The lectionary reading for next Sunday is John 12:1-8, a story about Jesus visiting the home of a Mary and Martha. In John’s gospel, Mary and Martha live in Bethany, about two miles east of Jerusalem. If the beloved disciple was a follower of Jesus from the area of Jerusalem (a debated point), we should probably assume that he had some first hand knowledge of this Mary and Martha.
To let John be John, we should not splice this story together with Luke’s story of Jesus visiting a Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, even if it is quite possible that these stories fit together historically. Also, John never equates this Mary with Mary Magdalene, although he says nothing to preclude it. Luke’s Mary Magdalene probably would not have been from Bethany. All we should assume when reading John 12 is what John has already said about Mary and Martha in John 11, namely, the story of Lazarus rising from the dead.
This story also corresponds very roughly with Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; and Luke 7:36-50, which all tell the story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair. Again, we should be very careful about mixing together features from the other stories–especially in this case. For example, Luke’s version is in the house of a Pharisee and the woman who anoints Jesus is a notorious sinner from the city. In Matthew and Mark they are at the house of Simon the leper. John’s story should be interpreted in its own right as a self-contained story while sitting loosely to its precise historicity.
Interestingly, John 11:2 reminds the audience of the hair incident before it actually tells the story in chapter 12. This could indicate everything from the possibility that chapter 12 was written earlier and chapter 11 a later addition (assuming that the Gospel of John grew into its current form by stages as is commonly suggested). It is also possible that the story was so well known that John 11 alludes to oral tradition, a story the audience would have certainly heard, although no other gospel mentions it.
To the story itself! If we leave the fact that Judas Iscariot is the one asking the question (in Luke Jesus spars with the Pharisee who owns the house, in Matthew the disciples raise the question, in Mark some people there), we have a stark issue represented in this story. When does Jesus take precedence over the poor? “The poor you always have with you.”
Indeed, we could give away not only our excess but we could give away all our sustenance and the need of the poor would not be exhausted. Middle class Westerners like to say that if they gave everything away, they would have nothing more to give. Where if they keep their critical mass of capital, they will be able to give perpetually. Whether their motives are pure in making such excuses or not, they may be right.
But this story conjures up a different question–when does the worship of Jesus trump mission? The story suggests that Jesus is the ultimate priority. Certainly we worship Jesus by conducting his mission to the world. But there is a place for focusing purely on Jesus in worship, by using our resources on him when we might have used them on mission.
I have no answer to the question of cathedrals. What magnificent structures of worship! The poor these resources might have fed died a long time ago, but their testimony to Jesus continues unabated. Should they have been built? I don’t know.
But there is a time to worship Jesus for his own sake–even if it does not lead to something else or contribute to the mission of God. Worship does not conflict with mission, but it is the more ultimate priority.