The Women in His Life
Eleventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Piers Linley preaches on the role of women in Luke’s Gospel.
All four Gospels tell of Jesus being anointed by a woman, and down the centuries the four accounts have, naturally enough, been considered together and conflated. The other three Gospels link the anointing to the passion of Jesus and record a complaint about the waste of money through the use of the ointment. Matthew and Mark have an anointing of the head of Jesus. John — like Luke — tells of an anointing of his feet.
We must set these associations aside. Luke was a skilful writer and we need to consider the episode solely as it fits into his story and ignore the other sources.
The story occurs much earlier in Luke than the other Gospels. Luke narrates how Jesus goes to the house of a Pharisee for a meal. Such events were semi-public occasions into which someone could intrude. A woman does just that. She enters with an alabaster jar of ointment. She is not named. She has a bad reputation in the town — for what reason we are not told.
In Luke’s account, there is no warrant for assuming it is her sexual reputation which is bad. It is only Luke who mentions that she was a sinner. There is no mention of any previous contact with Jesus. She weeps tears over his feet, wipes them away with her hair, kisses his feet and anoints them. The Pharisee — he is given his name, Simon — cavils at this. Jesus declares that God has forgiven her many sins. This causes those present to murmur amongst themselves. Jesus declares to the woman that her faith has saved her. She can go in peace.
The story moves on to other women whose important role is described briefly. Imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling around through the villages. The band would be Jesus plus the Twelve plus an unknown number of other disciples. Plus some women? Possibly: we don’t know. The group would surely try the hospitality of any village: money was needed. It was supplied by three named women and several others. They were surely better off than Galilean fisherfolk. Did they travel with Jesus?
The importance of this group is out of proportion to their numbers. Luke highlights for us this one moment of their visibility. Their second appearance is very significant indeed, when he takes up their story in Chapter 23:
The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
Sadly the male disciples wrote off their witness as an idle tale! Not the first time the contribution of women has been under-appreciated.
So far as we know the biblical authors were all men and they tell the story from the viewpoint of the male involvement in public affairs. Luke does something to give credit where credit was certainly due. In recent times we owe it primarily to feminist scholars that the balance of things has been at least partly restored. But there is a way to go before the Church recognises its debt to women and discovers their rightful place amongst the disciples.