Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Following Jesus into the Disreputable Swamp

Each of the four gospels has a story about a woman anointing Jesus.  In three of them, during a dinner party with other guests, a woman anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfumed ointment.  In Luke, a woman anointed his feet with tears, and I want to spend some time comparing Mark’s version with Luke’s.

Mark set the anointing at a dinner in the Bethany house of Simon the Leper, when an unknown woman entered, broke open a container of costly ointment, and anointed Jesus’ head (Mark 14.3-9).  Luke’s setting is in an unknown village at the house of Simon the Pharisee.  During dinner, a woman known to be a sinner entered uninvited to anoint Jesus’ feet with tears (Luke 7.36-50).

What strikes me is that in Mark, Simon was the ultimate outcast, a leper.  He could not be seen in public and had to keep his distance from all but other lepers.  Whoever the woman was, she had the resources needed to acquire a jar of ointment worth 300 denarii.  If a denarii is the usual daily wage for unskilled labor, that equals about $30,000 in today’s market where I live.  This was not cheap stuff.  Whoever she was, she was not afraid to enter the intimacy of a leper’s dining room, nor was she miserly with the costliness of her actions.  I think it’s safe to assume she was of the economically elite, but with a poor understanding of social boundaries.

On the other hand, Luke’s Simon, Simon the Pharisee, was the ultimate insider.  Perhaps not among the economically elite, but certainly among the intellectually elite, and he knew a social boundary when he saw one.  By contrast, the uninvited woman was the ultimate in outcasts, a known public sinner segregated from and rejected by polite society.  We assume she was a prostitute, but that’s never said.  Whoever she was, she was not afraid to enter where she was not wanted, and showed disrespect for her betters in doing it.  Like the other woman, she was not miserly with her anointing tears that cost all of whatever was left of her shamefully battered pride.  Costly ointment indeed. 

So there we are. A man and a woman who were among the ultimate elite.  A man and a woman who were among the ultimate outcasts.  Between them sat Jesus.  What can we say about Jesus?  He welcomed the hospitality of the leper and the Pharisee.  He welcomed the gifts of the elite and the outcast.  Each of the actors in both scenes were invited, without condemnation, into the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation, and a new way of life.  He opened doors through which each was invited to receive the other as a brother, a sister.  Would they?  In Mark, the bystander Judas could not.  In Luke, Simon the Pharisee might.  In Mark, the wealthy woman’s deed would never be forgotten, always honored.  In Luke, the sinning woman’s gift brought forgiveness and assurance of God’s respect for her acts of love.

About ten years ago, my friend Roger Ferlo wrote a book on experiencing God through all of our senses.  Cleverly enough, he entitled it Sensing God, and in it explored what it meant to  experience God’s presence through seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  I was thinking about that when considering these two stories.  In them is the sight of unlikely combinations of people in unlikely venues.  The repulsive appearance of a leper.  The morally offensive presence of a known public sinner.  The taste and smell of good food and wine.  The stench of disease, and the dirtiness of the poor.  The touch of a wealthy person’s smooth hands, and a poor person’s rough ones.  The smell of expensive perfumed ointment.  The feel of wet tears.  The sounds of shocked voices raised in angry objection. 

In the midst of it was Jesus honoring every smell and touch, every voice, every expression of every sense.  With what?  With his own voice and touch of healing, and reconciling promise.  The rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, the sinner, the virtuous, the food, the wine, the voices of each, his presence enfolded all of it into one community whose transient members experienced the Holy by seeing, hearing, and touching the one who saw them, heard them, and touched them with God’s love in the depths of their souls.  

In the immortal words of Chester A. Riley, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  That Jesus, the one whom we say we follow, would calmly, benevolently, willingly, sit in the company of such a disreputable potpourri of characters without even a hint of offended righteousness, well, what kind of role model is that?  He touched and was touched by that which we avoid out of fear, but in the name of good taste.  He socialized with the 1% at the top, whom we envy but detest, and the 1% at the bottom, whom we pity but deplore.  He openly embraced the morally corrupt.  He enjoyed the friendship of intellectual and religious snobs, and welcomed the hospitality of those who were so physically repugnant they couldn’t be seen in public.  He received gifts from the super rich, and from those who had nothing but tears.

Why wasn’t he more like that nice psalmist who wrote about befriending only blameless people who speak only truth, and had nothing to do with wicked slanderers, money lenders,  and such? (Ps. 16)  And then there is Paul, Saint Paul that is, who warned the good people of Corinth to not associate with immoral people. (1 Cor. 5)  A psalmist, and a saint, an apostle no less, you would think Jesus would pay some attention to them.  Clearly a few Christians have lost their moral compass by following Jesus into quagmires like the ones described by Mark and Luke.  Fortunately, most have not.  It’s OK to believe in Jesus.  You can even accept him as your personal lord and savior.  It’s sort of like having your personal butler and maid, but better because he’s God.  Just don’t follow him or you’ll end up in a swamp with disreputable people. 



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