John 12: Doing the Best We Can

What if there are no bad guys?

We judge other people’s intentions by their actions, and we judge our actions by our intentions.

Stephen M. R. Covey (the son of the “7 habits” guy) taught me that in his book “The Speed of Trust,” which anyone who works on my team is sick of hearing about by now. But that’s just because he’s on to something, including this insight.

When I do or say something that doesn’t quite land right, I think to myself, “But I *meant* X,” or “I was just trying to…” Judging my actions by my intentions.

But when YOU say or do something that I don’t think is cool, is that my first reaction? (It is not.) No, I think, “You said X because a) you’re a jerk; b) you were dissing me; c) both a) and b).” Because if the answer was d) none of the above, you wouldn’t have said/done that, right?

So, a couple things about John 12. This is just past halfway through the gospel (which has 20 chapters plus an epilogue in John 21), and we are already at the homestretch. Palm Sunday hits here, just past halftime. We’re at the Last Supper (sorta) in the next chapter. 

There’s a vignette at the beginning of the chapter that seems like a mashup. It’s the story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiping it up with her hair, which shows up at the end of Matthew (26) and Mark (14) and sounds a lot like the story in Luke 7. But John is writing a decade or so later, and it seems like in that time he and his sources have been spilling a lot of tea and maybe confusing some facts.

In the Synoptic gospel versions, Jesus is at the home of a leper. Here, it’s Lazarus, who he just raised from the dead in the last chapter. (Total aside: I’ve heard this and the raising of Lazarus stories a bunch of times in my life, but I always assumed they showed up as bookends in John, or at least spread out a little. They’re back to back!) And the woman isn’t a rando (as in Matthew and Mark) or a “sinful woman” as in Luke’s similar story; it’s Mary, Martha’s sister who doesn’t do her share of the dishes.

But the main thing is, John has a scapegoat and a motive. In Mark, and later in Matthew, this act of covering Jesus’ feet with perfume is decried by the disciples as a group, who say, look, that’s a huge waste of resources. We could buy a lot of food for poor people with what that perfume cost!

In John, the story has evolved. It’s only Judas who makes that statement, and not because he’s focused on social justice. John says Judas only said that (at least debatably) noble thing because he kept the money and stole from it regularly. He just threw the “help the poor” line out there because he wanted a bigger bag of gold from which to skim.

John is big on having good guys and bad guys. The religious leaders are bad guys. Judas is a bad guy. And attributing this motive helps make that point.

The other Gospels are a lot more muddled. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the 12 apostles are all really flawed and yet still chosen. That’s a level of ambiguity John doesn’t embrace. Judas did the questionable stuff, from bad intentions. End of story.

This is another reason I’m not a big fan of John’s gospel. Because I still think we’re all doing the best we can, and are all still a bit of a mess.

One of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., has spent his life running the biggest gang intervention program in the world out in LA. (He’s the bald guy whose videos I share on Facebook fairly often from Homeboy Industries.) Despite nearly 40 years working with gang members, he still swears he’s never met someone who is evil. (“And you think I would have,” he says.) The people he befriends have done awful, awful things, but generally he finds they all have a combination of mental illness and addiction, deep childhood trauma, and/or what he calls “a lethal absence of hope.” And it’s really only because he recognizes that they are under the spell of those influences, not because they are “bad guys,” that he has been as successful as he has been.

Truth be told, I don’t need Homeboy and Father Boyle to teach me that John has been too simplistic. Because I know that I’m plenty muddled myself. I can tell you people who pegged me for the “bad guy,” some of whom I could never convince otherwise. And I can also tell you about the people I had pegged as the “bad guy,” only to be proven wrong in the long run.

I know some people think I’m hopelessly naive, but I truly think that almost everybody is doing the best they can, generally. Imperfectly, with flawed information and bad influences, sure, but within those constraints, they’re making what they think are the right choices. And when I can stay curious as to why the thing they just did made perfect sense *to them*, I learn a lot about those good but different people.

Look, I was a kid once. (Long, long ago…) I remember that most of the games I played and the stories I learned had good guys and bad guys. But maybe they were wrong. Maybe there’s not good guys and bad guys. There’s just all of us. Doing the best we can.

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