[Texts: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8]
The Gospel of John is different. Writing much later than the seeing-together Synoptic authors, John decided not to cover the same territory – quite literally, since he concentrates most of his vision on Jesus’ several trips to Jerusalem, rather than on his itinerant ministry in the Galilee. And one significantly different thing that John does from his location far down the timeline is name names.
For example: you remember the time when Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, and one of his disciples lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant? John is the one who informs us that this hot-headed disciple was Peter, and he even names the servant, Malchus. This suggests that the other Gospel writers were being careful when they wrote, perhaps protecting the culprit while angry leaders were still in power. It also helps us see that Peter had some very personal reasons to switch into denial mode before the cock crowed! He himself was now wanted for a crime: even though the deed itself had been patched up by Jesus, he was still a wanted man. No wonder he wanted to deflect attention from his association with the Master.
It’s John who also sheds some valuable light on the identity of the players at a certain dinner party, where a woman anoints Jesus with a costly perfume. As told by Matthew and Mark,* this anonymous prodigal is publicly shamed by the guests (“This perfume should have been sold, and the proceeds given to the poor!”) and then publicly commended by Jesus: “She has done a beautiful thing. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have ME.” In fact, where others see a wasteful mismanagement of resources, Jesus identifies a perceptive confirmation of his mission: “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” It’s a perspective that even his closest disciples seem to have missed.
John’s freedom to name names enables us to connect some surprising dots between this narrative and others. First off, when John recounts this scene, he gives it a setting and context that the others pass over, perhaps, again, in order to protect people. This dinner party is in the neighborhood of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, who has just been raised from the dead. At the time of the party Lazarus was, in fact, very much on the hit list of the Important People in Jerusalem – they wanted to kill him again, and do away with the evidence that pointed to Jesus’ power – so his name and his sisters’ names and even that miracle are suppressed at this point in the Synoptics.
But from John we learn that this woman is Lazarus’ sister Mary. And you may remember another story about this family, in which Martha has something to complain about; and you may recall another good choice that Mary made, for which Jesus also publicly commended her. It was at another, less formal dinner, when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha did the dishes. In that setting, too, Mary made the best choice.
Now, normally it’s not a good idea to sit around doing Bible study while your sister handles the hostessing – just as normally it’s probably not good form to spend extravagantly rather than caring for the poor. But in both settings the timing made ordinarily good choices the wrong ones. Jesus even says to Martha, in effect, “Martha, Martha, you will always have dirty dishes to wash – but you won’t always have ME.”
What Mary doubtless heard, sitting there at Jesus’ feet, was something like what he conveyed later to the sorrowful disciples on the road to Emmaus, where “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus was always trying to get people to see from those texts that the role of the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, had both a triumphant, kingly aspect and a suffering servant expectation to it. And Mary took him seriously.
She doesn’t say a word in either scene, but at the dinner party her silent actions reveal what she has learned at his feet, as she imitates the anointing of a king – and prefigures the anointing of a corpse for burial. She’s done the math, put two and two together, from what she has heard directly from Jesus; and now she demonstrates her profound understanding that the King must die for his people. And in striking contrast to the conventional practice of dismissing a woman’s testimony as invalid, Jesus so validates Mary’s wordless witness that he ties it for all time to the proclamation of the gospel.
And John makes sure we know her name.
*Luke also contains an account of an anointing (see Luke 7:36-50), but as the timing, setting, and object lesson differ from those in this scene as told by Matthew, Mark, & John, I vote that it’s a separate incident.
Credit to Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, for the insight about Peter, Lazarus, and the Gospel Witness Protection Program.