On Perfumes and Piety

I was reading through my bible this morning, and the various passages in the new testament, as I often like to do. Taking any time to look through the many red-lettered texts – away from a self-serving echo chamber like today’s many evangelical Christian churches – can be eye opening in many ways.

As I was enjoying the different passages, I had settled in on Luke 7:36 – 50 (NIV) and, while reading, was reminded of an oft-ignored truth in the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet.

As the story goes, a Pharisee invited Jesus to his home for dinner. Now, the Pharisees (as I’ve mentioned before) were much like today’s evangelicals. Quick to judge and condemn, they used “law” (old testament) to judge fellow humans. Sound familiar? The Pharisees liked using this law as a power play – a means to oppress rather than love. It was a handy excuse-creator.

This particular story in the bible had one of them inviting Jesus into his home. Imagine – for the sake of this illustration – that this Pharisee who had invited Jesus to his home, was a modern-day, big time preacher of choice. Take your pick. We have plenty to choose from.

Jesus accepts the invite, goes to the house and, as said in the bible, he “reclines at the table”.

In verse 37, Luke (the writer) narrates the scene saying “When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume.

Mind you, this perfume stuff was expensive. Used in rituals and offered to honored guests, this was a gift that she was willing to give completely to this man Jesus. Luke sets the stage with the phrase: “woman who had lived a sinful life.” We don’t know what kind of sins were considered or what she had endured. Some theologians have claim she was a prostitute. This particular set of text doesn’t dive that deep.

Now, think about those who claim to know the Bible more than others. Maybe one who enjoys a position of power with it. Maybe they have used it to deem the worthiness of others. Now imagine this woman – or any woman who is being judged by people like this. She knew she was judged by the powers-that-be. She probably lived a life of being jeered at. Enduring perpetual side-eye wherever she went. She knew what people felt about her and she went to the house anyway. She knew she was going into a home owned by one of those who judged her and she went anyway.

Entering the home, she wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her tears and she used her own hair. “She kissed his feet and poured perfume on them” (7:38)

When the Pharisee sees this happen, he wasn’t too pleased with what he was watching. The bible says that he said to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” (7:39)

Let’s pause here and break that down for a second…

“If this man were a prophet” the Pharisee says.

He – the preacher type – is putting what he feels a prophet should be – an image created by his human expectation – into the mix. He was deciding, because he felt she was unworthy by his own human level of interpretation, that Jesus simply allowing this interaction to happen couldn’t actually be Jesus.

Jesus. The one who came into town talking about not judging was, himself, being judged by a man. A man was putting his own spin on what LOVE could be and defining it with his own limitations and goals. Sound familiar?

“He would know what kind of woman she is.”

The Pharisee had his own ideas of what, or who, was worthy of love or forgiveness. It was a level system in his own head, and it allowed him to dismiss both her act and Jesus himself, because he felt her past wasn’t unblemished enough. He blocked – from the very beginning – because of what HE felt wasn’t a worthy enough person. Does this make sense?

Who is this guy?

Here’s the thing: none of us are really worthy enough if humans are the ones who are setting the standards of worth. Why? Because we’re all shit. Me too. All of us.

Yet, here this dude was, at the start of this interaction, questioning the validity of Jesus and of her because he was so confident in his interpretations that he deemed it so.

I love Jesus’ response. He knows this is going on and he takes this moment to teach:

In Luke 7:41 & 42 he goes with an illustration, saying:

Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii (a coin worth about a day’s wages) and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied that he believed the more grateful one would be the one who had the bigger debt cancelled, to which Jesus said that he was correct.

Jesus then turns to her – to the woman who was judged and condemned by the preaching-types:

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

The preaching one couldn’t be bothered with some basic hospitality and, yet, here she was giving everything she had in her.

Jesus tells her she’s forgiven. He takes that burden – a burden of a thousand eyes who have judged her, and the weight that comes with it – from her. He lifts that weight from her mind and restores her validity. Even more than that, he restores her validity and condemns the validity of the thoughts of those doing the judging.

Naturally, that check by Jesus triggered those who thought they were better than she was.

You see, the Pharisees loved to judge with their law and remove the validity of others. Much like how some, today, will say that one’s life was less valid because of the crimes they may have committed during their existence. The Pharisees lived in a world of righteous indignation and, here Jesus was, calling it out.

Naturally, the other equally-judgmental guests weren’t too pleased with this. They were triggered by Jesus’ lesson and reacted by talking amongst themselves asking “who is this guy?” and “how can he be doing this?”

We people will often do this – Christian or not – because it aligns with our basal, instinctual selves. That knee-jerk dismissiveness comes with the stress of Cognitive Dissonance. Being presented with something that doesn’t align with what we believed to be right is uncomfortable.

This is a power dynamic that hits us at our fallible human core. We see it in those who scream at the women going into a clinic. We see it in our tendency to victim blame. We all do it when we dismiss the message because of the messenger. Why? Because it helps us feel better about ourselves. It’s a self-serving motivation that is comforted by others who are similar.

That’s why echo chambers are so comforting. It’s why we surround ourselves with people who think like us, even if what we’re thinking is awful, wrong or divisive. Change is hard. Thinking beyond ourselves is hard. We don’t like it. But, Jesus didn’t like those echo chambers.

In Matthew 5:46, Jesus says: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

It’s easy to love those who think like you and who comfort you, but Jesus had a word for this: Hypocrites.

He says it multiple times. Preachers praying loudly and with whole light shows designed to highlight themselves. Those who posture when they give with the “look at me” – doing it for the ‘gram, if you will. Hypocrites. Using our basal human selves to determine the worth of others. All of it. Hypocrisy.


“Who is this guy?” they asked – because they didn’t like the act, they discredited the person and the message. They didn’t like her because she didn’t pass their qualifications exam they had in their mind, so they dismissed the potential to the lesson.

We all do it. We all fall to the egoist mind… the self-serving motivation of not wanting to feel wrong and then having to change and grow beyond what we’ve known.

We see it everywhere around us in responses by those who claim Christianity as their driver but won’t listen because the message is being delivered by one who didn’t pass their own testing requirements.

This story in the bible has been used to illustrate contrition and forgiveness many times, and those teaching it tend to focus on the woman who was considered sinful, and the subsequent grace that Jesus gave to her. But, we tend to forget the other half of the story – which is integral to the meaning – which is that the evangelicals in the crowd didn’t find him, or her, worthy enough to take in the message he was giving.

It wasn’t just about forgiving her and giving her peace after a lifetime of oppression by the judging humans. It was also about not being such judgmental humans in the first place. That we, ourselves, will sabotage before listening and that we, ourselves, will allow prejudicial markers rule what messages we feel are worthy to listen to instead of actually listening.

Not a single one of us walking this earth is righteous enough to speak for the condemnation of others. None of us. None of us is righteous enough to determine who is worthy of judgment over others, and, yet, we still do it. We will go sit in big rooms listening to preachers preach love while sneering at our neighbor because they’re not wealthy, educated or pretty enough for us to bother with. We set up ideals in our minds and condemn with these ideals quite regularly.

But those ideals we manufacture are born from a place where love can’t exist. It takes work to get beyond survival instinct and to critically think – but that’s where the love is. As long as we continue to choose to hold a chart of expectations to a messenger, in order to ignore the message, we won’t get beyond the divisions we’ve created.

Published by SJohnsonArtist

Dallas-based writer, photographer & visual artist. Breast Cancer Survivor. Cannabis advocate. Middle-aged and riding it out...

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