A Scandalous Evening in Bethany

The power of Scripture lies in the way it mediates for us an encounter with God that is literally of the moment. The power of Scripture lies not only in the objective elements of story but in the subjective impact of narrative upon us. Subjectivity means that we are never in the same place, twice.

There is a 1st-century backstory that lends a poignancy to John’s portrayal of a particular evening in 12:1-8 evening. Both Lazarus and Jesus are in danger of assassination by the Temple authorities, who after Jesus’ calling of Lazarus back from death have put out a contract on both their lives. Here, in an atmosphere of events of enormous import looming, an anxiety fuelled by the uncertainty of their outcome, there is a tone of urgency, there’s no time now to lose. It’s now or never. Social convention, fear and anxiety cannot be left to stand in the way of expressing love and affection; not only love and affection, but also anger fuelled by growing disillusionment.

Approaching John’s story of the dinner party that Lazarus, Martha, and Mary throw for Jesus six days before the Passover from within the subjective experience of living in March 2016 attunes me to the way society constructs different meanings for different bodies. This is a story about bodies – Jesus’ body, Mary’s body, and Judas’ visceral, bodily reaction.

Bodies

In our time, white, heterosexual male bodies matter. They matter because they are accorded a privilege that is denied to non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual bodies. The politics of race, gender, sexual and gender identity, poverty and wealth confiscation are currently playing out around us with increasingly ferocious effect. We all feel that events of momentous, but unpredictable import are building all around us.

There appear to be no black, gay or transgendered bodies in this story. That is, at least as far as we can tell. Because black and gay bodies are usually invisible in the patriarchal gaze, it’s important we don’t confuse invisibility with absence. Rather the female body of Mary in this instance seems emblematic of the black and gay body experience in John’s story. I also think black and gay body experience is represented in Jesus’ non-white, non-patriarchal, male body – evidenced in his unusually open and accepting response to Mary.

Mary

Mary literally lets her hair down. This is an action remarkable for its potential to cause a scandal. In patriarchal society, women cover their hair. This remains as true today in much of the Islamic world, as it was in Jewish 1st-century society. Even today in ultra-conservative Jewish and Christian worlds, women still cover their heads because hair expresses a woman’s sexuality and female sexuality is considered a subversive thing to be controlled. This may well be the reason that Mark, Matthew, and Luke identify this Mary as Mary Magdalene, a more fitting candidate because of her reputation as a prostitute. Only John identifies the woman who anoints Jesus feet with the respectable Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

In the secular West, we feel we have become more enlightened and we scoff at male sexual anxieties being aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair in the same way as we laugh at Victorian male anxiety provoked by the sight of female ankles and legs. Consequently, we miss the counter-culturally sensuous flagrancy of Mary’s action.

Smell is our most potent and evocative sense. Mary fills the room with the sensuous aroma of the ointment and then proceeds to anoint Jesus feet with her hair. Note feet not head. Unlike in the other Gospels, in John, Mary does not anoint Jesus’ head, a respectable part of his body, but his feet. Later in this week, Peter will object to being washed by Jesus, because Jesus insists on washing his feet, an action that suggests both subservience and provocative with intimacy.

Mary uses her female body to express her deep love for Jesus. In contemporary America, we may no longer so clearly associate a woman’s hair as an expression of sexuality. Yet, the death throws of patriarchy continue to play out with disastrous effect for women’s bodies in contemporary America. There is a photograph of George W. Bush, taken in 2003 signing into effect laws tightening the availability of abortion. It’s striking to note the line up of men behind him in the photograph. There is not a woman legislator in sight.

My point here is not to come down on either side of our society’s conflicting views on abortion itself, but to highlight the legislative attempts to restrict a woman’s rights over the management of her own body. This is a male impulse as old as patriarchy itself. Abortion is something I am not in favor of unrestricted access to. Yet, as far as I can judge abortion is not the issue here. The issue is the privileging of male heterosexual anxiety’s need to control women’s bodies.

The curious thing about patriarchal anxiety is that in a sense male patriarchal identity transcends gender, for women who support patriarchy also share this anxiety. Yet, this anxiety has its roots in male sexual anxiety and a consequent need to control the female body. It extends well beyond the debate on abortion to increasing attempts to control all aspects of female reproductive health – a contemporary instance of the age-old male denigration of the female body.

Judas

Against Judas’ attack, Jesus welcomes Mary’s actions and defends her extravagant wastefulness and the use of her body to honor him. John sticks to a simplistic portrayal of Judas as a thief, who is provoked by Mary’s wasteful extravagance, not out of regard for the plight of the poor, but because of the diversion of resources out of his control. John may have had his reasons for portraying Judas so, but I don’t buy his depiction.

Judas is angry. We can argue with John over the reason for his anger. I prefer to see him as less venial and more political. Judas is politically disillusioned. He sees the way things are beginning to go and he fears Jesus is betraying all Judas’ messianic hope and expectation for a better world, at least, a better world in terms that he can understand. It’s not his desire to steal the money that could have been realized by the sale of the ointment. His anger is fanned by his perception of valuable resources being diverted away from the central cause of messianic liberation. Thus, he comes up with a clever pretext of wasting resources that could have been spent on the alleviation of poverty.

Jesus responds to Judas with strikingly contemporary anti-welfare reasoning, appearing to be saying: Judas, don’t worry about the poor there is nothing that can be done for them, they will never change and throwing money at the problem is no help to them. This interpretation of Jesus’ words runs contrary to every other statement and action of Jesus’ recorded not only by John but Mark, Matthew and Luke. Jesus is portrayed always as the friend of the poor and he unequivocally proclaims economic justice as central to God’s expectations for the coming of the Kingdom.

Jesus facetiously sees through Judas, as so many today are finally beginning to see through the 30-year dominance of the doctrine of trickle-down economics.

Although I don’t go along with the simplistic characterization of Judas as a common thief, as we listen to this story in the opening decades of the 21st-century issues of theft are alarmingly current. We are witnessing a seismic rejection of the political culture spurred by anger and disillusionment. Whether you vote for Donald or Bernie, the common thread is you are likely to be someone who is feeling angry and disillusioned by what you experience as a betrayal by the economic and political establishments.

Among the Donald followers:

  • Globalization has sent what they once believed to be American companies, working for our common good off in pursuit of cheap labor with the consequent loss of jobs and the prospect of earning a living wage.
  • The unbridled greed compounded by the failure of regulatory oversight has lost many the only investment they had- investment in home and hearth.
  • Changing demographics threaten a loss of white racial and male gender privilege.
  • The adulation of naked brute power as a panacea among those who feel most powerless.

Bernie is a lightening rod for a completely different set of dissatisfactions:

  • The abandonment of higher education to market forces has left our young people with astonishing levels of debt and profound doubts about education being the route to social mobility and the kind of future many of their parents took for granted. For the first time since 1945 things are not going to get better.
  • Non-universal healthcare as a protection for the profits of insurance companies and healthcare providers continues to result in health poverty for the poor, and unsustainable economic burdens for the middle classes.
  • The organized manipulation of wealth by large corporations working against national interest.
  • Dirty industry’s purchase of political protections that allow the steady degradation of the environment in the interests of profits.
  • A financial system that colludes with wealth creation and accumulation of power for the now proverbial 1%.

Whether Judas is a thief or not he experiences a visceral – in his body- alarm and growing disillusionment. It is this that leads him to make the wrong choice.

Jesus

Finally, how do we see Jesus in John’s story about the dinner party at the house of Lazarus and his sisters six days before the Passover? Jesus appears to be fully aware of how events are going to unfold. Jesus seems to know that the way things are going to play out will result in his death. His foreknowledge is not of the omniscient variety, as in God knows all things ahead of time and has planned for Jesus to die. Jesus knows his future because he is keenly aware of the contours of the human heart. He knows the consequences of speaking truth to power. He knows also that there is no other way through the darkness into the light of a new order in creation. In Jesus God confronts the darkness of the human heart.

The days of Lent are ebbing away as we transition into the time of Jesus’ Passion. All around us, millions seem easily seduced by the promises of political saviors who have no power to fulfill their messianic promises. Speaking truth to power is not the road to easy answers. It is instead, the hard road to change. As we receive this story from John about events at a dinner party six days before the Passover, we come to see that things are never what they at first, appear to be.

The power of Scripture lies in the way it mediates for us an encounter with God that is literally of the moment. The power of Scripture lies not only in the objective elements of story but in the subjective impact of the narrative upon us, an impact we register only in the here and now. Subjectivity means that no subsequent reading of the story produces the same affect as the previous reading. We are never in the same place, twice.

 


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