Before the Passover

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Gospel of John 11:45-12:11

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. NIV

“What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.” NET

It is good to read that many believed in Jesus, though we do not know the depth of their belief. We should not be surprised that some of them were willing to turn him into the authorities.

It is sad to read that Jesus’ miracles had the opposite effect on the leaders. They even admitted that the miracles would cause people to believe in Jesus. Why did they resist belief?

People today often react much the same way. ‘Jesus did some wonderful things, Likely because he was a great magician. No one could do those things for real.’

 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. ESV

The Chief Priest was Ciaphas, who held the office from 18 to 36 CE, as his family became rich by skimming money from the Temple treasury. He also had great political power because he worked smoothly with Pilate. For him, Jesus was a political problem, best eliminated.

He was correct, as far as it went, that the Romans would eventually see the large crowds following Jesus and would have sent in the troops to execute as many as possible, perhaps including the Jewish leaders who did not handle the growing threat. He had the most to fear.

God and His Son—before creation—worked out the best possible time for the Son to walk on earth, be executed, and rise from the grave to accomplish what no human could do—defeat death. God and His Son knew the religious leaders of Judea would kill the Son in an attempt to save the nation. They also knew Judea would be lost anyway in 70 CE. None of the leaders, especially Ciaphas, could understand that God knew how they would react, and He built His plans around their reaction.

Bringing Lazarus back to life so near Jerusalem was designed to force the Temple leadership to call for Jesus’ arrest. Jesus entered Jerusalem several times over the three years, but always retreated when it got too hot. Now is the time to stay for the showdown. On earth, only Jesus knows the outcome.

In verse 52, John shows insider knowledge at the highest level. He could have learned a great deal of information over the years by talking with the servants of the high and mighty.

54 Thus Jesus no longer went around publicly among the Judeans, but went away from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples. 55 Now the Jewish Feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually. 56 Thus they were looking for Jesus, and saying to one another as they stood in the temple courts, “What do you think? That he won’t come to the feast?” 57 (Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it, so that they could arrest him.) NET

There is no certainty as to the location of Ephraim. Most scholars place it north of Jerusalem in Samaria, about a day’s walk from the city. That location would make sense in that Jesus would be safe from arrest there until he is ready for his big entry. Jesus knows that Lazarus was the deciding event, so leaving Judea will not change the arrest plans, just delay them. He still has some work to do with the Twelve.

In verse 55, we learn that many people arrived in Jerusalem early to go through the ritual cleansing before Passover. Most planned to offer other sacrifices, so they had to come even earlier to get it all done in time. The lines were long, with most waiting several days. It was necessary for the ritual cleansing to be done in Temple-approved mikvahs. Of course, only the men needed cleansing.

In all of that, the authorities were searching for Jesus, willing to pay for information on his whereabouts. The people were also debating whether he would dare to come at all.

12 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. NIV

In 11:55, we read that the ‘Passover is near.’ We do not know how many days Jesus spent in Samaria, but it could have been a week or more. We should remember that preparations for Passover began a month before the event. Still, the same verse mentioned that people were entering the city would suggest no more than a week’s stay.

Even though bringing Lazarus out of the tomb was described in detail twenty or so verses ago, John still stresses here that it was the home of Lazarus. It seems clear that there were no living parents, so almost certainly, the house belonged to Lazarus. To our modern American eyes, Mary and Martha seem to be independent women, but they lived in a culture that did not allow them much freedom. Even so, the father may have left the house to the older daughter.

A dinner to honor Jesus would have been an important event in a small town. Everyone in the village would have been invited, not to mention the Twelve and all the other disciples still with Jesus. Since it was spring, they likely ate outside. Even so, they had a round table—shaped a bit like the letter C—with couches outside for reclining. Martha could serve them by stepping through the opening.

Another consideration would erase the above paragraph. Bethany was only a couple of miles from the city, so the town was a stopping place for many Passover pilgrims. Six days before the Passover, the village would have been overflowing with visitors. They would go to the Temple during the day and return to sleep in and around Bethany.

The dinner would have been much smaller and inside the house in that more likely event. Still, Middle Eastern social norms would have been hard to ignore completely, so Martha may have invited some townies. The table with couches suggests a larger than average house, suggesting again that Lazarus had some wealth.

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. ESV

The Greek word translated pound is litra. It does mean a pound, literally. Only two read pound in the five translations I generally use.

Spikenard, also called nard, nardin, and muskroot, is a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil derived from Nardostachys jatamansi, a flowering plant in the honeysuckle family which grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. Wikipedia It grows above 9,800 feet.

The nard in this story was probably processed into a perfume commonly used throughout the Empire. All of the people invited to the dinner would have had their feet washed at the door as they entered. Only men would have been reclining at the table. Women ate together in another room, often the kitchen.

The men were likely barefoot, it being springtime. [In the winter, people wore socks with their sandals.]

In the other accounts of anointing Jesus, Mark and Matthew have Jesus in the home of Simon the leper where the unnamed woman pours nard perfume on Jesus’ head, a more common practice in the day.

Luke sets the scene at the home of a Pharisee. A ‘bad’ woman pours perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.

Only John names Mary and connects the scene with Lazarus.

Why the differences?

The accounts came from oral stories shared by many people. Mark and Luke received the story second hand, at best. It was more likely passed around for a few years before they first heard it. Matthew seems to follow Mark completely, suggesting that he received the same story.

While John’s account is similar in essential ways, it is also notably different in other ways. As usual, John’s version has the eyewitness touches found in all his descriptions.

William Barclay describes three points about the love expressed by Mary. First, it is extravagant. A few drops of the powerful perfume would have been enough. Second, Mary displayed her humility by bowing down to anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Appearing in a public setting with her hair down was only done by prostitutes; here, it symbolizes her love for Jesus. Third, the image of the scent-filled room is symbolic of anointing the whole church—the body of the Messiah.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. NIV

First, we must accept that Jesus and the other disciples accepted Iscariot as a faithful follower. They only discovered his duplicity after he betrayed Jesus. John is looking ahead with these statements about one of the Twelve.

I have difficulty imagining how Judas could have stolen money for three years. He could not wire it to his bank, and they moved around too much to have stashed it anywhere. Where would he have kept it? I am not saying John was wrong, but I suspect the thefts only occurred in the last few weeks or months as he became more disillusioned. After the crucifixion, the others would have looked through his belongings, such as they were, and found the pilfered money.

I agree with John that Judas had little regard for the poor. But Judas was right about the amount of money involved—a pound of nard would cost at least a year’s wages. Even after his secret share, that would have kept them going for a few months.

I wonder if any of the eleven suspected Judas Iscariot was a thief?

Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.” MSG

This interpretation seems to capture the idea of a burial anointing. The literal Greek reads, said therefore Jesus, allow her; for the day of the burial of me she has kept it.

Helping the poor has always been a hallmark of Christianity, and Jesus does not denigrate that here. At least a billion people in the world live on less than five dollars a day. With the anointing of the church, we should accept this perfume as our blessing of the ministry to the poor.

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. NIV

Why would the chief priests want to kill Lazarus? A crowd of people, including Pharisees, saw a man dead four days walk out of the grave. That pocked two big holes in their position high atop the Judean hierarchy. If Jesus continued to pull off such miracles, the people would follow him en masse resulting in the Romans crushing Jesus, his followers, and, much more important to them, the powerful leaders in Jerusalem.

The second issue was theological. The priests were nearly all Sadducees who rejected any notion of life after death. Lazarus was walking proof they were wrong. Even worse, he was proof that the hated Pharisees were right.

Solution? Kill both the healer and the healed. It is the kind of solution a mob boss would like.

John tells us in a round-about way that the presence of the crowds put a stop to their plans for the people to tell them where Jesus was. The crowds were in Bethany, but none talked to the leaders. Instead of arresting him on that day, Jesus was able to parade through the city unmolested the next day. It would seem by the time they finally arrested Jesus and goaded Pilate into killing him, they gave up on Lazarus.

Do you think they watched their great plan unravel the following Sunday?

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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