One of my all-time favorite biblical texts has to do with the woman who weeps upon the feet of Jesus, dries them with her hair and then caresses them with perfumed oil. It is so sensual and tender - much like the grace of God, yes? Each of the four gospels contains a version of this story, but all have different nuances and twists. For this week's Sunday message I want to play with some of these unique elements and tease out insights about how they might help us become more grounded in deep compassion. A few questions have emerged:
+ First, Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to a feast at Simon the Pharisees home, while Mark says it happened at Simon the Leper's household (and John suggests it was in the home of Mary and Martha.) Now these are very different people - a Pharisee, a leper and two faithful female disciples - so why do the gospels give us these different details? What difference does it make? And what is being described by placing this story in such varied contexts?
+ Second, some commentators speak of the woman as a sinner from the city - hamartolos in Greek - and conclude that she must have been a prostitute. There is no evidence, however, that this is true. Moreover, if the woman had been Mary of Bethany as John's gospel suggests, then she certainly was not a woman of the streets. Pope Gregory conflated Mary Magdalene's story with Luke's story of a female sinner from the city, so the Western Church has long gotten this wrong. What perplexes me is why there is so much confusion about who really broke the alabaster jar of perfumed oil upon the feet of Jesus? What difference does the story make if she was sinner versus a loyal disciple?
+ Third, Matthew apparently also has the meal taking place in the home of Simon the leper - like Mark - but closes the story with words that say "this woman has shared a beautiful work of love upon me." Interestingly, the word "beautiful" - kalos in Greek - embraces both the aesthetic and the ethical dimensions of beauty. Her act of extravagant gratitude not only looked and felt beautiful, but pointed toward the beauty of grace in action. I once read a sermon by an Anglican bishop in Scotland who used this text to encourage and support artists: they, too, have created something beautiful for the Lord.
I am not entirely sure where all this is going - or what will happen on Sunday - but I love letting the questions of the Bible swim around in my head and heart for a while. And I trust that by Sunday, I will have some understanding of where the Spirit wants us to go.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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