Pentecost 4: 12 June Luke 7:36 - 8:3
Mark tells a story very like this. It belongs to the last days of Jesus and happens in Bethany near Jerusalem in the house of (another) Simon, a leper (14:3-9). A woman anoints Jesus’ head. People with Jesus complain. Jesus defends the generosity and interprets it as a symbol of his burial. Matthew repeats it, but identifies the complainers as the disciples. John’s gospel also knows the story, locating it just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, also in Bethany, but the hosts are Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Mary performs the deed, anointing Jesus’ feet. Judas voices the complaint. Jesus answers very much as in Mark. Mix them altogether in the blender of vague memory and out comes: Mary Magdalene in repentance at the feet of Jesus!
The blender was probably at work from early times, so that we cannot be sure of the original ingredients: tears or oil? feet or head? Bethany or Galilee? Mary or a local (prostitute?)? The uncertainty is no ground for paralysis. The story excited the imaginations of the storytellers. For all the variations the melody line is discernible. During a meal a woman approaches Jesus with precious perfume. Luke portrays her as a sinner. In the world of the time an uninvited woman making such an approach with such equipment would be seen as acting inappropriately, or, from another perspective, professionally. John’s Mary would not invite these suspicions, but the woman in the other accounts would have. Unaccompanied women bearing such oils usually belonged to the ‘sinners’. They were, like the toll collectors, disreputable, living at the margins and surviving, perhaps to a minor degree prospering, through their services - at least, enough to lay their hands on expensive perfume.
We not have to paint her as poor and oppressed to justify Jesus’ compassion. At the same time she might have experienced the lot of many women of the time, divorced or widowed and without a household to give refuge and support. Prostitution is not an easy choice, but she may have had few options. Background social analysis is largely missing from such stories. They are vignettes, self contained anecdotes with something immediate to say, not excerpts from research files.
In Mark and Matthew we may assume the action caused dismay among the guests. In Luke the matter is clearer. Someone like Jesus should not allow himself to be approached in this way. In larger houses the front areas were usually open and accessible and from there one might look into dining areas. The woman would not have had problems with access. Her approach mingles the perfume with tears. Perhaps Luke is more comfortable having her approach as a penitent. Repentance is a favourite theme. It almost spoils the plot, because Jesus explains her great devotion as the result of her having already been forgiven, but then goes on to forgive her. Was she repenting? Then the parable of forgiven debts does not sit well. Was she expressing devotion in response to forgiveness? Then the tears of repentance blur the focus. Were the storytellers somehow embarrassed? Some men might find erratic female responses of this kind quite scary. It is very interesting that the action had to be given so many different justifications. How shall we cope!
According to Luke the event threatened to subvert Jesus’ image and identity. He couldn’t be a prophet. Otherwise he would have known. He was not in control. Something was being done to him. It was messy. Behind all the stories is a defiant Jesus who is willing to receive love and affection. The receiving was a great act of giving. The words of forgiveness are almost superfluous. At least, they formulate what was already implicit in Jesus’ ministry. She acted as host to him. Washing feet was the act of a host.
Was it possible to relate to women without having to control them? Could one risk spontaneity? Or would one be swallowed up again by the irrational passions which men feared made women so dangerous? Many sages advised limited contacts with women. Girls were locked away. Women belonged in the women’s quarters. But women were also strong figures, managing households, the richer ones often playing significant roles within the community, not least in support of teachers. Luke is making that point in 8:1-3.
Jesus appears to have been able to meet women as people, as human beings, not to be avoided, not as sources of danger. We can only speculate that he must have escaped the syndrome of resentment and exploitation which often governed such relations. As Christianity sought to find a respected place in city life, pressures grew to conform to social standards. Women’s leadership which may well have been very prominent in early house churches fell within the strictures of acceptable patterns. Penitent women were approved and stooping became the appropriate posture.
When this story becomes the conversion of Mary Magdalene possessed by demons, beyond New Testament times, we have almost arrived where Jesus is the male saviour from the demonic female. This is not (yet) the case in the New Testament stories. Symbolism is beginning to overlay the occasion. The link with burial anointing may have inspired the connection with Jesus’ last days or been inspired by them. Messianic anointing (of the head) was suggestive of the great confession. Repentance may save some of the embarrassment. The explanations of waste bring us closer to the perplexity of the event.
Underneath it all is a moment of grace which defies such explanations, but invites them and many more as its transforming truth takes us to the heart of the gospel. Mark’s Jesus identifies the story as a memory to be preserved wherever the good news is told. It is good news for women and good news for men. Forgiveness is part of that, as Luke intuits, but the message goes beyond that. It models and reflects the radical inclusiveness which Jesus lived and celebrated, in individual encounters, in meals, and in his visions of the future.
To avert the danger of implicitly promoting a lowly stance as appropriate for women, you may want to recall for your hearers that in John’s gospel Jesus made the stance his own when he washed his disciples’ feet.
Epistle: Pentecost 4: 12 June Galatians 2:15-21