She Anoints His Feet
Sometimes it is good to step back and take a look at the Bigger Picture when studying or praying scripture. One would be surprised what may emerge as a particular passage or pericope is viewed not only within the context of other surrounding passages, but also how a particular pericope may be key to understanding Scriptures in the context of other pericopes or chapters of a Gospel that may follow or even precede. When we allow the passage to speak to us, through the Bigger Picture, one will notice several interesting patterns emerge that leads us to other passages, and even make interesting connections for deeper understanding.
The common tendency is to study a pericope, and glean as much meaning or information from that passage and then apply it to a similar setting, as when one is developing a Sunday Homily or a Retreat Theme, or to a Study Topic, or even using it within the context of prayer such as in Lectio Divina. One sometimes forgets that the pericope was taken out of context of the Bigger Picture and may not fit the intended setting, or theme, or situation. Even though this may be necessary at times, especially when no other passage seems to fit just quite right, it still tends to be an artificial use of Scriptures. We are using the passage to fit our meaning in a certain setting, rather than allow the Word of God to speak to us and inform us or form.
Even though Lectio Divina approaches Scriptures with a sense of openness to the Word of God in allowing it to speak to us, we still use this approach in a narrow way, since the very passages used in this way of praying the Scriptures can be limited to several verses. Looking at the Bigger Picture may be a way of deepening our praying experience of Scriptures and certainly our understanding of them. Most importantly, we will gradually become aware that the Gospel writers wrote comprehensive and coherent works intending to bring the reader to a deeper love and appreciation for the person of Jesus, rather than the more common understanding that the gospels are a string of passages strung like rosary beads with little rhyme or reason.
In this article, we would like to step back from our passage of interest and see how that passage fits into the Bigger Picture of the Gospel story. We will allow that passage to speak to us in a much larger context, thereby giving the Holy Spirit room to work. When we allow the Spirit to lead us where it will, one may be surprised at the results and even the journey getting there. The learning experience will be much deeper and richer, and hopefully more insightful.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
We have chosen the passage in John’s Gospel, Chapter 12:1-8, as our passage or pericope of interest and starting point, Mary Anoints the Feet of Jesus. This passage has always been a pericope of fascination, because of the strange action of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and then drying his feet with her hair. In focusing on this passage from John’s Gospel, we need to be aware that this story has been used by the other evangelists in other settings and contexts. First, it has been used in Luke where he presents this passage early in his Gospel and before the Passion Narrative. Second, it is used in other settings, as again in Luke’s Gospel in the house of Simon the Pharisee, or in Mark and Matthew in the house of Simon the Leper. And third, the pericope is used even where the woman is not named as in Mark and Matthew, or was understood to be a sinner as in Luke’s Gospel.
In John’s Gospel Mary’s action was one of intimacy, affection, and love, done within the context of her home in a personal setting, the family meal, which was given as an appreciation for the return of their brother Lazarus from the dead. We will look at this story in the light of John’s Gospel and try to forget the other three interpretations.
We will look closely at each passage and related passages beginning with our passage of interest, Mary Anoints the Feet of Jesus, John 12:1-8. As we take one step back from this passage we see that it is sandwiched between two other passages – Plot to Kill Jesus, John 11:45-57, and Plot to Kill Lazarus, John 12:9-11. This may be more than coincidence, because important passages are often sandwiched for emphasis by the evangelist. Such techniques help us to point out a key passage in understanding other passages that follow.
When we will take a second step back from these passages, we find the passage Resurrection of Lazarus, John 11:1-44, before our passage, and the passage Jesus Washes the Feet of his Disciples, John 13:1-17, after our passage. The passage where Lazarus is Resurrected from the Dead, gives the reason and setting for the scene in our passage of interest, where Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet.
The passage of Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples is interesting because of the possibility of a connection with Mary’s action. She anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet with water. Mary’s action is an intimate sign of her love for Jesus and thanksgiving for the raising of her brother from the dead. Jesus’ action is an intimate sign of his love for his disciples and is meant as an action to be repeated by his Disciples to show their love for each other through service.
AN ACT OF LOVE:
Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet in Bethany, John 12:1-8
Here is the summary of the passage. In the Johannine tradition the anointing takes place six days before the Passover in Bethany in the house of Lazarus, the brother whom Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus was present at a meal served by Martha, sitting at table with Lazarus. Then Mary took an expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus’ feet and then wiped his feet with her hair. The sweet smell filled the whole house. Judas complained that the perfume worth 300 hundred silver coins could have been given to the poor. Jesus in turn admonished Judas to leave her alone, since her act was interpreted by him as a preparation for his burial. Judas and Mary are contrasted with each other; Mary (true disciple) as the friend of Jesus with Judas (false disciple) the betrayer.
The scene took place six days before Passover, Jesus’ last Passover with his disciples. There were rumors that Jesus would be arrested by the High Priest or the Jewish Authorities of Jerusalem. “The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where Jesus was, he must report it, so that they could arrest him” John 11:57. Bethany was outside the city limits of Jerusalem, about an hour walking distance. Lazarus’ family may well knew this information and that this could be their last meal together, their Last Thanksgiving Supper in honor of Jesus who raised their brother from the dead. What an interesting contrast: Jesus gives life to Lazarus and the Jewish Authorities wish death on both. The family supper was a thanksgiving meal for what Jesus had done for the family. This was her way of showing her appreciation and love for him.
Sitting at the table was Jesus and Lazarus and we can imagine what an interesting conversation they may have had together. Lazarus may have told Jesus what it was like on the other side of death. Many people who have been resuscitated lose their fear of death and even look forward to death. Within this context of a family meal served by Martha with Lazarus and Jesus conversing together, we then have the action of Mary’s anointing. Barclay comments that Mary’s action shows three things: Love’s Extravagance with the expensive perfume, Love’s Humility in anointing Jesus’ feet, and Love’s Un-selfconsciousness when Mary wiped Jesus feet with her hair. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment”. Barclay ends with this observation, that the memory of Mary filled the Church with the sweet memory of her action.
At least three observations stand out from this reading: the celebration of Lazarus’ Resurrection within the context of a Last Supper of Thanksgiving; Mary’s action of Anointing Jesus’ Feet and Drying Them with Her Hair; and the contrast between Mary and Judas in the Johannine tradition. Before we comment on each observation, let us first step back from this passage and look at the surrounding passages that sandwich it or enclose it and try to see the Bigger Picture. As mentioned above, the two sandwiching passages are the Plot to Kill Jesus and the Plot to Kill Lazarus too. These two passages seem to highlight our passage of interest, Mary’s Anointing of Jesus’ Feet, not necessarily isolating the passage, but emphasizing this meal as special despite the dangers that surround the celebration from the world outside. It is a celebration of life over death and that despite even the death threatening from the world outside “life” will triumph in the end.
The passage also celebrates the love of Mary for Jesus through her anointing of his feet, an intimate action followed by an even more intimate act of drying his feet with her hair. Within the setting of a family meal Mary uses this last time to be with Jesus to show him her love and appreciation. This passage is a celebration of Life and Love, as the two go together, surrounded by the two passages of jealous Hatred and plotting their Deaths.
For the first observation, the celebration of Lazarus’ Resurrection within the context of a Last Supper of Thanksgiving, we will step back from even these three passages (Plot to Kill Jesus, Mary’s Anointing of Jesus’ Feet, Plot to Kill Lazarus) and briefly glance back to Chapter 11 with the Raising of Lazarus from the Dead. As mentioned above, this passage gives the reason for the setting where Martha prepares a Meal for Jesus in thanksgiving. This passage is full of faith and life as Jesus reminds Martha that, I am the resurrection and life! John 11:25, and Martha’s response from faith in him, You are the Messiah, the Son of God! John 11:27. With such a powerful miracle, the last sign or miracle in John’s Gospel, the family of Lazarus trusts in Jesus completely as the resurrection and life, even surrounded by threats of death. The meal is Martha’s way of thanking Jesus and showing her love for him.
The second observation, Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet and Drying Them with Her Hair, shows her love for Jesus in her actions. Also in the passage of Raising Lazarus from the Dead, shows Jesus love for Mary by his own weeping. When Mary arrived to where Jesus was, and as soon as she saw him, she fell at his feet, John 11:32. (She seems to be always at the feet of Jesus.) ’Lord,’ she said, ‘if you had been here, by brother would not have died!’ Unlike Martha, Jesus does not begin a dialogue with her, but observes how everyone is weeping, and his heart is touched and he is deeply moved. He weeps.
The third observation is the contrast in the Johannine tradition of Mary with Judas. This point is underlined more clearly with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in the passage that follows. He complains, Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor? Yet he himself will betray Jesus for a tenth of the amount, 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).
There are several ironies here. A woman of faith, Martha, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God; even before Jesus raises her brother from the dead. The Religious Leaders obviously do not recognize Jesus as the “Son of God”, the “the Resurrection and Life”, and plan to kill him. It is better that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish! John 11:50. One would think that killing would have no effect on a person who can raise someone from the dead and talks of his own resurrection. Mary, recognizes the inevitable outcome of Jesus, whose whole life was one of love and giving life to others through his miracles and the resurrection of Lazarus. The irony continues with the Religious Leaders planning to kill Lazarus too. These are leaders that should be models of the Law, but have taken the law into their own hands through their own lack of Faith and Love. The Johannine tradition makes these two women models of faith and love and contrasts them with the Religious Leaders and with Peter who denies Jesus and Judas who will betray him.
AN ACT WORTHY OF REPEATING
Jesus Washes the Feet of His Disciples, John 13:1-17
Here is the summary of the above passage. The scene takes place the day before the Passover, (three days after Mary anoints his feet). Jesus and his disciples were at supper. Judas was present, the one who would betray him. Jesus was preparing to wash his disciples’ feet and drying them with a towel that was tied around his waist. When Jesus came to Peter to wash his feet, Peter at first refused to have them washed. Eventually Peter understood what Jesus was doing and eagerly invited Jesus to wash his whole body. Of course, Jesus refused, since the act concerned the feet only. Jesus used this opportunity to state that one of them was not clean. When he finished, Jesus returned to his place at table. He then made clear the meaning of his action, that the disciples were to wash each others, feet as a sign of love and equality, “No slave is greater than his master”, John 13:16. Jesus again pointed out that one of them would betray him.
Clearly, Judas was at this supper and his feet were washed by Jesus. One wonders what may have went on in both their minds. Judas was preparing to betray Jesus, maybe to force Jesus’ hand, as some scripture scholars offer. Jesus was trying to touch Judas this one last time with washing his feet. This last act of Jesus was an act of love, probably lost on most of the disciples, and maybe was too much for Judas. John the Beloved understood.
To wash the feet of the guests at a feast was the office of a slave, Barclay reminds us. The disciples of a Rabbi were supposed to render their master personal service, but a service as foot washing would never have been dreamed of. Peter’s refusal could come from several misunderstandings, such as the above. Peter was not a rabbi for whom Jesus’ action might be a sign of respect, NJBC 173, could be another misunderstanding. Or probably more closer to the truth, such an action by Jesus would certainly be expected to be repeated by the disciples, something Peter would dread.
Three observations stand out in this passage. The first is the connections to Judas, the second is the Washing of the Disciples Feet, and the third is the Refusal of Peter to Be Washed. Judas is mentioned in the beginning of the passage as the one who would betray Jesus. Then twice Jesus indirectly points to Judas, but not by name. All of you, except one, are clean, John 13:10-11, and The man who shared my food turned against me, John 13:18. It is not surprising that this passage will lead to the one where Jesus Predicts Judas’ Betrayal.
As we saw in the previous passage, Judas is portrayed as the false disciple, the disciple who did not love Jesus, where as Mary is portrayed as the true disciple. It is not an enemy who taunts me–then I could bear it–it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me–then I could hide from him. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship, Psalm 55:12-14. As Barclay mentions, …in the east to eat bread with anyone was a sign of friendship and an act of loyalty. Judas was the disciple who did not love Jesus, but used him for his own advancement. He was the only disciple who came from Jerusalem. As John describes him, He was a thief, and used to help himself to the community purse. He knew his way around Jerusalem since he came from there and would have many connections.
Our second observation, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, may have been modeled by Mary’s act of love for Jesus. As mentioned earlier, hers was an act of love and an appreciation for Jesus having raised her brother from the dead. It was done within the context of her home in a personal setting, the family meal. Jesus’ act was one of love and equality, I do not call you servants any longer…Instead, I call you friends, John 15:15. It is an act done within the context of a supper, an important supper because it was their last. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil; Jesus washes his disciples’ feet with water. Water pots were kept at the door of a house; and a servant was there with a pitcher and a towel to wash the soiled feel of the guests as they came in. Jesus’ little company of friends had no servants. The duties which servants would carry out in wealthier circles they must have shared among each other. It may well be that on the night of this last meal together they had got themselves into such a state of competitive pride that not one of them would accept the duty of seeing that the water and the towels were there to wash the feet of the company as they came in; and Jesus mended their omission in the most vivid and dramatic way. He himself did what none of them was prepared to do.” This is Barclay’s interpretation, and sounds quite convincing. I agree, but I also believe that Jesus was showing his love for them in a menial task by someone who loves another would take care of them when they are sick. Barclay also mentions this in his commentary. Soon the disciples would be quite sick with grief and hopefully they would remember how much Jesus loved them that he even washed their feet at their last supper together. True love pushes us to do extraordinary acts for the ones we love. But Jesus also intended that his disciples use this act of washing on each other as not only a sign of respect and love, but also one of equality. You, then, should wash one another’s feet, John 13:15.
The third observation is Peter’s refusal to be washed by Jesus. Again we turn to Barclay’s interpretation of the event. Beyond doubt there is a reference to Christian baptism here (as we look for another meaning in John’s Gospel). ‘Unless you are washed you can have no part in me’ is a way of saying: ‘Unless you pass through the gate of baptism, you have no part in the Church’…It was the custom that before people went to a feast they bathed themselves. When they came to the house of their host, they did not need to be bathed again, all they needed was to have their feet washed. The washing of the feet was the ceremony which preceded entry into the house where they were to be guests. It was what we might call the washing of entry into the house…What you need is the washing which marks entry into the household of the faith. The last sentence, ‘marks entry into the household of the faith’ points to what Peter lacks, faith. In the First Part of this article, we mentioned that Martha was the model of ‘faith’, as was shown here by her statement of belief that she believed Jesus was, the ‘Son of God’. She was the role model of faith for the true disciple. Her statement is found on the lips of Peter in the other synoptic gospels. Considering the above observation, Peter at first refuses to enter the household of faith, maybe more out of bravado, pride, or just plain ignorance. Compared to Martha, Peter would be the disciple of little faith, and that would prove true with his denial of Jesus. We would also have to mention Judas again, since his feet were washed, but as Jesus mentioned, All of you are clean, all except one, John 13:10.
We are now ready for a final look at the Bigger Picture. The structure in this section of John’s Gospel points to several parallels: Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet and Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. Mary’s anointing was in the context of an intimate family meal and Jesus’ washing was in the context of a intimate meal with his disciples. Mary’s action is followed by the death threats of the chief priests against Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus’ action is followed by the prediction of Judas’ betrayal and of Peter’s denial. Also, Mary’s action was in response to Jesus’ raising her brother from the dead. Jesus’ action was in preparation of his disciples for his own death by the prediction of two of his disciples.
We do not want to carry the comparisons to far, but it is an interesting connection that Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet was followed by Jesus washing of his disciples feet, and action that he copied out of love for his disciples? Such a possibility makes this action of Mary richer and deeper in meaning; an act of love and appreciation for her Lord. Jesus’ action also reminds us of our obligation to repeat this or similar actions for others out of love for our brothers and sisters in our daily lives. There are many saints who have done just such actions: Saint Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and more, not to mention their followers. We need to go beyond just admiring such saints and start imitating them.