components of our passage meet: in the experience of true solidarity with our sisters and brothers in poverty, we find ourselves invited to anoint one another, to touch and caress each other’s feet, in preparation for all the challenges of facing into a world so often bent on death. Jesus, who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10), calls us to a physical vulnerability and intimacy that enables us truly to love one another, just as we are, whether poor or rich, woman or man, white or black or Samaritan. As we come into the period we paradoxically call “Holy Week” and walk the via dolorosa with Jesus, may we not be afraid to pour out love extravagantly, even outrageously, not counting the cost, in preparation for our own willingness to lay down our lives for others.