A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: Luke 7:36–8:3

7:37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 7:38 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. 7:39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “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.”

47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 7:48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 7:49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 7:50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 8:2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 8:3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

 A few questions:

  • The woman in this scene arrives with an alabaster jar of ointment. Why?
  • Why does it matter how you see the women in this scene?

Some longer reflections:

There are some translational oddities in this scene. For one, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is shown, in English, anyhow, “standing behind him at his feet.” Perhaps we are to imagine that her tears fall and somehow hit his feet as he reclines to eat. Neat trick. Perhaps it would be better to read the participle as telling us that she stationed herself behind him at his feet. The word carries that meaning easily. And then, having stationed herself there, the events that follow at least make physical sense.

But the events don’t make easy practical sense.

What was she there to do?

She arrives with an alabaster jar of ointment. Why? Did she have a purpose in bringing the ointment? Or was the jar just in her bag when she left the house? The storyteller does not give us a hint. Interpreters seem pretty sure that she came to anoint his feet, and that she brought the ointment for that express purpose, but that supposition then requires them to invent a reason for washing and anointing feet. Readers are treated to the imagining of how dirty and smelly Jesus’ feet would have been after a day of walking on dusty streets. Then the scene morphs into a criticism of the Pharisee who failed to provide water to wash Jesus feet (in one interpreter’s reading), which is countered by another interpreter who notes that slaves could not be required to wash people’s feet, such acts being judged to be demeaning to the slave. At the end of the competing readings we are left wondering how often foot washing was actually practiced in ancient Galilee (I don’t think we know), and whether anointing of feet would ever have been a part of this act, and I find myself suspicious (yet again) that ancient practices have been invented to explain a cryptic biblical passage. Too often, no one chuckles when such cycles of invention are passed off as reliable historical interpretation. Biblical interpreters should chuckle at their own work more often. Much more often.

In all of this, no one asks how dirty and smelly anyone’s feet would seem if everyone else had feet in a similar condition. In my family we are wilderness canoeists. We travel together in close quarters for a week, sometimes more, without complaint. It’s only when we shower after the trip and climb into the car to drive home that anyone notices how bad our boots smell. I have no objection to the idea of a messiah with smelly feet. Actually, I rather like such ideas, but the usual interpretive line seems to miss the point here. When everybody’s feet smell, no one’s feet smell.

So, allow me a chuckle-worthy exploration of this strange scene with feet in it.

Perhaps the whole set of actions is one long, rolling improvisation.

The woman came to see Jesus. In Luke’s story all sorts of people come to see Jesus, and come because they somehow recognize him to be the messiah. Luke’s storyteller manages to find faithful and expectant Jews everywhere, even nailed to the cross next to Jesus at the end of the story. It’s not too hard to imagine that the storyteller can find another one, this time in the form of a woman who was a “sinner,” whatever that means, exactly.

So, having come to see Jesus because she just knew it was the right thing to do, she finds herself stationed behind him with no invitation, and with no clear plan of action.  No one knows why she is there, least of all Jesus, though he may have become accustomed to such random appearances. The woman is weeping. Why? We are not told. Perhaps because she has no idea what to do next. Perhaps because she is being roundly ignored. Perhaps because she comes to realize the oddity of her position: the fact that the storyteller finds faithful Jews everywhere doesn’t mean that she shares that view of herself. She knows that she is not observant (which is all the word for “sinner” needs to imply, despite generations of male interpreters who seem really to enjoy imagining what sexual sins she must have committed–for this, we should chuckle at them). The eyes of those gathered in the Pharisees’s house will have made it clear that EVERYONE knows she is non-observant, and that they are probably imagining (with later interpreters) just what sort of delicious sins she has committed.  Sometimes when too many of such factors add up, people just weep. We just do. It’s how we are made.

Perhaps she notices that her spontaneous weeping have made a mess of the dusty feet before her. Perhaps the thing with the hair was simply an awkward improvisation. Perhaps the close contact with feet revealed to her that feet do smell, after all. Perhaps the thing with the ointment was another surprise, to her as much as to anyone.  

What is clear is that the host has seen the whole thing.

He has seen the woman who is non-observant. That is clear, and he knows her, not necessarily by name, or even reputation. He simply knows that she is non-observant, and her clothing might well have been enough to tell him that. Patriarchal cultures often have elaborate specifications for how women must dress. This serves the purpose of giving the patriarchs a way of controlling their women (bitter chuckling is in order at this point). It also allows men to know which of the women around them are managed under the local clan system (which is to say, which women have a male relative to whom other men owe respect), and which women are not so managed, and therefore are the “exotic other” who may be safely rejected and desired (simultaneously, of course: more chuckling).

What is clear is that he has noticed the touching.

Maybe he wanted to be touched, himself. He may even have had fantasies about such touching. Maybe even recently.

At this point we need to say something about feet in ancient Jewish literature. Not all feet have toes. Some feet are euphemisms and refer to genitalia. Especially male genitalia.

And we should say something about hair. Hair was also loaded with sexual meaning, since it was understood to exert the vacuum force needed to draw semen far up into a woman’s body and guarantee conception following intercourse. The longer the hair, the better.

And we should say something about ointment. That was a euphemism for semen, at least sometimes.

And thus this scene about forgiveness, about stationing, about weeping, is also a scene about religious masking of lust.  The storyteller has created a double scene, and in this half of the scene the Pharisee comes out badly.  For the Pharisee, the euphemisms reveal what he is really thinking.  It is not admirable.  It is the occasion for the most bitter chuckling.

It turns out that the Pharisee is having the same fantasies as male interpreters of this scene have long had: the woman is made into a sexual sinner who is touching another man’s “feet.”

Luke’s storyteller sets up a scene that reveals the thoughts hidden in the hearts of interpreters, of all who hear the story.

The storyteller has made this a scene about the way men look at women.  Notice all the uses of verbs of “seeing” in this scene:

  • in v. 37 the translator has skipped one, the Greek has ἰδοὺ γυνὴ ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἁμαρτωλός (“Look, a woman who was in the city, a sinner.”);
  • there is another verb of seeing in verse 39, where the Pharisee sees the woman touching Jesus (ἰδὼν δὲ Φαρισαῖος);
  • in verse 44 Jesus turns toward the woman and, according to the NRSV, asks, “Do you see this woman?”

This last verb of seeing is especially interesting because the storyteller has Jesus say: Βλέπεις ταύτην τὴν γυναῖκα, which could be a question, “Do you see this woman?,” or it could be a statement, “You are looking at this woman.”  The point is the same either way, I suppose: the man is looking at the woman.  

The actual verb is interesting since it implies stolen glances.  The man is peeking at the woman.  And when he sneaks his little innocent peeks, he sees an object of his fantasies.  

It is worth noticing how the storyteller sees women at the end of this scene.

Jesus is traveling and proclaiming the reign of God.  The Twelve are with him.

But so are women with Jesus, women with names that distinguish them, and we are told that there are many of them.  More than that, we are told that these women “provided for them out of their resources.”  The men in this scene, Jesus among them, are financially supported by these faithful women.

How are we to see the women in this scene?  Others had seen them as women with demons and infirmities.  The Pharisee in our scene had seen women as objects of desire.  According to the storyteller, the women are, all of them, people with resources.  They made the proclamation of the reign of God possible.  That is something to take a good, hard look at.  No more stolen peeks.


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