The Gospel from Mass last Sunday stays with me. It’s the very simple story of the woman who poured expensive ointment over Jesus’ feet as the most extravagant expression of love and thanksgiving that she could imagine. Regardless of protocol and social convention she entered the room where Jesus was dining in Simon the Pharisee’s house and in a tender display of loving worship washed Jesus’ feet with her tears before anointing them with fragrant oil.
Walking the dusty, dirt strewn streets of Palestine, everyone’s feet grew dirty. In Britain it is summertime and many of us walk barefoot in simple leather sandals. By the end of the day feet need washing or bedsheets have the dust and dirt of the day transferred to them. What this woman did was to clean Jesus’ feet as perhaps Simon might have done had he been a more hospitable host. Yet perhaps he thought Jesus was interesting and added value to his dinner table without recognising his true worth as a person, let alone the divine son of God.
How often my own actions are informed by my assumptions with little attempt to challenge those assumptions through curious enquiry. I wonder how much I have missed and therefore failed to recognise opportunities to entertain angels unaware, as the writer to the Hebrews challenges us, simply by living within the boundedness of my own assumption?
Simon the Pharisee had an interest in Jesus and his teachings; this woman owed her very existence to Jesus. Simon knew his own value; the woman was aware that without Jesus, she had no value. The great challenge that accompanies personal advancement and success within contemporary society for each one of us is that we can come to believe in our own value. This is dangerous because we very quickly become convinced of the overarching value of our own decisions and judgements, rather than exploring them with curious enquiry and weighing them alongside the opinions of others. This is perhaps well illustrated by the current revelations in the UK surrounding the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) suppressed report over catastrophic failures at Furness General Hospital.
Simon could only see inappropriate behaviour from a woman who he ‘knew‘ to be a prostitute. How did he know? Was he her client? Was it that she was well known in the red light district? Was it perhaps the way she dressed? Perhaps it was simply because she was a woman! We shall never know. However, Simon made assumptions on what he saw – and he believed this was inappropriate behaviour both by this uninvited woman and also by Jesus.
Surely, Simon thought, if Jesus was a prophet then he would have known this was a woman of ill repute. Therefore his respect in Jesus diminished in that moment. He believed what he was seeing, yet his conclusions were plain wrong!
All the time that Simon fretted and reacted, Jesus allowed this woman to bathe his feet with her tears and anoint them with this expensive ointment. Sensing Simon’s discomfort, Jesus said to him that what he, as host, had failed to do (namely wash his feet upon arrival), this woman had done as an act of courtesy. Furthermore he declared her sins forgiven on the strength of the faith she had exhibited in worshipping Jesus through her act of kindness,
Of course those around the meal table were once again distracted by their assumptions, ‘Who is this that even forgives sins?’ Once more they miss the reality of Jesus’ teaching that unless and until we each realise just how needy and wayward we are, we will never appreciate the gift of forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus makes available to us. Jesus saw beyond the the tears, the hair and the ointment and gazed into a woman’s broken soul, observing her deep acknowledgement of her love born of faith and that her hope was in Jesus alone.
I come away from such a tail chastened by the fact that I make a million judgements a day about the behaviours and motives of others. Since Sunday’s homily I am consciously aware that I too often discuss other people with friends and family and the substance of our conversation, or is it gossip, is built upon our assumptions. Rarely will I engage in such conversation. And others do it to me. Just recently I failed to land a contract simply because of the assumptions created through the reports of others who had known me historically. Yet, in spite of my request, no direct conversation was facilitated. However, this was a good experience again in challenging me critically to explore my own assumptions.