STORM IMOGEN BATTERS BRITAIN
36 One of the Pharisees invited Yeshua to eat with him, and he went into the home of the Parush and took his place at the table. 37 A woman who lived in that town, a sinner, who was aware that he was eating in the home of theParush, brought an alabaster box of very expensive perfume, 38 stood behind Yeshua at his feet and wept until her tears began to wet his feet. Then she wiped his feet with her own hair, kissed his feet and poured the perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw what was going on, he said to himself, “If this man were really a prophet, he would have known who is touching him and what sort of woman she is, that she is a sinner.” 40 Yeshua answered, “Shim‘on, I have something to say to you.” “Say it, Rabbi,” he replied. 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; the one owed ten times as much as the other. 42 When they were unable to pay him back, he canceled both their debts. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Shim‘on answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.” “Your judgment is right,” Yeshua said to him.
44 Then, turning to the woman, he said to Shim‘on, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house — you did not give me water for my feet, but this woman has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair! 45 You did not give me a kiss; but from the time I arrived, this woman has not stopped kissing my feet! 46 You did not put oil on my head, but this woman poured perfume on my feet! 47 Because of this, I tell you that her sins — which are many — have been forgiven, because she loved much. But someone who has been forgiven only a little loves only a little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 At this, those eating with him began saying among themselves, “Who is this fellow that presumes to forgive sins?” 50 But he said to the woman, “Your trust has saved you; go in peace.”
I want to begin this blog with what will seem an irrelevant story. I was recently chatting with a man of my own age whom I’d just met. He guided the conversation on to the safe subject of football, which I love. Soon we were bemoaning the present day standard of Scottish football and harking back to the great players of out youth. “Remember Jim Baxter,” he said, ” at Wembley in ’67 against England? They’d won the world cup but here we were playing them off the pitch, and there’s Baxter out on the left teasing them by playing keepy-uppy with the ball afore he makes a perfect pass to Dennis Law…”
“Were you there?” I asked enviously.
“Naw,” he said shaking his head, “But my brother wis an’ he tellt me.”
Something astonishing had been done on a football pitch and fifty years later a man who hadn’t been there was able to describe it to me perfectly.
My introduction to the study of the Gospels at University was provided by scholars who’d never listened to people talking about football. So sure were they that there was hardly any chance of an eye-witness report of Jesus surviving forty years after his death, that they credited the first Christian communities with most of the stories we were reading. I certainly have no wish to take away from the creativity of the first Christian storytellers. Of course they told the stories to reflect their communal experience of the resurrected Jesus, as well as their memory of his ministry. But when astonishing things happen, the memory of them may well be passed on with great accuracy over generations.
Today’s story tends to get identified by scholars with the story in Mark and Matthew of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany by a woman with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. There are a few similarities, but given that the Mark/Mathew story is intimately linked with Jesus’ death, while the story Luke tells is about Jesus’ ministry to the outcast, the differences seem to me greater than the similarities. More modern scholars have focused on the literary skills of Luke who tells the story so well. But I think that the story probably arises from an astonishing act of grace – comparable to the athletic grace of Jim Baxter- on the part of Jesus of Nazareth.
The story is set in the house of a Pharisee, who in spite of the opposition of his colleagues to Jesus, has invited him. No details are given about the welcome offered to Jesus at this point because the storyteller wants to hold them back util they can be used with devastating effect. The woman breaks into the decorous assembly as an explosion of indecorous womanly grief and affection, breaking goodness knows how many social norms and religious taboos in the process: she has not been invited, only men will have been seated at table, she has a bad reputation, she touches a man – yes, even if she invaded a clergyman’s house in today’s permissive culture, she would have been a serious embarrassment. (Imagine the clergyman’s wife, “And exactly where did you meet this… lady, dear?). Her actions are described in detail by Luke who leaves no doubt as to their shocking physicality. The sober men gathered at table judge that she has made an exhibition of herself, and Simon the Pharisee in particular is disgusted not only with her but with the (false) prophet who has done nothing to reject her ministrations.
It is at this point in the story that the astonishing thing begins to happen, but it begins very quietly. Almost casually and in the mode a Rabbi might use when teaching, Jesus tells the brief story of the two debtors, asking what may seem an almost irrelevant question, “Which one will love him more?” and the Pharisee, playing the game, can answer easily. But suddenly he finds himself in the midst of a devastating and remorseless attack which simultaneously dismantles his self-righteousness and rebuilds the woman’s worth. Inexorably, point by point, Jesus compares the coldness of the pharisee’s hospitality with the warmth of the woman’s gratitude. He does not do this in general terms but deals with the specifics of the non-actions of his host as compared with the actions of the woman. He is not in other words, excusing the actions of the woman but specifically commending them; he is not making a general complaint about his host’s meagreness but specifically holding it up for disapproval. The irrelevant issue of love turns out to be the only thing that counts. The reader must understand that the woman has already been in contact with Jesus and has already trusted his good news.
Luke wants the reader to understand that in this domestic incident the complete power structure of Pharisaic religion is demolished: the righteous are rejected, the sinners are welcomed; the powerful are put down, the humble are lifted high; the replete rich are sent away empty, the hungry poor are fed. And all this is accomplished with such delicate and precise justice that it cannot be gainsayed.
I have said before that the reader should pay special attention when Jesus is reported as being in a house, for then it becomes a “house of God”. In this house God is normally kept at arm’s length (like Jesus) or has to break in (like the woman) but through Jesus’ words and actions (and the woman’s!) it becomes a true house of God where the love of God is transmitted, received and celebrated.
We ought also to pay special atention when the word “anoint” is used in the Gospels because Christ is the Greek for Hebrew Maschiach, the anointed one, that is, someone chosen by God to lead his people; also used of the expected Messiah. Here God anoints his Messiah through the love of a sinner.
If we only had this story, written between 85 and 90 CE we would know that something quite astonishing happened in the mimistry of Jesus of Nazareth, back in the 30’s.