Harlots and Other Holy Folk

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.

Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus' feet with perfume
Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume

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.

Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.
Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.

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.

Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.
Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.

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.


Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.
Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.

The Whims of God

The Whims of God  |  Matthew 22:1-14

Castle Disney 4x6No one wanted to come to the party, at least no one who had been invited. We don’t know why. The story doesn’t tell us. Maybe it had something to do with the guests themselves—perhaps they were not party minded people. Maybe it had something to do with the king—perhaps they didn’t like this king, and this was their rebellion.

We do hear that some of them went so far as to kill the messengers who came to invite them. We also hear that the king did not react well to the news. With a feast planned and a wedding party ready to start, the king killed the folk he had invited and burned down their city. That was bad enough, but the story gets worse. We hear that after the death and the destruction, this king sent his guards to force new people to come to his party. There must have been a killer dress code: one of the guests, having first been dragged to the feast, was then blamed for not wearing the right clothes. It was a fatal fashion faux pas.

The story makes us uneasy. This king seems unstable, capricious, and vengeful. If the king in this story is God, that just makes the tale more alarming. A city is burned down and people are killed because they don’t come to a party? A man is punished because he wasn’t dressed appropriately when he was kidnapped?

And Christians wonder why church attendance is down.

A story with a meaning is one thing. Making a story into an allegory, that is something else again. Making a parable into an allegory can have unintended consequence—making God as whimsical and vengeful as the king in this story, for example.

The idea of a vengeful God, judging and condemning people in reactionary, arbitrary ways, can worry even the faithful. There are thoughtful people who turn their backs on religion because they hear too much about rules of behavior and the judgment of God and too little about the reason for the feast. Presumably, the people shouting about rules and judgment believe that they have reserved seats at the table, and they are confident about their wardrobe. Meanwhile, they become the reason that other folks beg out of attending the party.

Another version of Matthew’s story is told in Luke 14:16-24. As Luke tells it, the people who don’t come offer pretty valid excuses, and nobody is killed. Presumably the story is based on the same source, the sayings of Jesus. The fact that the same story could be recounted so differently is interesting on many levels. For one thing, to tell the same story in such different ways, Luke and Matthew must have intended to make different points.

Matthew reminds his audience, and in the story Jesus is reminding the leaders of the temple, of a long history of rejected prophets. (If they went around telling stories like this one, it should have been no surprise that people didn’t listen.) Rather than trying to paint a picture of an angry God, one who condemns and kills, it may be that Matthew was making a heavy handed attempt to say something about grace.

Yes, grace, somewhere there in the midst of the burning and the killing. I said it was heavy handed, didn’t I?

The king sends out invitations to everybody and anybody, starting with the expected and ending with the inexplicable. The point may be that though the invitation is freely given, or even when it is forced upon us, the response still matters. Showing up means something. And freshening up our outfit may have more to do with our heart than with our shoes.Smile by Force

When I was growing up, I was taught that there were times and places where one was expected to ‘appear interested,’ as in, “You need to sit up and appear interested.” That meant that slouching and looking like I was bored was not going to be acceptable. Even if I was not interested, manners dictated that I try to engage.

Matthew is telling us that God is bringing everyone to the party, one way or another. Ignoring the invitation does not appear to be a good idea, not in Matthew’s Gospel. And what is on the outside in the story represents what is on the inside in our lives. God has already brought us to the party. This is it, all around us, from the moment we are born, shoved into it kicking and screaming. What matters is the response of our hearts. It’s time we sit up and appear interested.