Reflection 4/6: Layers of Meaning
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
This week’s gospel is about Jesus’ being anointed by Lazarus’ sister Mary while the family sat for dinner. Lazarus we remember as having been raised from the dead in one of the most dramatic stories of the gospel, second only to Jesus’ own resurrection in John’s gospel. Jesus did not stop Mary from doing what she did. Judas, who was a thief from the common purse, complained bitterly.
Some of the context: Israel had a dry environment. Skin was itchy and cracked, caked with the silt and dust that swirled in the air and got into everything. The only way to keep skin comfortable was to oil it. Oil was hydrating and protective against the grit. (Think of Vaseline.) And this gospel chronicles the oil that Mary used cost almost a full year’s laborer’s wages. People used animal fat for cooking and lubrication, and olive oil, which was pricy and needed to go as far as possible for cooking. Using a nut oil for anointing dry skin was something few Jewish people could afford. It was a practice only among the wealthy. The Bible attests to this in many places.
Firstly, we can take this Bible story on face value, as another chapter in Jesus’ ministry, attesting to the close relationship he had with Lazarus and his family. However, this story just before John’s passion story is more symbolic than just narrational. Jesus is being anointed, signifying his kingship. Anointing was also a funeral practice because the body was anointed before burial. This little snippet of the gospel is presaging Jesus’ existential reality as the son of God, the king of heaven and earth. Also, tragically, it points to Jesus’ imminent suffering, death, and burial. That it takes place in Lazarus’ household, a man who had been raised from the dead, is also a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead.
This story is an example of how scripture is always multilayered. A story is never just a story in a gospel. Items and actions are metaphors of God’s unfolding plan of salvation. For example, Judas is presented as a thief who cares only about money and how he can get more of it, a theme that will be explored later. The writer of the gospel of John is telegraphing significant truth, and additionally telling us ways we can understand the story that continues to unfold. The gospel says, “pay attention.”