and if anyone is still spreading the rumour she was a prostitute, i’ll be really pissed…

I’ve been writing an article today for the Journal for the Jewish Museum of Australia [it’s a long story why, and a very lovely honour!]. It’s on my perception of the place of Biblical stories of women in the Christian tradition… I’ll put the article up when it’s published, but i didn’t want to forget this…

The context of this is that i’m basing the article around the stories of Jesus being anointed by women [each of the gospels has one, probably based around two distinct events], and in the Lukan story, the woman cries her tears onto Jesus’ feet. When i write articles on topics not of my choosing i do a lot of cramming, and yesterday, when i did just this, reading commentary after commentary in a short space of time, i got increasingly pissed off with the assumptions that people were making about the woman in this story, and about the motivations and emotions behind her actions and responses… I kept going back to the bible story and thinking ‘where the hell did they get that idea from?’. Mostly the ideas come from ‘tradition’…

I don’t know why i want to put the following paragraphs up here – mostly, i guess, it’s because i cut it from the article but i want to say it somewhere… and this is my blog, after all… I just want to reclaim the story a little, open up the possibility, again, that we don’t know what it means. We’ve lost our capacity just to encounter a story without bringing our framework of interpretation in to make it say just what we want to say. To be honest, though, i suspect christianity is no longer able to do anything else…

Anyway, this is what i cut:

One biblical scholar poses the question about why the woman is crying: it could be either that she is overwhelmed with sorrow at her sin, he says, or joy at being forgiven – as though they would be the only possible reasons for tears. Both interpretations come from a paradigm that sees women only as brought undone by their sinfulness, whereas the things that move women to tears are as complex and rich as every memory of love and grace: just the smell of the ointment could trigger an association. She may be remembering the last time she anointed someone’s feet, in preparation perhaps for their burial. She may be remembering the person she loves whose feet are no longer hers to anoint. She may be tired. She may be at her wits end. She may be exhausted from the day and from yet again needing to do what no-one else remembers to do. She may be overwhelmed with the sense of wonder, awe and fragility that comes when human and divine find a meeting place. There would be reasons we could never imagine, if only because we are not living in that culture, and we will never know her. Tears fall for many reasons, and sometimes even for none.

But the Biblical stories of women in the Christian tradition are most often – and perhaps most crudely – used for lessons in morality and virtue, and interpreted through a lens of sexuality and sinfulness. And, you know, maybe they’re right. If you think about it, there’s a good chance that this woman could only get close to Jesus because of what people have decided is her sin. You have to be comfortable with your body and another’s to be able to touch someone so intimately. Perhaps it was actually her sin, as the world describes it, which made her the only one to be able to offer this gift to jesus; grace in a moment of exhaustion, touch in the dirtiest of space…

5 Comments

  1. Absolutely right on the nail, Cheryl. I got totally cheesed off a couple of years ago during a biblical studies seminar looking at Jesus and the woman at the well: all the commentary assumptions that she was immoral/ loose/ etc. because she’d ‘had’ so many husbands and was living with a bloke at the time of the meeting at the well. Yup, that’s one way of interpreting… but what about the cultural context: a woman living alone without protection of a male – was just not a good idea [plus she’d be labelled/ seen as a prostitute potentially, by the culture and ironically, by the male commentators!]; the possibility that her former husbands had eitehr died or divorced her and sent her packing? We don’t know why she’d had so many husbands, but why is it automatically assumed she was ‘loose’/ ‘immoral’? Why is it the case time and time again that when it comes to women in the Bible and how they are perceived, it’s either virgin or whore. Either way, objectified, and either way a lose-lose scenario for women.
    Ah, now that I’ve got that off the chest… 🙂
    Thanks for the post and rekindling the ire [in a good way!]

  2. Oh come on, don’t be an apologist, women only commit sexual sins, didn’t you know that?

    Seriously, I love how the bible says this or that man has lived a lifetime of sin and we accept that at face value, but if it is a woman then she was a prostitute. Not that she maybe was a shameless gossip, or just a viscious person, or just a garden variety like most. It always chaps my hide that Mary Magdalene is described as a woman who supported Jesus’ ministry out of her own pocket, and besides having 7 demons cast out of her, nothing more is mentioned but everyone assumes she is the woman caught in adultery. Huh? Dang that is a big stretch.

    Now I was never a prostitute, but if I were annointing the Lord’s feet, I would need no other reason other than adoration to be sobbing uncontrollably.

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