THE PASSION OF OUR LORD:
DETAILING THE EVENTS OF OUR LORD’S SUFFERING AND DEATH
Session #4 (Most quotes are NIV)
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MOUNT OF OLIVES
As we assemble the facts of this emotionally-packed week, let us remember that what we are dealing with is actual history. The critics of Christianity would like us to believe that the Gospel writers made this stuff up! But they were eye witnesses to the facts, as we will surely see in some of the little details of these events. Jesus had commanded them to preach the Kingdom, to proclaim that the Messiah had died and had risen from the dead for our salvation.
As Martin Kähler said in Sacramentum Mundi (6 Volume Roman Catholic compendium), “To fabricate history is not the same as to narrate history with a purpose!”
It all begins on the Mount of Olives, the eastern hill which overlooks the city of Jerusalem. Read Zechariah 14. The Old Testament prophet describes the “Day of the Lord” in some detail. But verse 4 is especially telling: “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.”
And verse 9 helps us understand what is happening: “The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name.” God returning to save his people begins with him standing on the Mount of Olives!
DINNER IN BETHANY—THE SABBATH BEFORE THE CRUCIFIXION
John 12 gives us a detailed story at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is shortly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The family lives in Bethany, a little village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives and about two miles walk from Jerusalem.
To help with your mental imagery, picture Jerusalem set on a hill—but not a very big hill. As you travel east from the Temple mount, you cross the Kidron Valley (which is more like a gorge) and come to a taller hill, the Mount of Olives. In other words, if one stands on the Mount of Olives, one can look DOWN on the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, which Jesus does later in the week. The western slope of the Mount of Olives is called Gethsemane (a word which means “oil press.” This will play an important role in the story of Christ’s suffering).
On the eastern slope is the village of Bethany, where Lazarus had recently been raised from the dead. The miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection made the leaders of the Jewish Council so crazy that John 12:9-11 says “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.So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well,for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”
In the Gospel of John, it is important to remember that “the Jews” is not an anti-Semitic term (how can John be anti-Semitic? It is written by a Jewish man!). When the 4th Gospel uses the term “the Jews,” it is always a reference to the enemies of Jesus. Thus John 12:9-11 takes on a new meaning: the Jewish leaders are now wanting to kill Jesus and Lazarus because some of the enemies of Jesus are becoming his followers: “many of the Jews were going over to Jesus!” These aren’t “commoners”; some of the Council members are converting!
Two things about this Bethany dinner in John 12 should be noted: 1. Crowds gather! There are little hints in the Gospels that the Galileans who are headed to Jerusalem want to find Jesus—and he keeps disappearing on them (see John 11:57 and 12:9). People hear that Jesus is at Lazarus’ home and they start to gather. Excited crowds during Passover week are NOT what Pilate wants to hear about (more about this later). And a mention of big crowds keeps popping up in our story—at Lazarus’ grave, at Jericho, at Bethany, and going into Jerusalem on Sunday.
2. Mary pours pistic nard on Jesus’ feet. This is a little weird, given the fact that Middle Easterners even today don’t want anything to do with someone else’s feet. Feet are considered unclean and generally taboo. Rabbis said that feet were so “unclean” that a man could NOT force his wife or his slave to wash his feet. This is a rare proscription! Furthermore, Mary wipes his feet with her hair. A Middle Eastern woman neither shows her hair nor lets it down in public. But Mary doesn’t care because she wants Jesus to know how much she loves Him.
John 12:3 “Then Mary took about a pintof pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.” This is an act of pure devotion—even if the perfume had been cheap. But it wasn’t cheap. It was far from it! The average worker at the time would pay about a year’s salary for a pint of this perfume—300 denarii says the Greek. (This “nard” has been suggested to be the resin of a balsam tree found in Arabia and Somaliland. Saint Augustine however suggests that the Greek word refers to a place name–πιστικῆς—“pistic” and therefore the perfume came from northern India).
Lazarus’ grave was one indication of the wealth of this family. This pint of perfume is another display of riches. Note: while Jesus often condemned the love of money, he didn’t “hate rich people” and clearly He was a dear friend of this very wealthy Bethany family.
More revealing is the reaction of Judas: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” (verse 5) The Gospel writer, John, inserts an interesting piece of information in verse 6: “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.”
The Greek tells us more than the English translation. He is a κλέπτης—“kleptes”—what we would call in English a kleptomaniac or “a sneak-thief.” This is more than a mere “colorful detail.” It reveals the behavioral motivation of the betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot. Judas would never miss an opportunity to grab a dollar wherever it lay.
But there is more in the Greek text! The verb is ἐβάσταζεν, an imperfect: “He was always carrying” the bag. Again, we have an idiom. In English we would say he was “lifting” the goods (stealing). And this behavior is said to be on-going or habitual with Judas. Putting money where Judas could get to it was like putting a drink in front of an alcoholic. Judas couldn’t resist!
SHE DID IT TO BURY ME!
There is one more important detail in the story of this meal at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. When the cry arises “What a waste!”, 12:7 reads “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
Almost every translation of the Greek is awkward. Scholars have debated the meaning of these words and have come up with all kinds of notions. But one suggestion is missing (and I think it’s the right one). This is idiomatic, so taking each word apart and trying to fit it together is impossible. It’s like making sense of slang—you can’t analyze it. It means whatever the user meant it to mean. Here, I think the translation should be “She did it to bury me!” It Is to the point and clearly can mean nothing less!
How did Mary know that Jesus “needed burial?” Did she perceive that this trip to Jerusalem was a one-way ticket for Jesus? Did he tell her something in private about his impending crucifixion? This is not an unreasonable supposition because Jesus had told the disciples several times that he was going to be crucified. Mark 10:32-34, Matthew 20:17-19, and Luke 18:31-34 all tell the story of Jesus telling his disciples the exact details of his suffering and death.
But the disciples didn’t understand. On Good Friday, there was not time for a proper burial. Instead, Jesus received the proper burial respect in Bethany from his good friend Mary! In a sense Mary had taken this early opportunity to bury Him alive!