Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Wednesday of Holy Week 2021

Luke's version of the anointing is the reason I got interested in this story in all four gospels in the first place.  There are few other stories all four gospels have in common; and three of the four gospels tell this story in pretty much the same manner.  Except John's version shows knowledge of Luke's version; and Luke's version turns this little story completely upside down.

Let's start with Luke:

One of the Pharisees invited him to dinner; he entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. A local woman, one who was a sinner, found out that he was having dinner at the Pharisee's house. She suddenly showed up with an alabaster jar of myrrh, and stood there behind him weeping at his feet. Her tears wet his feet, and she wiped them dry with her hair; she kissed his feet, and anointed them with the myrrh.

The Pharisee who had invited him saw this and said to himself, "if this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching him, since she is a sinner."

And Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

"Teacher," he said, "Speak up."

"This moneylender had two debtors; one owed five hundred silver coins, the other fifty. Since neither one of them could pay, he wrote off both debts. Now which of them will love him more?"

Simon answered, "I would imagine the one for whom he wrote off the larger debt."

And he said to him, "You're right." Then turning to the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I walked into your house and you didn't offer me water for my feet; yet she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn't offer me a kiss, but she hasn't stopped kissing my feet since I arrived. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh. For this reason, I tell you, her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven, as this outpouring of her love shows. But the one who is forgiven little shows little love."

And he said to her "Your sins have been forgiven."

Then those having dinner with him began to mutter to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

And he said to the woman, "Your trust has saved you; go in peace."

Luke 7:36-50, SV

Is grace a quid pro quo?  "...the one who is forgiven little shows little love."  Is that about grace; or about acknowledgement of grace?  If I don't think I need to be forgiven for anything, am I forgiven anyway?  Is that fair?

That's the central question this story, as Luke tells it, raises.  But let's put it in the context of Luke's narrative.  This story actually ends chapter 7 (not Luke's doing, the chapters, but it's convenient for us).  How does Luke 7 start?

After he had completed all he had to say to his audience, he went into Capernaum.

Luke 7:1, SV

So this comes immediately after the Sermon on the Mount, the one that includes the Beatitudes of Luke:

Then he would look squarely at his disciples and say:

Congratulations, you poor!

God's domain belongs to you!

Congratulations, you hungry!

You will have a feast.

Congratulations, you who weep now!

You will laugh.

Congratulations to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and denounce you and scorn your name as evil, because of the son of Adam! Rejoice on that day, and jump for joy! Just remember, your compensation is great in heaven.  Recall that their ancestors treated the prophets the same way.

Damn you rich!

You already have your consolation!

Damn you who are well-fed now!

You will know hunger.

Damn you who laugh now!

You will learn to weep and grieve.

Damn you when everybody speaks well of you!  Recall that their ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way.

Luke 6:20-26, SV

And Luke 8 begins:

And it so happened that he traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of God's imperial rule.  The twelve were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases:  Mary, the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for him out of their resources.

Luke 8:1-3, SV

This is the passage that led to the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, reformed by Jesus.  It's also worth noting Mary Magdalene appears in all four gospels; but in the other three she doesn't appear until the crucifixion, until the women are actually at the foot of the cross.  She is mentioned in Mark, so Matthew and Luke both take her from that gospel, and she returns in Luke's crucifixion story.  But this anointing story is not a crucifixion story; in Luke it takes place long before that fateful Passover week.  And the reason Mary Magdalene was tagged as a prostitute is entirely because of this version of the anointing story.

But let's go back and walk through the story:  Jesus is at the house of Simon, who is now a Pharisee, not a leper.  We'll see there's more than a bit of humor in this story, in this narrative, and it starts there, with Luke making Simon no longer an outcast leper, but a respectable member of Palestinian society.  Who just happens to have the same name as the leper from the other stories in circulation about Jesus of Nazareth.  And, at this house, Jesus is reclining at table, with his feet out beside him.  And a local woman, "one who was a sinner," enters the room.  How is she known to be a sinner?  Well, walking into a room full of men is one clue.  Even Simon's wife wouldn't dare enter that gathering.  But there is another, as we'll learn in the next sentences.

She is, as in the anointing stories of Matthew and Mark, anonymous.  She is also carrying an alabaster jar of myrrh, the kind Mark first described.  But she doesn't pour it on Jesus' head; she pours it on his feet.  Now, we might think anointing his feet is not really an anointment; and we'd be right.  Anointment is a ritual recognizing the king in Hebraic custom; or a ritual used for events of great merit, at least.  The anointing in Mark and Matthew is just that:  a recognition of the authority of this son of peasants from a backwater on the fringe of the Empire.  It is also a symbolic preparation for burial, as Jesus points out in those stories.  But the feet?  Isn't that an act of great humility, the humility Jesus shows in John's gospel when he washes the feet of his disciples?

No; because the actor here is a woman, not another man.  And because feet carry, in this culture, the euphemistic connection to genitals.  (You might be thinking of the sexual fetish of feet; that doesn't really apply here.) In the Hebrew scriptures there are a few stories of men "covering their feet," meaning they dropped their robes in order to relive themselves.  It's practical, but it's also a delicate way of speaking of something, shall we way, indelicate?  Movie language of the '40's was just as discrete: the couple embraced in a passionate way, and the camera moved away, leaving them locked together.  We all knew they didn't just "hug it out."  We knew (or should have known) what was implied (which is now more or less explicit, but that's another matter). In the erotic literature of the time, mostly Greek eroticism, feet were themselves an erogenous zone, or at least one used to represent erotic acts.  Strange as it may sound today, a lover washing her beloved's feet with her tears, and drying those feet with her hair, was considered both an act of great intimacy (easy to see why) and great eroticism (a bit harder to grasp; but the there are cliches in porn and TV/movie sex, too, which aren't all that erotic in real life).  Now we know, as Luke's audience did, why this woman is known to be a sinner.  She's clearly a prostitute soliticing business.

This happened in the 1st century during dinner parties.  And Simon's discomfort underscores the point.  This woman is giving his guest of honor the 21st century equivalent of a lap dance, and Simon is too above her (and too moral himself) to send her away.  If you like, imagine this happening at a restaurant where you've taken your pastor in order to ingratiate him to you and your church friends.  Then a woman comes up and starts giving him a lap dance, for obvious reasons of commerce; and your pastor, rather than shoo her away, actually enjoys it!  And then he uses the event as an excuse to get a dig in on you!

The parable Luke tells is unique in the gospels.  Mark, Matthew, and John all raise the "but what about the poor!" objection (which is funny, considering how little John follows the narratives of the synoptics, even in the events of the crucifixion).  Luke turns that part of the tale inside out with the parable of the debtors.  It's pretty clear that parable puts Simon and the woman on the same level, and doesn't leave Simon with any reason to feel superior, morally or otherwise.  Jesus has already committed, in Simon's eyes, a social (if not moral) faux pas by not sending the woman away, relieving Simon of the shame of this happening in his home.  For Simon to send her away is for Simon to take some responsibility for her being in his home in the first place; far better for him if Jesus does it, and keeps all the shame on her, and none on the men at table.  Jesus doesn't do that.  Instead, after telling the parable, he asks Simon the very question Simon doesn't want asked:  "Do you see this woman?"

That, of course, is precisely what Simon has been trying not to do.  Now, rather than dismiss her and turn to the host and say "There's no shame on you, these things happen, I've already forgotten it," Jesus makes a lesson of it, a lesson with the clear point:  she's shown more gratitude than you have, because frankly, she's got more to be grateful for.  And worse, he goes step-by-step through the entire exercise:  she is kissing his feet, she's pouring myrrh on his feet, she's washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (you should recall here Paul's admonition to his church in Corinth about women keeping their hair bound).  Jesus not only doesn't remove the shame, he shamelessly recounts the events himself.  See this woman?  Now Jesus is narrating this woman's actions!

And then he draws a line under the whole thing, with the action that seems most to bedevil Jesus' critics in the gospels (all four of them):  "Who is this who even forgives sins?"  But the real question is:  what did she do to deserve a forgiveness of her sins?

And he said to the woman, "Your trust has saved you; go in peace."

Luke 7:50, SV

And that's it.  The chapter ends there.  But the question hangs in the air:  what trust?  What has she done to earn this forgiveness?

It seems impossible, but the answer is:  nothing.  She is not among the company of the disciples.  She is probably not one of the women catalogued by Luke in the opening of chapter 8.  She is never named, in keeping with the stories from Mark and Matthew.  She doesn't do this just before Passover, so there's no connection to the crucifixion, to death, to burial.  The myrrh is just perfume.  And her actions don't mimic an anointing; they mimic 1st century Greek pornography.  What has she done that shows an "outpouring of love"?  At least the love we commonly associate with being among the forgiven of Christianity?  Jesus even plays with the cause and effect here:  because of what she's done (feet, hair, tears, myrrh) her sins are forgiven, he says.  Because her sins are forgiven, she has performed this grateful act of love.  Here, read it again:

"I walked into your house and you didn't offer me water for my feet; yet she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn't offer me a kiss, but she hasn't stopped kissing my feet since I arrived. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh. For this reason, I tell you, her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven, as this outpouring of her love shows. But the one who is forgiven little shows little love."

So she came in because her sins were forgiven, and she was so grateful; but because she walked in, and washed his feet and poured out the myrrh, her sins are forgiven and therefor she's....grateful?  Has Jesus already had a little too much wine?  Or is he purposefully evading a cause-and-effect analysis of forgiveness, of grace?

What Jesus does here is reframe, reinterpret, redefine (choose your term) what this woman has done.  She thought she was soliciting business.  He told her, and Simon, she was showing great love (and again, Jesus's sly wit goes unappreciated, even unnoticed.  "Love" has so many interpretations, and the one he means is clearly not the one she meant, or that Simon understood.)  He casts her actions not as a cause for further shaming and even damning ("if this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching him, since she is a sinner") but as a reason to forgive her shame (sins; same difference to Simon) and give her peace:  "Your trust has saved you; go in peace."  She might still leave the room wondering "What trust?  The trust I wouldn't get kicked in the face?"  And if she did join Jesus' entourage out of sheer gratitude ("I don't know how to love him/I don't know why he moves me" sings Mary Magdalene in "JCS"), who could blame her?  But if she did that, did that "buy" her grace, her forgiveness?

Jesus doesn't give us an answer to that question, because he doesn't want us to think grace and forgiveness are transactional, are some kind of cosmic (or divine, or even human) quid pro quo. In the parable, Simon is a debtor, just like the unnamed woman.  His debt is smaller, but he still owes a debt.  Does owing less debt really still put you above someone who owes more?  Is that a measuring stick worth living by?  Is any measuring stick to evaluate such status really worth living by?  Isn't the lesson here that we should take care of each other, show consideration equally to each other, rather than drawing boundaries around who is worthy of shame, and who is worthy of recognition?

"Do you see this woman?"  If anything is done in remembrance of her, it should be the repitition of that question.  Over and over and over again; as much as it takes.  Because the question is not:  what did she do?  The question is:  what did you do?  Do you see this woman?

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