In the ancient world, it was customary for a community to receive a famous and honored individual into their midst with great pomp and ceremony. Often, a delegation from the community would go outside their town, meet the arriving person of prominence, and accompany them back to their locale. This is referred to as a “parousia”. We see several examples of parousia in the life of Jesus, and even one when He goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. There is no record of Jesus being received in this way upon this visit to Bethany, but we can imagine that such an event took place, as His fame could only have grown as Lazarus continued to live amongst the people.
As a part of the reception, there would be a determination made as to which member or family of the community was the most worthy and important individual, in the best position to accept the dignitary into their house, most capable of reflecting favorably on the larger community so as to give the best possible impression to the honored guest, and able to bring honor to the whole of the community in the process. As was said, it would have been a natural choice, owing to previous events, for Lazarus to host Jesus in Bethany. The fact that Jesus loved Lazarus and His sisters would have contributed to this more than natural arrangement. However, it is Simon the leper that receives the honor of hosting a meal for Jesus.
Whether this is the choice of the community or Jesus’ choice we are left to wonder, but we do know that one who would normally be marginalized and even ostracized in the community for a variety of reasons is the one that has this honor. If the story of Zaccheus (as a prime example of Jesus choosing His own host) is any indication, it is likely that it is Jesus that has made the choice of meal location, but it is not something about which we can be dogmatic.
Beyond the fact that the meal is taking place at the house of a leper (though we may be tempted to imagine that the meal is taking place at Lazarus’ house because it is said “they prepared a dinner for Jesus there” (12:2), the “there” must be a reference to Bethany), when we fold in the details from the Gospel of John, we are now urged to look a second time at the fact that Martha was serving. Martha is not only serving, but she, a wealthy woman like her sister (who can afford to “waste” a valuable amount of perfume), is serving in the house of a leper. This is unthinkable in that day. Clearly, Simon is somebody that is further down the social scale from Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, so the fact that a more noble member of society is serving in the house of somebody that is “beneath them,” is a radical shake-up in the normal social order, though such things seem to be quite commonplace with Jesus. It is the presence of Jesus, and that alone, that is bringing this unthinkable occurrence to pass.
The social mobility of our own day (for a large part of the world), along with the casual mixing of classes that makes it impossible to positively and concretely identify one’s socioeconomic status was unknown in the ancient world. Various aspects of the culture, especially the setting of meals and banquets, revealed social status in no uncertain terms. The fact that this is so foreign to most of us causes us to miss these aspects that would have stood out in the early years of the church. We tend to read past these things, whereas a time and a culture that is thoroughly accustomed to these things and ordered around meals, would have had very strong reactions and opinions associated with what was being seen in Jesus’ actions and what was being communicated by the church about Jesus’ actions.
A prominent feature of this story is that Mark makes it a point to mention that Jesus is dining at the house of a leper named Simon. For some reason, Lazarus is absent from Matthew and Mark’s story, and of course, is absent from any Gospel save that of John. Though Lazarus’ lack of any presence at all in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is bizarre (to say the least), it is Simon who is conspicuous by his absence from the telling in John. Though Simon is not present in John, Lazarus, though he is famous and people are coming to see Jesus on account of him, is not presented as the honored guest. He does not take the place of Simon, but is presented merely as “among those present at the table with Him” (John 12:2b). Lazarus is just another guest, Martha is serving, and Mary is (according to John’s record, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair---which brings its own provocative considerations that are beyond the pale of this study). There is a dynamic at work here with this particular meal that should serve to provide structure for our thoughts and considerations of Jesus’ kingdom message.