Today’s story about the encounter of the sinful woman with Jesus carries an underlying message that we would be unwise to ignore. For me the teaching we might learn from this encounter is not so much about how Jesus reacted, but rather what it offers by way of challenge for us in our own encounters.
First we look at the background to the story. A sinful woman is almost certainly code for a prostitute, and at the very least her behaviour marks her out as one who behaves with no regard to social custom. By Jewish custom when a woman married, her hair was bound and it was expected to remain bound and covered in public for the rest of her life. The reference to the alabaster was probably to the small bottle containing expensive perfume that most Jewish women hung round their necks. Normally only a slave would wash a visitor’s feet. That a presumably un-invited woman was weeping over Jesus feet and using perfume to anoint his feet and her loose hair to dry his feet would have been appalling to Simon, the Pharisee host.
Simon starts in this story as the proud and self appointed arbiter of the law, and it takes Jesus to insist he looks again, this time to genuinely see the woman, who, despite her appearance and actions, has actually been the true host to Jesus.
No doubt the critics will remind us that this story is not necessarily accurate and when the other gospel writers retell the story the facts are apparently changed and sometimes substantially so. When this event happened, where it happened, who was present and who said what, are all points on which the gospel writers cheerfully contradict one another. So for today’s account, John thought this incident happened earlier in Jesus ministry while the others put it closer to the Passion. Luke says it happened in Galilee in Simon the Pharisee’s home, Matthew and Mark and John said it was at Bethany but then they differed on whose house it was. Was it the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary like John said – or was it the home of Simon the Leper if we follow Matthew and Mark. The accounts also differ about whether Jesus was anointed on the head of the feet, who did the anointing and who objected.
However in the sense that Luke is always writing to teach, if we think in this case rather of what the story is trying to convey, the detail becomes less important. Remember, even what the writer was trying to show about Jesus in this incident will remain somewhat academic unless we are prepared to take it that one step further to see how his approach might affect our future attitude and actions.
I think William James, the philosopher psychologist, in his work “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, was on to something when he says “you can’t judge religious experiences by their truth value, but rather by the consequences they had for the person”. In his words, “Did it lead them to be a better person? Then (he continues) I guess it was a good thing.”
Presumably the converse applies. Two fanatical Muslims can shout “Allahu Akbar!”, (God is Great) – or if you want accuracy of translation (God is greater) as they brutally murder an off duty soldier in Woolwich, London – but their actions are not a good advertisement for their understanding of the God they follow, and indeed would revolt most people as indicated by the public statements even from fellow Muslims who made it abundantly clear that such violent actions did not represent mainstream Muslim belief. Similarly a few years back, the actions of Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik, the 32 year old right wing self claimed Christian and mass killer of close to 60 innocent uncomprehending young people may have convinced himself that what he was doing was in line with Christian principles yet his religious experiences and view of scripture are revealed for what they were by his actions.
The fact that inappropriate interpretation of scriptures have sometimes led others to unfortunate consequences in the past should give us pause for thought and remind us that we should therefore consider scriptural teaching carefully. In some ways, knowing that scriptures sometimes contradict one another is also a useful reminder in that, since knowing that even the writers of scripture are limited in their powers and discernment and accuracy, we should not be in too much of a hurry to accept everything they write as the last word on a topic.
Arguing about whether one has correctly sorted out the truth value of a particular scripture is always likely to be an arid exercise. The more interesting test William James presents as an implied challenge is to ask whether or not the scripture we say we value can lift our vision to the point we are the better for it. Stories in the New Testament include parables and metaphors aplenty and in each case the literal truth value takes very much second place to what the parable or metaphor is encouraging us to consider. Some of the more liberal Bible scholars remind us that even gospel events are often only recorded for their teaching value and accordingly the degree of accuracy of recording is not of critical importance. And yes, the gospels are sometimes imprecise in their reporting and we should not pretend otherwise.
Since this story we are currently looking at is about Jesus’ positive interactions with one who is not recognized as a good person, it follows that, if this scripture is speaking to us, it should encourage us to find our own positive ways of dealing with those who society encourages us to think of as bad people. Before we can lay claim to be following Jesus, we need first to understand what characterized his teaching, and second to find realistic ways of reflecting the essence of the same attitudes and concerns into our lives. Since we live in a different setting to the man from Galilee we are required to do more than parrot his words. Remember there is still much to be done since in our modern society, the general themes of acceptance, of forgiveness, of concern for the value of notions like justice, and finding value in the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters are currently unrealized ideals.
We start with the observation that Jesus welcomed the ministrations of the sinful woman openly and appeared to see her sinfulness in the context of her faith. For example he said that her faith earned her the right to be forgiven.
In one sense this is a challenge to us all. Sinfulness may have other psychological explanations but there would hardly be a country in the modern world where prostitution is not present even when it is not acknowledged. I suspect that even in the most liberal of societies, prostitution carries its own stigma. I would further suggest Jesus’ acceptance of this particular woman would not mirror the practice of many congregations.
If I look for a local example, in one of my neighbouring Auckland suburbs of Papatoetoe there is a notorious suburban gathering place for street prostitutes called Hunters Corner. The attitude of various Church congregations and Church organizations suggest a range of very different responses to this gathering place across the denominations and even within denominations. One church group has been seen setting up across the street declaiming the sinfulness of the prostitutes.
Occasionally this degenerates into mutual abuse and even the occasional fist fight. A Church based organization called Family First has produced press releases decrying the behaviour of the prostitutes, but as far as I know, has little to do with them at a personal level. A more charismatic type church called City Church offers the prostitutes condoms, gives them soup and advocates for them. An Anglican deacon has taken a number of the trans-gender prostitutes under his wing (so to speak) and helps them with issues of safety and support. And of course there are many other responses, but sooner or later we have to decide which responses have the best fit with the gospel message.
It is not for me to take Luke’s account of Jesus’ example of acceptance and forgiveness of the woman described as a sinful woman and then use it to tell other church congregations my understanding is enough to proscribe behaviour for others. It seems to me that it is up to each of us individually to find our way through the options knowing that at best we are unlikely to choose the kindest and most appropriate response for each dilemma.
Many towns and cities have their own equivalents of Hunters Corner. I guess then a question we might then ask ourselves of our own congregations and our own settings is this. Since Churches seem to wish others to see their congregations as associated with the teachings of Jesus, and since in stories such as Luke’s story of the sinful woman debasing herself before Jesus, shouldn’t it be fair to ask ourselves if as Church congregations we are starting to reflect Jesus’ attitude to sinners.
Although we often focus on the principal actors of this story it would be a shame if we then overlooked the part of the story Luke claims to have happened next. We read at the beginning of the next chapter:
8Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Notice that it was the very people Jesus had served who were now serving him and his disciples, those who felt they had been cured, those who had been released from their infirmities. Luke does not say so directly, yet is it too much of a leap of faith to imagine that the sinful woman, accepted and forgiven was now part of this supportive group – or should we say, his church?
I suspect we are doing our communities a disservice if we act as if sinners have no place in the kingdom. If we have become self appointed arbiters of the law for those who do not live up to what we believe Christian standards demand, are we perhaps becoming a little like Simon the Pharisee. Forgiveness and open hearted acceptance were central to Jesus teaching. If they are not still central for those who wish to follow Jesus, perhaps we need to ask who has changed?