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John 12:1-8

The Gospel of John is characteristically filled with contrasting symbolism and figurative categories such as light and darkness, good and evil. This dramatic narrative of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus is no different, as it sets up the symbolic struggle once again, now alluding to its economic dimension – the new economy and the old.

The new economics of Christ, rooted in abundance, not scarcity, is central to the writings of the apostle John. From the gushing waters of abundant life in chapter 4, to the extravagant leftovers in chapter 6, Jesus’ life proclaims an economic system not bound by a zero-sum philosophy. These sacramental symbols of bread and water both remind the people of God of the boundless abundance of YHWH in the desert post-Exodus and point forward to the last supper Jesus would have with his friends.

Not long before Jesus’ anointing, he proclaims to his followers, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). Often this statement is interpreted either through a prosperity lens or through a hyper-spiritualized lens that negates personal and communal responsibility. Both extremes are shaped by the categories of the old economy of quid pro quo. In the gospel reading for this week, just days before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is anointed as a different kind of king, ruling over a different kind of abundant Kingdom.

It is no wonder Mary understood the gratuitous nature of Christ’s new economy. She knew the stories of bread and water in her body and in the body of her brother Lazarus, who just days before, walked out of his tomb. Mary’s bodily performance of the limitless generativity of the new economy of Christ is held in stark contrast to Judas’s “counterfeit compassion.” “Judas has no sense that where Jesus prevails the old economy of parsimony [tight-fistedness] is not in effect, because Jesus’ capacity for abundance is generative of all that is needed.”[1]

The abundance of Christ’s economy is foreign to modern, capitalistic worldviews. Importantly, Jesus’ life redefines abundance not as surplus but as constant fecundity, a self-emptying that transforms everything, especially economics. This communal declaration of enough-ness, rooted in Christ’s boundless abundance, is exemplified by Jesus’ last statement in this narrative: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (12:8). Though this statement is often misinterpreted as economic resignation, importantly, it is a quote from Deuteronomy concerning the radical and generous practice of debt cancellation for the poor. “It is rather, a summons to vigorous policy and generous practice that refuses ‘hard-hearted or tight fisted’ attitudes toward the poor.”[2]

Initiated by Mary’s performance of an alternative kingdom economics, Jesus reminds his followers of the radically generous policy of relief for the poor via debt cancelation as central to the continuing responsibility of the people of God. Even as he is being prepared for his death, Jesus is reminding his disciples of this significant responsibility, that of debt cancellation as opposed to the narrow and self-focused practice of charity. This radical practice of debt cancellation, rooted in the kingdom ethics described above, is a communal principle based upon the belief that we are enough and there is enough to go around.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Money and Possessions, Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 203.

[2] Brueggemann, 197.