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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Extravagance—John 12:1-8 (Robert Williamson)

Jesus’ statement ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’ could easily be regarded as a shrug of the shoulders in the face of the enduring problem of poverty. However, closer examination of the context of the statement in John’s gospel reveals a more compelling picture.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (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.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

As someone whose primary worshipping community consists mainly of folks who are living on the streets, Jesus’ words in this passage have long irritated me no end: “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (12:8). These words have so often been used as a theological shrug of the shoulders in the face of poverty that it is hard to imagine that they could mean anything else. It is as if Jesus had said “Poverty, amiright? What can you do?” tossing his hands ambivalently in the air. If I could be so bold as to ask Jesus to take back any of his teachings, this would certainly be on the short-list.

Yet upon reflection, the particular way that John tells this story invites further consideration of the potential value of this story for church communities—even for a community like mine. It tells the story of an extravagant act of hospitality that engenders other extravagant acts of hospitality—even from Jesus himself—and, perhaps, invites us to do so as well.

A version of this story appears in all four of the Gospels. Mark (14:3-9) and Matthew (26:6-13) tell the story of an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume. When pressed by the disciples about the waste of money, Jesus replies that “she has done a beautiful thing to me” by preparing his body for burial (Mark 14:6; Matthew 26:10). Luke (7:36-50) tells a somewhat different story, within which a “sinful woman” pours perfume not on Jesus’s head but on his feet. After commenting on her hospitality in contrast to that of Simon the Pharisee, at whose house Jesus was dining, Jesus pronounces her sins forgiven.

John’s story combines elements of these two traditions but recontextualizes the woman’s actions in transformative ways. First, the woman who anoints Jesus in this story is neither unnamed nor a sinner. She is Mary, the sister of Martha, whose brother Lazarus Jesus has raised from the dead in the previous chapter (John 11:1-44). While we are not told so explicitly, the fact that the dinner takes place in Bethany suggests that Mary and Martha are hosting it in honor of Jesus (12:2), to express gratitude for Lazarus’s resurrection. In fact, Lazarus himself is present at the dinner (12:2). This recontextualization of the story changes the significance of Mary’s actions, which now function as an expression of profound gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother.

Second, in John’s telling Mary’s pouring of perfume on Jesus is not construed as a preparation for his burial, as it is in Mark 14:8 and Matthew 26:12. Rather, in John’s telling Mary had purchased the perfume to anoint Jesus at his burial but had chosen instead to use it in this way. Her gratitude has compelled her to use the perfume in celebration of Jesus and the life he restored rather than as a ritual associated with death and burial observance. The perfume celebrates life in contrast to—and in defiance of—death.

Third, John has Mary anoint Jesus’s feet rather than his head, preserving a tradition similar to that in Luke’s Gospel. But in the context of John’s Gospel, the anointing of feet has a much different connotation than it does in Luke’s telling, where the sinful woman uses the act to ask for forgiveness for her sins. In John’s Gospel, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet presages another, more famous foot washing, which Jesus carries out for his disciples in the following chapter (13:1-20). That foot washing, in turn, is followed by Jesus’s most important commandment, according to John: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34). In this telling, Mary’s anointing of Jesus enacts a series of radical acts of hospitality extending from Mary to Jesus, then from Jesus to his disciples, and finally, in the commandment to love one another, from his disciples back to the world.

Given all of this, we should recognize the particularity of Jesus’s interaction with Mary, which is not intended as a general instruction for contemporary believers, as it is often interpreted. First, it should be noted that Jesus did not ask Mary to honor him in such an extravagant way, but he graciously receives the gift that she has offered of her own accord. That is, Jesus accepts Mary’s gift not because he desires to be lavished with extravagance but because it is her heartfelt expression of the profound gratitude she feels at having received her brother back from the dead.

Second, Jesus himself takes up Mary’s act of foot washing in his own actions toward his disciples in the following chapter. Of course we do not know where Jesus got the idea to wash his disciples’ feet, but in the narrative flow of John’s Gospel it appears that Mary’s gift has affected him deeply. While he does not wash the disciples’ feet with expensive perfume as she did, he does take the same posture toward them that Mary had taken toward him. He has taken the extravagant hospitality she offered to him and returned it to the disciples with the further command that they should in turn extend it—not back to him—but to others who are in need of welcome.

It would thus be a mistake for us to take Jesus’s specific commendation of Mary for honoring him and make of it a general rule justifying our own stinginess toward the poor. Rather, in his death and resurrection, through which Jesus has thrown open the doors of heaven in the most extravagant act of hospitality imaginable, Jesus has returned Mary’s gift to us multiplied beyond measure. For we who live on this side of the resurrection, our task is to take the same kind of extravagant hospitality that Mary offered to Jesus and to offer it instead to those most in need of welcome—the poor, the oppressed, the disheartened, the downtrodden. This is the great commandment. This is the extravagance to which we are called.

One thought on “The Politics of Extravagance—John 12:1-8 (Robert Williamson)

  1. Excellent analysis. In regard to the poor, it’s quite possible that Jesus was quoting the first part of Deuteronomy 15:11 – “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…” knowing observant Jews would know the 2nd part – “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'”

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