Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Grace Works

Martin Luther (as the story was told to me) was a Augustinian monk who pestered his confessor about his sins. Luther was so afraid of failing to confess a sin that he feared failing to confess his failure to confess a sin! Writhing in spiritual agony over what he feared was the lost state of his soul, he had his theological breakthrough: we must be saved by grace, because no amount of faith could be sufficient to secure one's salvation.

Now James tells us, rightly, that "faith without works is dead." And yet, we cannot earn our salvation; we cannot "merit" God's grace. But does that mean we won't have to do anything, not even believe? Most Christian theologians don't go that far, but, did Luke?

Find a Bible, and open to Luke 7:36-50. All the gospels have at least two stories in common: the crucifixion, and this one, the anointing. In John, this unnamed woman finally acquires a name. But in Luke, it moves from the scene of the "last supper" to much earlier in Jesus' ministry. And the intent of it shifts dramatically, too.

The common interpretation of this scene is that the woman who weeps and Jesus' feet, to wash them, and then dries his feet with her hair, and then puts oil on them, is performing an act of pious public devotion. But she isn't, actually; this kind of act is known in Greek literature of the time of Luke's gospel. It's known in erotic Greek literature. This is the very intimate act of a lover for her beloved.

First, women and men should never be in the same private room in 1st century Palestine. When this woman comes in, Luke's audience immediately knows she is a prostitute. When she bends over Jesus' feet (a common euphemism for male genitalia in the literature and culture, is "feet"), crying on them is an erotic action. Unbinding her hair, of course, is also an intimate act, and using her hair to dry another's feet, get the idea.

So Simon, the host, and his company, are disturbed. Jesus is supposed to be a holy man, pure, undefiled. Hard to claim that status after this situation. And while Simon wants the woman to leave, he doesn't want to acknowledge her presence, either. But Jesus does. He tells Simon she has shown "great love" (with an obvious pun on the word "love"!), and then tells her that her faith has "saved" her, and she should go in peace. Now, here is the question: what faith?

If Jesus knows something we don't, Luke doesn't tell us. If the woman does something we don't know about, Luke doesn't tell us (so how did she do it?) Rather than read anything into the story, we have to read it for what it is. In modern terms, this unknown woman has entered a private dining room and performed a lap dance for the guest of honor, with clear overtones of soliciting for her "profession." So what "love" has she shown? What "faith" has she shown? And what is Jesus talking about? If we don't know, what do we do with this story?

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