Luke 7:36-8:3 | Harlots and Other Holy Folk
A whore of a woman crashes a dinner party, starts crying, and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, bathing his feet in perfume, even wiping them with her own hair. It’s not something you see every day. It’s an awkward scene, and some details are missing.
For instance, how does this strumpet know Jesus anyway? Assuming first century whores didn’t go around with alabaster jars of perfume stashed in their robes, the story as Luke tells it implies some preparation on her part. There must be a history between Jesus and this woman for her to feel so strongly. Here’s another oddity — Simon the Pharisee, uptight rule follower and holier-than-we, knows her, just as she knows who’s coming to Simon’s get together. It makes you wonder.
Take a look at the end of this story, at the list of folk following Jesus. We find the twelve, no surprise though they don’t get their names listed, and there are also Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Three more women, who have been cured or otherwise helped by Jesus, are listed by name and credited with supporting him from their own means. The twelve only get credit for following him. Just as at the tomb, when it appears things have gone irrevocably badly, it is the women who are responding, giving, offering more than an empty hand.
Women get treated shabbily by some of the characters in the gospel stories, but never by Jesus. He is not always friendly or even kind — think of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, where Jesus calls her a dog before agreeing to help her. (Those who speak harshly are not always our enemies; those who speak softly are not always our friends.) Simon, in Luke’s story, calls the woman a sinner unworthy to touch a prophet. One thinks of John’s Gospel and the woman caught in the act of adultery and brought, alone, to be stoned to death. How she managed such a singular sin as adultery without a partner is unexplained. Perhaps the man escaped, but it seems the first century audience were more inclined to condemn a woman than a man. Some things never change.
In fairness to the gospel writers, a few men are named sinful. Herod comes to mind. There is also the sinner at the temple, the one whom the self righteous man points out to God in prayer as an example of spiritual decrepitude. Still, if you want weeping, or stoning, or infestation by seven demons at once, it’s a woman you’ll find center stage.
Why do we want to see the worst in others, to point out their failings and their magnitude relative to our own small sins? It’s spiritual schadenfreude, taking joy in the measure of another’s destruction, reassuring ourselves of our relative position of moral superiority. We’re whistling past our own graves.
Better we repent of our own sins, and leave our neighbors free to repent of theirs. Who knows, being forgiven, perhaps forgiving ourselves, we might even feel grateful, like the harlot who only cared what Jesus thought of her. The grace described in the gospels is like the perfume in her alabaster jar. Once you break it open, it covers everything.