Biblical Feminism in Action: Luke 7

 

1-tears_kissing_annoint

Biblical Feminism:

Two Visions of the Woman Who Loved Much

Luke 7:36-50)

By Christopher MacDonald /NT-8165 Paper One.

Thesis: That the recounting of this incident provides both a startling witness of  bold love and devotion, and a reversal of the cultural and religious notions of “righteousness” (here defined in its root meaning of “right relationship in every sphere of life” –Vincent)— all with the live dramatic backdrop of human sexuality (overt female demonstration, amid male dominance) and the table fellowship at Simon the Pharisee’s house. The story presents two radically opposed epistemologies: Simon’s initial vision which supposes Jesus to be blinded (when in fact Simon is blinded); and Jesus and the woman’s who “see” and must reveal a greater reality to Simon.

The Text:

“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him, so Jesus went to his home and sat down to eat. When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.”

“Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied.

Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver[ to one and 50 pieces to the other.  But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”

“That’s right,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.

 “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”

And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50  NLT

The Trap is Laid for Jesus

The trap is not the woman. It seems plain that she has come of her own accord with her own agenda. But this seems to only play into Simon’s plans all the more for prior to her actions he has skipped the customs appropriate to a visiting Rabbi: water for the feet, a greeting with a kiss, and olive oil to anoint his head (v.44-46).

Simon calls Jesus “Teacher” – a form of respect that still allows for his inward speech to himself “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” (v.39). It is this question which has allowed him to show disrespect to Jesus from his arrival on. Jesus is there to be watched and evaluated it would seem.

The alabaster jar is beautiful and costly, as is the perfume that it houses. The scent of perfumes of that period did not last long, adding to their expense and the need to seal them tightly.[1]

It says she knelt behind him at his feet. Before we re-orient the room from our Western sensibilities it is worth noting with Moule that:

“She had not of course received permission to enter, but the prominence of hospitality as the chief of Eastern virtues led to all houses being left open, so that during a meal any one who wished could enter and look on. “To sit down to eat with common people” was one of the six things which no Rabbi or Pupil of the Wise might do; another was “to speak with a woman.” Our Lord freely did both.[2]

For the last number of centuries such incidents have been depicted by such artists as Peter Paul Rueben’s. Like Leonardo’s The Last Supper, it falsely depicts the Middle Eastern meal as taking place at Western European table sitting up right.

Instead, we would start with very low “triclinium” table or just three very low long tables set in a horse-shoe fashion in Simon’s house. It seems fairly safe to assume that Jesus, in his “dissed” state, is far away from Simon, or at the least across from him where Simon can get a good view.  Jesus has been invited, but is decidedly not welcome.

Candles, Visuals, Action

The woman presents what Simon presupposes to be an immediate dilemma for Jesus if he truly is a prophet (which he does not believe for a second).  Luke says that “she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Charles H. Cosgrove summarizes the view of a great many leading scholars on just how scandalous this was as follows:

“…commentators give the traditional interpretation of the woman’s unbound hair as immodest a more intense coloring. They see the unbound hair as part of a cluster of sexually provocative gestures by the woman. Joel Green describes her behavior as “erotic” and therefore “outrageous.” Letting down her hair “would have been on a par with appearing topless in public.” Likewise, her touching of Jesus’ feet is like the fondling that slave girls performed on guests at dinner parties as a prelude to sexual favors.[3]

The woman takes the oily perfume meant to mask the smell of her trade (the smell of many men) and instead pours it on the feet of Jesus mingled with her tears. She also kisses his feet, which Luke will later (chapter 23) say are crucified at a place called “the Skull.”.

Reversal Number 1: The Woman

The woman’s move is a bold one. This woman has quite possibly been “known” by many of the men present at the dinner. It is possible that very scent which is wafting potently from the feet of Jesus (the whole amount having lavishly been poured out like her heart) is not new to many of them.

But they are powerful men in an utterly male dominated society — who have a rightful place in Simon the Pharisee’s house. Have they not comlucas-7-36-50e out to see and evaluate this new Rabbi; this prophet?

Many a Bible interpreter has tried to “clean up” this passage; to remove its sexuality. But why? Let it be what it is. As Kenneth Bailey points out, in Middle Eastern culture, to let down the hair in this fashion would be like exposing a breast [4]– a scandal at the feet of a Rabbi. And then to soak his feet with tears and break open the alabaster vial of perfume used to mask the smell of sex with other men. It is a colorful scene.

 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” [5]

But this is her power and this is her love and devotion. I am not saying she necessarily intends to turn the tables (that seems a stretch); but in reality she uses both the power of her sexuality – of being created in the image of God –female – and the power that it has over men, alongside the power of the deepest humility— of repentance, adoration and unfettered love — to utterly reverse the who will be indicted and what will be at stake.

I say “repentance;” for once the oil is gone (and it was quite expensive) there can be no more business-as-usual. And Jesus clearly recognizes this (v.47) and pronounces her sins have already been forgiven (v.48) at a prior time.[6]

Reversal Number 2: Jesus Tells a Parable

The text says Jesus knows Simon’s inner thoughts, and He cleanly and directly addresses them, “I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher tell me.” Simon replies.

Then Jesus tells the parable. At the end (verses 41-43) Jesus asks Simon who loved more and Simon gives his answer. Jesus says “You have answered rightly.” The one who owed the most would be filled with the most love for the forgiving banker.

Dressing-down the Host

What happens right after is easy to miss in its initial literary subtlety. In v. 44 it says, “and Jesus turned toward  the woman and said to Simon…” It is far too easy to miss that Jesus is looking at the woman the entire time he is addressing Simon. He is not looking at, or confronting Simon directly. This, as Kenneth Bailey notes, most probably changes the demeanor of how the message was delivered:

…it takes on a tone of gentleness and gratitude, expressed to a daring woman in desperate need of a kind word. The entire speech concludes with a climax addressed to her, in which she is reminded that her sins have been forgiven.[7]

1-Turningtowoman

“Turned to the Woman” C. MacDonald. c 2002 Azotus Arts. 

Jesus does the two most scandalous things a Rabbi could do in this, a Middle Eastern,   cultural setting: 1) he turns his back on the host (and a religious); and 2) he directly addresses a woman (and a known sinner) whom they would condemn.

But Jesus is far from done. As we read his telling of the simple parable, Jesus then publically dismantles Simon in front of the whole room, all the while lauding the love and actions of the woman while continuing to look directly at her.

“Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss of greeting, but she has been kissing my feet since I came in. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. I tell you that her many sins are forgiven, so she showed great love. But the person who is forgiven only a little will love only a little.” (Verses 44-47)

Contrasting Visions of the Woman

Simon thought he saw the woman (a sinner who defined the Rabbi as no prophet—v.39), but after positing the parable and the question to Simon, Jesus says to him “Do you see this woman?” It sems obvious Simon does not see her at all.

Then in a devastating and poetic series of three Hebrew parallelisms, Jesus contrasts the difference between what was utterly lacking in Simon as a Middle Eastern host and the woman. Put simply, he withheld the water for foot washing, gave Jesus no customary kiss of greeting, and ignored the option of anointing a visiting Rabbi’s head with olive oil. As we shall see, the brave woman provided for all three in ways which were humble, heartfelt —yet bold and demonstrative.

Bailey defers to world traveller H.D. Tristram’s summary here:

Besides omitting the water for his feet, Simon had given Jesus no kiss. To receive a guest at the present day without kissing him on either cheek as he enters, is a marked sign of contempt, or at least a claim to a much higher social position.[8]

Bailey notes that the omission of the anointing with oil is a common feature, but not as glaring an offence as the other two – which are obvious.

Jesus contrasted each with the “better” actions of the woman in order:

you didn’t offer me water                she has washed them with her tears and

                                                                  wiped them with her hair.

You didn’t greet me with a kiss,   she has not stopped kissing my feet. 

You neglected the courtesy of

olive oil to anoint my head,               but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume.

Bailey summarizes:

In three clear actions the woman has demonstrated her superiority to Simon. And Simon has it pointed out to him publically in poetic speech that will be remembered.[9]

Conclusions

Simon thought he “saw” both Jesus and the woman, but through the process of the parable; the actions of the woman (in contrast with his own reveal lack and shame); and then Jesus’ public confrontation, he has the option of perceiving who Jesus is and loving him as the woman does. We do not know how things end for Simon; only the woman (who may have ended up under the care of the women who are mentioned in the next chapter as supporting Jesus’ ministry and traveling with him.)

It is noteworthy, that while she rid herself of the perfume associated with her past life (and anointed Jesus feet as that greater replacement for what Simon had failed to do), she did not divorce herself from her innate sexuality and its power. I would put this woman forward as an example of empowered and advanced Feminism (even now though she is a First Century woman) — full of love, humility — yet bold in action and not afraid to use her sexuality in an utterly positive and love/life affirming way.

It is beyond the tiny scope of this paper for me to explore any further than this [NOTE:but in this forum I will get back to this!].

But, in closing I wish to add that inclusion of such a narrative flies in the face of many Modernist presuppositions about the Gospel accounts themselves (that materials were heavily edited and overly “produced”). Such a narrative puts forward testimony so worthless in the day in which it was produced (testimony of a woman/ prostitute) as holds forth no real value other than the fact that it may have actually happened.

 

[1] Citing Pliny the Younger’s Natural History (1st Century)  http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-scent-of-love-ancient-perfumes/

[2] Moule, H.C.G., Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Oxford: Bibliolife, 2009).

[3] Cosgrove, Charles H., “A Woman’s Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the ‘Sinful Woman’ in Luke 7:36-50,”  Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2005 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2005)

[4] Bailey, Kenneth Through Peasant Eyes, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980)  p. 9.

[5] Luke 7:40 NLT.

[6] In the Greek, this is in the perfect passive, denoting a past action with present benefits. This has not just happened. “Jesus announces what God has done and confirms that action to the woman.” (Bailey).

[7] Bailey, Kenneth Through Peasant Eyes, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980) p.16

[8] Tristram, H.B. Eastern Customs in Bible Lands (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1894) p.34-36

[9] Bailey, Kenneth Through Peasant Eyes, (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980) p. 17.

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