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.

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

Glass stopper in bottle

Fifth Sunday in Lent | John 12:1-8

Death, a Thief, and the Scent of Perfume

At the dinner table sat Lazarus, the man who died and lived to tell about it. Except that’s the interesting thing: he didn’t tell about it, at least not in the story recorded in John’s Gospel. Surely people of that day were just as curious as we are, wondering what Lazarus experienced in death, what it was like, whether there were things to fear, what it was like to awaken in the tomb, to shuffle into the light wrapped in a burial shroud.

We don’t hear any of that.

Jesus also sat there, the man who was headed toward confrontation and nearly certain death. Everyone in the room knew trouble was coming. The crowd outside knew it. The spies sent from nearby Jerusalem knew it. Judas knew it. Jesus knew it.

As they sat, Lazarus remembering the tomb and Jesus looking forward to it, they were overwhelmed by the scent of the perfume that Mary was rubbing on Jesus’ feet. It is said that smell is the most powerful trigger of memory that we have. Everyone in the room remembered the smell they encountered when they approached Lazarus’ tomb days after his death. Now for the rest of their lives they would remember the scent of this room, this dinner.

John tells us that Judas complained at the cost of the perfume poured out. He had foreseen the end of their discipleship days and wanted a golden parachute for his retirement: today he would have been called a shrewd executive, but John just calls him a thief.

Then Jesus said a strange thing. “Leave her be, that she may keep it until the day of my entombment.”

So that is what it smelled like that morning at the tomb, after it was all done, like Mary’s perfume, the same one she used on his feet, the same scent that filled their house at this dinner gathering, perfume she saved to anoint his body.

VinegarAs I write this reflection, on and off, I have paused to work on a home improvement project, installing an interior passageway door. It is an old door, one that was left in this house by a previous owner I never met. It has twenty seven panes of glass, though I can find no theological significance in the number. It has been trimmed, cut down, repurposed, like many of us. I have just been scrubbing it with vinegar and water.

Vinegar is a cleansing agent and a preservative, but I find the scent reminds me of spring time and nature, of life. Perfume, on the other hand, often reminds me of funerals.

It may be that the scent of Mary’s perfume reminded everyone in the inner circle of this last gathering, one of their last suppers. Jesus may have carried the scent throughout his last days, some of it remaining as he washed his disciples’ feet at their very last supper. As he was crucified, the scent may have lingered in Mary’s hair, may have mixed in the air with the sweat and blood and the pungency of the vinegar Jesus sipped.

We think that God speaks to us in a voice like men, that we might hear it like Charlton Heston in the version of The Ten Commandments that plays in our heads. Maybe that happens. More often, I think God pricks our memory with things as simple as the scent of perfume or the aroma of vinegar.

How strange that we can find the eternal in such ordinary things. Scents. Tastes. Memories. It is amazing that something so ephemeral as perfume can linger with us all our lives.Dogwood Flower

It is more amazing that something so ephemeral as our lives can linger after us, like perfume in a room we have already left.