Holy Week 2020

Monday of Holy Week

John 12.1-11

As if the distinction - admittedly crude - between symbolic and realistic narrative is not difficult enough, not least because the distinction is relatively modern and not universally accepted in Christian exegesis, the story of the anointing of Jesus' feet in the Gospel of John presents us with yet another dimension, that of context, for this story appears in a much more significant place in John - and is consciously accorded much more significance - than in Matthew 26.6-13 and Mark 14.3-9, where the event is roughly contemporaneous but where Simon the Leper and his household are less central to these two Gospels than the family of Lazarus is to John, and certainly radically differently oriented in Luke 7.16-50 where the event is totally divorced from Resurrection symbolism and where there is, if anything, more emphasis on the sinful anointer than on Jesus the anointed. In John, the disquiet over the cost of the ointment is assigned to the hypocritical and thieving Judas whereas in Matthew and Mark the disciples in general seem discontented but perhaps that is because there is a strong implication - although no more than that in spite of near internet unanimity - that it was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who performed the anointing whereas in the synoptics it would appear to be a stranger. But the key contextual point is the placing in Luke on the one hand and the other three Gospels on the other.

What we have here, then, is a narrative whose significance lies - with the exception of Jesus' comment about burial - in its position in a text. This, of course, is not the only such instance in the Gospels as each Evangelist has a different technique for giving shape to his differing concerns, but this case is more stark than the others because the context, as opposed to the positioning for the sake of neatness or coherence, really matters, the key point being that the imminent death of Jesus has rapidly evolved from a theoretical possibility into a strong probability; instead of the enjoyment of a casual dinner with an acquaintance in the person of Simon the Leper, John's Gospel describes a farewell family dinner before the expected arrest, a point made even more clear by the comment that the life of Lazarus is also in danger. The religious authorities, after all, would not care for a man to be walking about the city who has been, and is widely known to have been, entombed for four days.

We are, I think, entitled to draw three major conclusions from the context: first, context (as postmodernists will never tire of telling us) in the account of John is a vital literary device to which we need to be sensitive; secondly, as the differences between John on the one hand and Matthew and Mark on the other demonstrate, even when a piece of narrative is positioned it may need a certain degree of literary jiggling to settle it into place; and, finally, and most important of all, our conclusions are the result of the way our culture has come to understand text. Our understanding, for what it is, can only approximate to authorial intention: we are not entitled to use the introductory phrase: "John meant ..." to signify that we have taken over the mastery of the text; it is not our text and never will be and to think otherwise is to derive false certainty from speculation. No complex, multi-layered text is secure but when the text is thousands of years old, originating in a tongue other than our own, and recognised by its adherents as multi-layered, then quite unique interpretative caution is required. The ever present danger is that we will invoke the Holy Spirit to support our all-too-worldly conclusions.

All too easily, our use of our God-given intellectual gifts to discern his will for us morphs into assigning God's will to what we have decided. This is yet another aspect of our false sense of certainty.