Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 7:36 – 8:3) is a well known and oft heard reading. We know it all too well; the nasty Pharisee gets his comeuppance and the poor prostitute is vindicated. Once again Jesus saves the poor and downtrodden and puts the hypocrites in their place! Yay Jesus……. End of sermon and we all nod knowingly.
This scenario plays out in real life everyday, especially when we want to expose others as being worse than us. When someone is caught out in whatever manner, the media exposes it in such a way as to mark them as less tham those of us sitting on the sideline. In actual fact, we often find ourselves sitting on the couch, like the Pharisee, and saying, “I always knew they (she, he) was different to me. ” (Then, to ourselves, I am not like that)
Here we have an outsider, a prostitute whose business was such that she earned enough for expensive perfume (obviously not all the well-to-do Jews present were perfect!), she gatecrashes an invite only party (there would be no way she got an official invite given who she was).
On the couch is the Pharisee, a respectable religious and civic leader, who’s position and well-being was well earned and above reproach. Undoubtedly the other guests at the table were of a similar ilk, and regardless of their opinion of Jesus, he too was seen as a respectable, well-educated Jewish rabbi, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there.
Yet Jesus was a fool, a clown, in truth a Holy Fool – he was what he was but he was also not what he was. He saw the world through different eyes and held up to the world a mirror which said loudly and clearly, “See you self first!” He wasn’t the first nor the last such Holy Fool, the Old Testament and religious writings of other world faiths and philosophies are full of them. As are the histories of all traditions – Anglicanism has modern people such as Desmond Tutu, Catholic tradition has people like Mother Theresa, Buddhism the Dalai Lama and Thicht Nhat Hahn for example. And there are many more like them in Islam, Hinduism and other world faiths.
People who stand still, and without pointing, make their point. Our world needs to hear their stories to counteract the beigeness of thought, ideas and practice we so easily embrace from our popular media and information sources. Our world needs to hear this Gospel story again, remembering it is a foolish story, a mirror held up for all of us to see what we see in the mirror.
The Pharisee and his hospitality
The Pharisees were often found at dinner with Jesus. These dinners were normal social events for the entire community. Jewish society was and still is a communal society; the community shared their life and their table as a normal part of life. This wasn’t necessarily a way to show off, although I am sure that occurred, but it was accepted as normal to open your house to all those in your community. Although only invited guests ate, anyone was welcome to come and listen to the table conversation.
The Jews of the first century did not use tables and chair as the Persians did (cf. Esther 1:6; 7:8) and some Egyptians. Typically they would recline on their left elbow on pillows spread around horseshoe-shaped tables, usually three on a side. Uninvited guests stood around the walls behind the couches and listened to the conversation, gossiped or simply yawned as the conversation became mundane and boring.
We get a glimpse of Simon (a popular name) and his motivation for inviting Jesus when he says to himself: “If this man was a prophet”. His motivation for inviting Jesus may have been more for sport than intellectual stimulation, but he got more than he bargained for. Jesus later hints that he had noted this some time earlier, when the host had failed to provide the normal courtesies of foot washing, kiss of peace or any form of anointing. He knew he was being set up and the form of Simon’s musing shows that he did not believe Jesus was a prophet. This is a unique Greek construction which would be understood as “if this man were a prophet, which he is not, he would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching him, but he does not.” This Pharisee totally misunderstood Jesus and His motives, purposes, and actions.
The prostitute and the perfume
Somewhere on the streets the word had come down that a dinner was being held in Simon the Pharisees house and Jesus the Teacher would be present. For what ever reason this lady, described as a sinner by some and as a prostitute by others, got it into her head to be present and to do something, deemed by others to be at the very least eccentric, that would stop the conversation, although to her it seemed a natural thing to do.
She used her earnings, probably almost all of them to purchase an alabaster jar (the jar itself was significant) of perfume. She positioned herself at the back of the couch to the right of Jesus and when he was reclining his feet were right there in front of her. Impulsively perhaps, perhaps calculatingly she bent over, poured the ointment on his feet and wiped it with her hair.
Her motivation, we are not sure. It is more than showing up the Pharisee for his lack of hospitality, but that was part of it. It was more than love for a religious teacher, she saw more than that. She, in her own way, was a holy fool, providing the act which Jesus turned into an object lesson for all who were there, invited or not.
Jesus and his compassion
And then there was Jesus – deep and mystical – a true Holy Fool who grasped the opportunity when the gasping and gossiping had quietened down to tell a story, and to point Simon and his visitors toward the mirror. Did the young lady know of her sinfulness deeply or was it simply the rejection of society she felt? It doesn’t matter, for Jesus intimates that the societal view of sin was the problem and she, in a sacramental way, was showing and receiving love on their behalf.
This foolish woman stood in their place and showed what giving and receiving love was all about. And Jesus in that foolish compassion that was and is his alone, the foolish compassion which stopped the funeral bier in last Sunday’s reading, now rewards this sacramental act with love. He once again stands beside the outsiders and says directly to respectable society, ‘Here’s the mirror, have another look! What do you see now?”
Yes today’s reading is popular and well known, but it in no way a comfortable reading. It is designed, like all Jesus’ pericopes, to disturb. Mirrors usually do.