Jesus of Nazareth, Categorically the worst Dinner Guest in all of First Century Jewish Palestine
Nehemiah 8:1-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 7:36-8:3
Sunday, January 27, 2019 — The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
This morning’s reading covered one of the stories that is found in all four Gospels, the narratives of Jesus’ life that begin what we call the New Testament — and so reading and pondering this story is an interesting opportunity to think about how we intentionally choose to interact with Biblical texts.
In other places we’ve noted things worth remembering about the dynamic that exists in the stories of Jesus as they come to us today from the better part of 2000 years ago, and here I will note that it is worth recalling that they were all 4 written at different times, in different places, and originally to different communities. No one decided that there needed to be these 4 versions and then appointed 4 authors to create them.
Luke, from which we read today is most likely the last to be produced — and emerges in a time of greater social and political stability than the others. For example, Mark, likely the first written was likely produced during the multi-yea siege of Jerusalem, a time in which the world as these people knew it, was literally coming to an end.
Luke however is likely written 50-60 years later.
I bring this up because while, as I mentioned, this morning’s episode is recorded in all four of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in Luke it is notably different.
For Matthew, Mark, and John, this story is placed in a town called Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem and occurs just before the events of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture and execution (the stories we read during Holy Week), but Luke places it in the first 1/2 of his narrative, and in the North, where Jesus grew up and begins his ministry.
So we have this story of a dinner table at which Jesus is present, and a woman comes and pours out oil on Jesus’ feet and washes them with her tears, drying them with her hair.
If one has spent much time around churches perhaps this is then a well known story, which is often picked up as an example of worshipful devotion.
However, if one hasn’t spent much time around churches, perhaps this story, feels strange, both in its unfamiliarity, but also in the oddness of its action.
I’d like to suggest that, read back into the context from which this emerges, this is not an example of sublime religious devotion, but as the title of this reflection may suggest, a social catastrophe of impropriety, scandal, and that it is employed in the narrative not to instruct about worship or personal dedication, but to deconstruct the social stratification of the day, and to set the stage for Luke’s Jesus to radically rebuild it — always around the metaphor of food and table, both of which feature prominently.
While the other three Gospels place this story at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, after Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph and just before Jesus will share the last supper with his followers, in Luke it is placed very early in his public ministry, and right after a discussion about the ministry of John who we call the Baptist.
The phrase spoken by Jesus just before this episode begins reads like this:
Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.
For us today, likely wisdom likely means something like…the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment, and so we’re likely to read this back onto the text, but if we did that we’d miss something.
For the Hebrew people of first Century Jewish Palestine, for whom what we know as the Old Testament is their Holy Scriptures, wisdom plays a rich role.
Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek, chokhmah in Hebrew, are feminine words, and are personified in the Hebrew tradition as an embodiment or incarnation of God, and when wisdom is invoked, she is calling people to attention, known for insistence and persistence, and often linked to a table.
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
[Wisdom] has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
Wisdom stands at the gate of the city and cries out to all who come in, and then prepares a banquet and sends out servants to invite all people to come to it.
First, the propriety of the day is completely subverted by a female figure acting so boldly, standing at the city gates, beckoning to all who come, and then not just preparing a meal for the guests of a male head of household, but hosting this banquet herself.
Later in the book of Luke, Jesus will send out his disciples to minister in his name, and then in one of the key parables in the book of Luke, Jesus will tell a story of a great banquet wherein the ones invited do not come, so servants are sent out to find the poor, the outcast, the stigmatized and bring them to the feast!
In many ways, it seems that among Luke’s activity, here we have a retelling or a Midrash to use the Hebrew phrase of the wisdom tradition, which seems to be read onto this episode in particular, and many other to come.
So it is worth remembering that Wisdom in a Hebrew conception then, is not merely sound advice, but the very creative force of God:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
An interesting study would be to read Proverbs 8 and 9 from which I have been quoting here against John 1 which we read on Christmas Eve, in which John begins Jesus story:
In the beginning was the word…
So, if we then read this, as Luke’s audience would have, having been hinted to do so with Jesus’ words that preceded this episode, with Wisdom in our minds, what comes out?
We are at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, who invites Jesus to dinner. A woman, unnamed in the text, but immediately labelled “a sinner” finds out Jesus will be dining with Simon and so goes to his home. She takes a place behind Jesus and bathes his feet first with tears and then oil, then washes them with her hair. Simon the Pharisee is scandalized that Jesus is allowing such a woman to touch him, and a conversation ensues about forgiveness.
Apart from what I have already mentioned, this version of the episode is different in key ways from the way it appears in the other Gospels.
There is of course the placing of it within Jesus’ narrative timeline, at the outset rather than the climax, as well as the Geographic location, in the north county, likely a town called Nain, which is the last one named in the lead up (where Jesus healed a widow’s son).
In Matthew and Mark this encounter takes place in Bethany (in the south) at the home of a Simon, but their Simon is not a Pharisee, one with status and wealth, but a leper, so the exact opposite, the woman is unnamed, and in their version there is nothing about her being labelled. Also, she pours the oil on Jesus’ head without weeping or wiping with her hair.
In John, the dinner is at the home of some of Jesus’ closest friends, siblings Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and it is Mary who pours the oil, this time on Jesus’ feet and without weeping wipes it with her hair, but this intimate gesture is at least between people who know each other.
Finally, in all three of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the scandal is that the perfume is expensive.
In Luke, the scandal is around the moral character of woman and that Jesus has allowed her to come into contact with him.
Here we do well to remember, that at the outset, the author of Luke has promised not a more accurate but a more orderly account of the story, and since this is written last, both author and readers have already encountered this episode in its other iterations, so differences become particularly notable and worth attending to.
Back to Luke, who using a deeper vocabulary and more sophisticated language (something we don’t necessarily notice when reading translations) seems to be building a greater sense of drama, as it interested in affect, in making the audience feel the event.
Jesus is at the table, which in the ancient near east, means reclining. Now since we’re not overly used to embodied audience participation, and since site-lines would require we use the communion table as a platform, which is on wheels and thus unsafe for this, I will not ask for volunteers, but I would like to ask we all use imagination here.
Jesus is reclining at table to eat. This unnamed woman is behind him, in such a position that her hair can be used to cover his feet. If we acted this out, we would see quite an intimate posture, not one of devotion or subservience. Our bulletin art doesn’t quite do it justice, although the force with which she grasps Jesus’ foot is vividly captured.
The woman is labelled sinner in the text and while our translation rendered her a woman in the city it is likely better a woman of the city which is euphemism for sex worker. Incidentally a worthwhile side plot question, is how did she know that Jesus would be at Simon’s house, and how did she know how to get there — almost as if she’d been there before.
One other quick note, her hair is unbound and uncovered, while the norm in the Mediterranean world regardless of faith is an equivalent of the hijab.
Now the question that I am sure has been on our minds for a while, is when is Cam going to finally comment on the tense of the verbs in this story — well, your wait is over!
She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.
Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
In the Greek, these verbs are all imperfect — as in they describe action that is continuous — a narrator uses magic of grammar to slow down time, and the text invites us to imagine this happening over a while. So it’s not like dinner is interrupted by a short action, but as dinner is going on, this is happening, and likely guests are trying to ignore, trying not to watch.
Have you ever been in a social setting when something is going on, and you’re trying to ignore it, but as it continues, and continues, it becomes impossible, and an awkward silence descends.
And Jesus, the teacher and prophet, is just laying there consenting.
Awkward silence deepens.
As readers we get Simon’s internal dialogue ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’
Sinner has already been applied to Jesus’ dinner a few chapters earlier with tax collectors.
When reading or hearing, we move quickly, but what if we sat in this silence…
Until finally, Jesus quips:
‘Simon, I have something to say to you” ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’
We hear this in the tone of voice we hear Bible…but if we consider the awkward scandal and mounting tension…it’s more like “Oh my goodness finally, please do something!”
Again, not being accompanied I won’t ask you all to shout altogether as we might imagine Simon doing, but perhaps we can at least feel within the collective letting out of breath from the others around the table.
And now, bodily disarmed by this massive explosion by Simon, and exhale by the rest of the guests, Jesus brings home his point — she is the only one who leave this table liberated. Propriety has been smashed, and the outcast, the one, who, like Lady Wisdom persisted.
The false construct of acceptable society and etiquette fall apart into pieces, and with those pieces, Luke will eventually rebuild a new ethic of table fellowship, first in the wilderness with five loaves and two fish, and then in an upper room with bread and cup.
Lady Wisdom, the Hebrew mystics insisted is the force of God’s creative action. The Christian Tradition brought forward the same of Jesus.
In this story, word made flesh and wisdom incarnate conspire together and bring down the harshest symbol of exclusion, the stratified dinner party, a must before a new creation can be formed.
Our readings in the coming weeks will take us through Luke in a more linear fashion, but I would suggest that with this episode, we see something of literary project that formed this text, an attempt to refashion for new audiences a visioning of Jesus’ ministry.
Of the Gospels, Luke’s literary sophistication, and it’s emergence as last of the four, offers more than others, and invitation to participate, this is something we’ll look at more in the weeks to come.
We are invited to participate.
For in Life, in Death, in Life Beyond Death.
God is with us.
We are not Alone.