Yesterday, we began a day-by-day look at the Passion Week, so our “week” is actually ten days, starting BEFORE Palm Sunday… Here are some observations about the Saturday before Good Friday, which would have been eight days before Easter. It is a quiet Saturday, a sabbath, so there is no mention of any activity until we read John’s account of Supper at Bethany.
(John’s Gospel often records insights into the Jewish political councils, so he had some connection–Nicodemus, perhaps?–that provided him access. He also preserved personal details that he observed as a member of Jesus’ inner circle, perhaps more so than Matthew Mark, or Luke.)
A short time before this Saturday, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, which prompted a strong reaction from the Sanhedrin. From the time that event occurred, the mood among the Jewish Rulers shifted dramatically. Caiaphas (the High Priest) and his council to begin plotting Jesus’ death. They were concerned that this young rabbi’s followers would get out of hand, and bring Roman judgment down upon them all. John, who apparently had connections with the Jewish council, reported this in John 11:49-50: “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
While that was developing, Jesus was gathering with his closest followers, including the man he had brought back to life: “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.” (John 12:1-2, NIV).
Guess Who’s Reclining for Dinner
After a quiet Sabbath day in Bethany on Saturday, there were several notable exchanges at dinner. The guests reclined around a low table, as was the custom, leaning on one elbow. (This accurate depiction of places at mealtime means that all of the Italian Last Supper depictions are wrong, of course!) After the close of Sabbath they were actually reclining around a low circular or perhaps square table, starting with the Leader or Guest of honor at the head of the table, ending with the youngest.
(That’s why in the Last Supper, in John 13:22-25, John describes himself as the one leaning against Jesus’ breast. As the youngest disciple, he completed the circle, and had the closest position to Jesus at formal meals).
Lazarus’ sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and Judas, the group’s treasurer, objected to the waste of money (because, John said, Judas was a thief who used his position as keeper of the bag to steal funds).
There is one other detail. Mark 14 and Matthew 26 record a very similar event, but scholars debate about these two accounts. Was it two events, or Gospel confusion and presentation about one event? I believe them to be two separate incidents that shared some common elements. (Since John identifies Mary as the anointing party, and Matthew and Mark do not name the woman, I think it’s two events–not just confusion within the Gospel accounts. It would have been very unusual for Matthew and Mark not to name someone as well-known to the group as Mary…)
Jesus pointed out that this anointing was appropriate because it signified his upcoming burial. He also said “you will not always have me with you”, knowing that his death was imminent. (He told them frankly about his death in John 12:23, Matt.16:21 and 20:17, but it didn’t register with them at the time). One of the MOST IMPORTANT aspects of the crucifixion is that it was NOT AN ACCIDENT. Jesus knew it was coming, and he was preparing his followers to deal with it. He was no victim; he was a VOLUNTEER. His disciples later recalled that he told them about his mission, but they were so swept up in the moment that they missed his point entirely.
A Quiet Saturday Evening
This Saturday evening, however, even as a crowd of curiosity seekers hovered outside the house, the disciples remained blissfully unaware of Jesus’s true intentions. But He knew what was coming. It is always important to remember that he made these plans of his own volition, not as a victim. Zebedee’s wife asked if her sons James and John could have important positions when Jesus came into his kingdom. He used this request as a teaching moment about servant leadership. Jesus reminded them again that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. He stated this explicitly to them three times in Mark, but apparently they didn’t grasp his mission until later. (Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34)
This was a bittersweet moment for Jesus. Disciples were speculating, perhaps, about their positions in the new kingdom when he overthrew the Romans. I’m sure there was some concern about the Sanhedrin’s opposition, but they would have assumed it was nothing the Master couldn’t handle. So much that we know now, they didn’t know then. He was with his closest friends, the night before Hosannas would ring on the road to Jerusalem, and yet he was being anointed for his impending death. It is a calm before the storm.
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