Commentary on John 12:1-8
Mediterranean culture dictated that slaves or women were in charge of washing and anointing the feast guests.
“Messiah” is a Hebrew word translated as “anointed.” In the proximity of the Passover independence celebration, Martha anointed the Anointed. In this passage, we see that the Gospel of John offers a radical view of the power that women hold. Whereas throughout much of Western history the pope (a male) crowned the king (another male) or vice-versa. Here Jesus is anointed (given power) by a woman from the countryside, from the working class, from the laity.
Mary anointed Jesus’ feet
In that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman. Still more, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, as it is still true in some segments of present-day society. The same Mary that anointed Jesus’ feet is the same one who sat at his feet to study.
This story reminds us of the woman that Jesus put in her place in Luke — when the woman in the crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” the Nazarene was bold in his response: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). For Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and children-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus does not have a problem with being touched by women, seeing them with their hair down, with women talking to men or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. In short, in the Reign of God women are equal at the intellectual level, at the salary level, and at all levels.
Mary anointed Jesus with a costly perfume
According to Mark 14:5 the perfume price was 300 denarii, namely, a yearly salary; but Mary didn’t care. She put that recently coined money in its place: at Jesus’ feet. Golden heaven’s streets send precisely the same message: gold is to be stepped on, and not to be ruled by the worldly creed: “in gold we trust.” Time is not money; time is life. Furthermore, money is an idol made of gold and silver (Psalm 115:4-7).
The Gospel of John opens Jesus’ ministry with an expensive wine with bouquet (John 2:1-11) and confirms it with a “holy wasteful” anointing. Human beings were not created for slavery but for an abundant life (John 10:10). Life is more than counting calories and keeping track of pennies like the huge transnational corporations do. If celebrating a “quinceañera” (a coming-of-age celebration for Latina girls on their 15th birthday) means to be indebted for the following 15 years, it is none of your business. This doesn’t have to do with the heresy of prosperity, it is about the freedom we encounter in real life: grace happens!
The poor as a weapon
It’s okay to be very “emotional” like John (in John 12:5) and denounce injustices. He just couldn’t endure what he was reporting and cried: Do not use the poor as a means to an end. He saw how Judas was co-opting the language of solidarity with the least and the last. The same way “justification” has been reduced to jurisprudence and has been divorced from justice, economic justice has been shrunken to “philanthropy.” Politicians, rich folks, the powers-that-be have learned Judas’ pious language. Judas is killing Martha’s reputation; that’s why John stops him and calls the thing what it actually is, as we learned from Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputations # 21.
Soren Kierkegaard’s prophetic thunder against the presiding bishop of Denmark, Minster, put it this way:
Minster’s sermon “Meditation upon the fate of those to whom the usual capacities are denied” is not really preached for the comfort of such suffering people. On the contrary, it is for the pleasant relief of the fortunate, so that they may go home from church armed against the impression caused by those suffering people.1
Judas dismisses Martha whereas John sees in her a beloved disciple (see John 11:5) and, by anointing Jesus, she becomes the first preacher of the equalizing Reign of God and its justice, namely, the core of Jesus’s proclamation or kerygma.
Throughout history and currently on television, the poor have been “objects” of pity to do fund raising, to win heaven, to calm guilty consciousness, to get publicity, to deduct taxes, to get rid of superfluous things, to feed with food alien to their cultures. Judas was a saint compared to current cynicism of corporations, business or telethons asking people who barely make a living to donate to the poor.
Jesus’ farewell, not the fatalism of the impoverished
Treasonous translators from the dominant cultures did violence to the popular saying “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your hand” (Deuteronomy 15:11), which is quite different from “The poor will always be with you.” Poverty is not a calamity; worse yet, it’s not God’s will. Jesus was on the side of the poor and against poverty. Selective forgetfulness omits the context of “the poor are out there at all times,” and the Divine imperative: “there will be no one in need among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Jesus is not eternalizing poverty but eradicating it. To be sure: there is extreme poverty because there is extreme wealth. Wealth and poverty are but two sides of the coin.
Jesus is thinking of his farewell, his death is imminent: What you have to do for somebody do it now. In this sense the African-descent religions like Santería, Macumba, Candomblé and others preach the same: Be rich in good deeds in the here and now.
I pray our churches and societies will be filled with Martha’s fragrance of the blessed perfume.
1 To read the whole counter-sermon see Eliseo Pérez-Alvarez, A Vexing Gadfly: The Late Kierkegaard on Economic Matters, Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2009, 51.