In the House of Simon

In the House of Simon

Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr. Aidan Nichols preaches on the true honour shown to Christ by the ‘woman who was a sinner’.

Today’s Gospel shows the kind of thing that can go wrong even at the best-organised dinner-party. The meal in the house of Simon was meant to be a splendid affair. Jesus ‘reclined at table’, something people in Palestine only did on festive occasions. This is not a snack lunch. It is a banquet.

So what was the occasion? No special occasion, simply that the host was inclined to the view that Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet, a divine ambassador, someone sent by the God of Israel to his people after generations when the voice of prophecy had been silent. To honour Jesus as prophet was reason enough to lay on a feast.

A ‘woman who was a sinner’ got into the house undetected: evidence that a very large number of guests indeed had been invited and were present. Well, we must call things by their names. ‘The woman who was a sinner’ was a whore. Presumably, she’d been in some sense converted by Jesus’ teaching. In terms of her general reputation this had little if any effect.

To — no doubt — general embarrassment she appears behind the couch where Jesus is lying. She is clutching an alabaster jar of ointment. It was a customary kindness to people who’d been travelling to offer them olive oil to wipe their foreheads — rather like the impregnated tissues you get handed in a modern aircraft, and about as cheap, olives growing everywhere in the Holy Land.

However, this jar contains not eleon but myron: perfumed ointment, very chic, expensive, and as Pliny the Elder tells us in his Natural History, often kept in alabaster so as not to dry out in a hot climate. We can assume that the intention was to anoint Jesus’s head. But being, as the stage Irishwoman said, ‘overcome with commotion’, the uninvited guest breaks down. She starts weeping, hopelessly, uncontrollably, all over Jesus’ feet, which are the nearest bit of his anatomy to the end of the couch.

In her confusion, eager to wipe up, she undoes her head-dress and lets down her hair. Whatever the merits of the general advice to ‘let our hair down occasionally’, in context this did nothing to improve her image. Its connotations were uncouth and, frankly, lewd. Then, worse and worse (at this point we can imagine the host turning to his wife with the look of despair that so often accompanies irredeemable social disaster), she gets out the myron and dollops the whole lot on the feet of Jesus — an action reported not by St Luke but by St John.

One doesn’t have to be a Freudian to see that this entire psychodrama could have an erotic interpretation — which leaps immediately to Simon’s mind and destroys his belief that Jesus is a prophet (the whole point of putting on the banquet in the first place). Prophets were expected to have intuition into souls: like the God of Israel himself, to probe the mind and test the heart. In this unprepared examination, Jesus has gained a mark of zero.

Precisely at this point the initiative passes to Jesus himself. Since, in point of fact, he is a prophet, he rounds on Simon for his inner thoughts. The offence lies not in Simon’s doubts about Jesus but in his trivialisation of the woman.

She has greeted the Lord with that combination of contrition and charity which is appropriate for the Agent of salvation. She has just done the most important thing that she or any other human person can do. She has expressed her repentance and faith in the divine Kingdom and its Bearer, Jesus Christ.

That God’s forgiveness is reaching her can be seen in her gestures, clumsy and even melodramatic though they are. She is already showing signs of transfiguration by grace and glory. Her sins, which were many, can be seen to be forgiven thanks to the signs of love she lavishes on the person of the Redeemer. Simon’s failure to recognise the spiritual beauty emerging from the chrysalis is an injustice — to God and to her.

Jesus was the guest of honour in the house of Simon. But the honour shown by host and guests was formal and ambiguous. He was truly honoured — truly appreciated — only by the maladroit and disreputable woman who slunk in unawares.

The honour we show the Lord in liturgical worship can suffer from a like ambivalence. It is only if we find in our hearts some analogue for the gesture of this woman to the Saviour, some gesture expressive of newness of life, that we will honour him as he desires.

Readings: 2 Sam 12:7-10,13 | Gal 2:16,19-21 | luke 7:36-8:3

fr Aidan Nichols is a well-known and prolific writer and theologian.