Who’s telling what and why they’re telling it should be a huge consideration in how we hear or read anything, don’t you think? And not just in politics.
“We live in story,” says Eugene Peterson (the theologian and pastor who wrote the contemporary paraphrase of the bible called The Message). Many others have made the same observation, that life is a narrative, and the manner in which we tell it, in words and art, is a reflection of who we are, as is the manner in which we hear it. That might mean that we subconsciously (or even consciously) imbue a story with certain elements that reflect who we are, where we come from and what we want to achieve, generally. It might also mean that we intentionally interpret a story, in our telling or hearing, with a certain agenda or within a closed framework in order to make a certain point or reinforce a certain thought or ideal.
I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of how or who in news media or social media might distort or manipulate a story to make a point. Besides, historically, religions are often experts at this. I just think we should be more thoughtful and discerning about it. Please.
That’s on my mind because there’s a story of Jesus’ ministry often referred to as “The Anointing of Jesus.” Jesus is at someone’s home for dinner which is interrupted by a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive oil. The story appears in all four gospels. Sort of.
There’s a bit of an argument that it may be a single event they’ve all recorded or it might be two separate events. There’s lots of scholarship around similarities and differences between the accounts, but I think that description, “Jesus is at someone’s home for dinner which is interrupted by a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive oil,” is the common thread for four completely unique and different stories. I’d like to consider the account in Luke for a minute, a moment in Jesus ministry with a particular emphasis on forgiveness. At least, according to Luke. And me.
The story’s in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. I’m not really sure what to make of Simon, because it’s not clear to me whether he’s open minded and curious to hear more from Jesus or if he’s already decided and out to make him look bad. I’m condensing some details, but it seems that Simon and Jesus aren’t alone at dinner, either, there’s others, but no real indication of who they are. They seem like a bit of a Greek chorus that chimes in late in the story.
A “sinful” woman comes in and weeps on Jesus feet, drying them with her hair and then she puts ointment on them (there’s the anointing part). Simon seems to be less than impressed that Jesus allows it, although one might wonder how she got into the house in the first place. Jesus tells Simon a story about two debtors who owed a creditor money, one a large amount the other small. The creditor forgives both debts and Jesus asks which one is happiest. Simon correctly answers the one with the larger debt and Jesus goes on to point out the woman’s outrageous and extravagant act as a response to the forgiveness of her many sins. He goes on to critique the Pharisee as a host, who offered him none of the traditional signs of hospitality, while all of them were offered by the woman. She loves greatly in response to forgiveness, the Pharisee is unaware of his need for forgiveness and offers nothing. This is when the chorus chimes in with “who is this who even forgives sins?”
Well. It’s Jesus, that’s who, and, if we’re reading through Luke’s stories of Jesus, we should by now be getting that point. More importantly, as we hear the story today, we should also be wondering “why aren’t YOU Jesus?” Or me, or anyone else who claims to be a follower of Jesus.
Look, it’s pretty easy to point out that, as Luke tells this story, there’s no one who isn’t behaving badly from someone’s perspective. The Pharisee, we learn, has not been the host that he should have been. The woman is rudely interrupting the Pharisee’s dinner and behaving in a manner that would have been, at the very least, unseemly. And Jesus, even Jesus, could be seen as behaving inappropriately. According to convention in his day, he should not have allowed the woman to do what she did, nor should he have chastised his host for his behaviour.
But isn’t that the point? Everyone is behaving badly from someone’s perspective. What we need to discern is who’s behaviour is right and true. We might also wonder which of these characters we may be at times in our lives. The woman who realizes her sinfulness, welcomes forgiveness, celebrates it extravagantly and is saved by faith? Jesus, who forgives and forgives all? The Pharisee who judges others, unaware of his own need, but who - and this is critical - we don’t know if he dismisses Jesus and the woman or if he learns what Jesus teaches? Who are you?