Raymond E. Brown’s classic commentary on The Gospel and Epistles of John considers 11:1-12:36 as the last section of what he calls “Book 1 – The Book of Signs.” Brown titles this section, “From Death to Life and From Life to Death: Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem.” The raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ final sign, and the ultimate proof that he is the expected, anointed One foretold in the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel. Just as Lazarus was seriously dead, so will Jesus be seriously dead, so that God’s power and glory can be manifested in the raising of Jesus. For John, it seems incomprehensible that anyone would believe that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead, yet insist that Jesus is not God’s son.
Scene 1 of John’s final act opens with the anointing of Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar of precious nard – an essential oil of lavender – to prepare the disciples and John’s readers for Jesus’ death. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with either tears or expensive perfume and then uses her hair as a towel has been written about, filmed, and debated for as long as the Jesus story has been told. This blog has dealt with all three versions of the legend that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark 14:3-9, considered for Palm Sunday in Year B, includes a Tenebrae Eucharist. John 12:1-8, considered for Monday of Holy Week in all three lectionary years, explores the nature of kenotic power. The Elves include 1 Kings 21:1-21; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; and Galatians 2:15-21 along with Luke 7:36-50, for Proper 6, Year C. The commentary concludes:
Jezebel is a mythical character, but nevertheless is a powerful female presence – otherwise, she never would have been named. In the battle between the Hebrew God and Baal, Jezebel is a major force. She is also the anima – the dark feminine – for Ahab, and perhaps for God as well. When Ahab can’t bring himself to really act on his selfish desires, he projects it onto his wife, who acts for him. Have we heard this before? Didn’t Adam do the same with Eve? What is it with these patriarchs?
Acting outside the law is not the same as perverting the law, as Paul makes clear, and Jezebel’s fate illustrates. If sin (injustice) is indeed a product of the law, then the wild feminine outside the law must be the pure spirit of justice-compassion: grace, free gift (charis), the woman with her alabaster jar of precious essential oil.
The version in Matthew is never read – apparently the Elves had had enough of Mary Magdalene (if that’s who she was).
In John’s setting, Mary (the sister of Lazarus, not the Magdalene) confronts whoever is listening to John with the fact of Jesus’ inevitable, physical, irreversible death, and Jesus confirms this. “Let her alone,” he says, “Let her keep it for the day of my burial.” John sets up the hapless Judas for everlasting contempt. In an aside, John explains that Judas’ objection to the extravagant waste of the oil was not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief: “He was in charge of the common purse and now and again would pilfer money put into it.” The scholars’ translation suggests that Jesus’ comment about the poor as reported by John was likely not meant to say that poverty is inevitable. Instead it was probably an ironic jibe at Judas. “Funny you should be so worried about how much money is in the kitty . . . .”
The “huge crowds” continue to come out to see Jesus, who had raised Lazarus from the dead, but also to see Lazarus himself. So “the chief priests” decide to kill him too. Then, in a departure from the interpretation in the synoptic gospels, John throws in the entry into Jerusalem as a further illustration of how the “crowds” were flocking to see Jesus, and celebrating the raising of Lazarus. This just solidifies the determination of the Pharisees to get rid of both of them. “You see, we can’t win; look, the world has gone over to him.” As further proof that “the world” has shifted, some Greeks (non-Jews?) show up and ask to meet Jesus. This is the sign that Jesus’ time has come at last.
In yet another difference from the synoptics, Jesus fully embraces the role that God has laid out for him. There is no “agony in the garden.” Jesus says, “it was to face this moment that I came” – in contemporary words, “bring it on.” God responds with a rumble of thunder, and Jesus says “that wasn’t for me, it was for you. Now the sentence is passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And if I’m elevated from the earth, I’ll take everyone with me.” These words are right out of the scene in Daniel 7:9-14. The final judgment has arrived; the rulers of the world (Satan, or the Emperor) are defeated; the Son of God will be taken up to heaven, and everyone who believes in him will go along.
There is some left-over confusion from a few people, which allows John’s Jesus to reiterate the essence of his teaching, as John understood it: “The light is still with you for a little while. Walk while you have light, so darkness won’t overpower you. Those who walk in the dark don’t know where they are going. Since you have the light, believe in the light, so you will become children of the light.” When Jesus had said this, he went into hiding. End of Act 1, scene 4. The narrator comes onstage and drives the point home. People may have believed in Jesus – even members of the ruling class – but they were afraid the Pharisees would throw them out of their congregations, so they played it safe.
Twenty-first century progressive Christians might be tempted to jettison the Gospel of John. It is a time-capsule from the first and second centuries, possibly 80 or more years after the death of Jesus. The magic acts – changing water into wine, the remote healing of the government official’s child, telling the ungrateful disabled man to take up his mat and walk, the “feeding of the five thousand,” and the raising of the four-day-old corpse of Lazarus are barely useful even as metaphors without some fancy rhetorical footwork on the part of Sunday morning sermon writers. Dodging embedded anti-Semitism adds a further complication to reclaiming this Gospel, even with scholarly new translations.
But what was the Gospel writer trying to say? He (or she, if Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders’ suggestion is taken seriously) presents an impassioned argument that reads with some desperation between the lines. After all, if folks won’t believe the magic, what will they believe? This Gospel writer was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, prophesied by the legend of Daniel to deliver the world from political oppression and restore God’s rule. Two thousand years later, progressive political, social, scientific, and religious leaders are equally convinced that humanity has so affected the balance of nature on the planet that what we do will determine whether or not life itself will be able to continue to evolve in sustainable ways.
With that thought in mind, consider what the narrator’s summary in John 12:44-50 might have to say to those among us working to end war, to stop mountain-top removal, to develop sustainable energy supplies, to eradicate poverty: If you believe Jesus, then you believe in the evolutionary process that produced such a mind; you are liberated from the darkness that prevails in the unjust systems of empire. He does not judge the ones who hear the message but don’t keep it. In the end, the message itself will be the judge. The message is that God’s intention – the order of the universe – is distributive justice-compassion. To live in the light is to transform water to wine: to bring healing to everyone, whether they are the children of collaborators with oppression, or ingrates that game the system. To live in the light is to step out with Lazarus from the realm of injustice and death into justice and life.