Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Woman and the Pharisee

This Sunday's gospel was, of course, the story of Jesus having dinner with the Pharisee, when the sinful woman comes in and washes and anoints his feet.

The reading immediately struck me as one of those biblical incidents which suggests all sorts of different interpretations, explaining the relations of the characters who how they got to the point at which they see them. By the end of the sermon (which was about the Maryknoll missionaries rather than the gospel) several stories had suggested themselves. I'd originally thought to write several in a "variations on a theme" kind of way, but writing the first one took so long I think I'll just leave it at that for now.
The Pharisee's Woman

Surely it is the prerogative of any man of influence to wish the separate portions of his life kept separate, or so the Pharisee had always felt. Men were sometimes greater than the ideas which made them great. Or perhaps it was that God granted greater range of action of men of stature. Certainly, in the scriptures, God never seemed to lose his fondness for David, despite the king's many failings.

The important thing, of course, was for such great men to control the appearance they presented. Ideas and ideologies were the fuel that allowed men to propel themselves upward, and yet like any powerful steed they were as happy to destroy their rider as to bear him. For the great mass of men, it was the ideal that was important rather than the man. And so it was important that all contradictions be kept safely and politely away from sight.

The Pharisee's woman was thus a creature seldom seen. Maintained quietly and simply but without squalor, as befitted someone selected to supply the less holy pleasures of a holy man. If the small hut and infrequency of gifts were less than she sometimes intimated that she wished for, they were certainly more than most women of her character and occupation could expect. Where would she turn, to the Roman soldiers with their all too well known proclivities?

She was, at times -- or so she told him -- a lonely creature. A woman gradually approaching middle age, but remaining attractive in face and bearing, who lived in the outskirts of the city with no husband, no children and no visible means of support was a woman that most people knew all too easily how to categorize. Yet though her hands remained soft, for she was spared work other than that of her own one-person household, and her clothes in good repair -- she was of course not welcome among the respectable women who went down to the wells each day to draw water for their husbands and children.

Indeed the lack of children weighed heavily upon her, and was perhaps the purpose behind her dedicated cultivation of the small garden behind her hut, in which lay, unbeknownst to any but her own torn heart, the small fruits of her body -- too shameful to be allowed to live and one day name their father. The woman knew that, mother now to nothing but herbs and flowers, this more than all her other sins condemned her to eventual solitude and poverty when the Pharisee died, or she became too old to attract his interest and support. Towards that day all jewelry and precious trinkets, whatever small return hours of trying to please could earn, were put away: unwanted for the shame that bought them yet treasured for the bread they would buy in the long, poor twilight which seemed now to draw ever closer.

Thus, when she entered the Pharisee's house, carrying the alabaster flask of ointment which represented all of her furtive savings, and used this product of her sins to anoint the young rabbi's feet, the moment evoked similar feelings (shame of the moment and fear of the future) in both her and in her long-time master.

The Pharisee was shocked at the tastelessness of the display: the weeping, the abasement, the washing and anointing of feet. Surely the woman was not a creature of much value, but he was repulsed by her grovelling. He was angry too. Surely any could guess from this wanton display of penitence what she was, but what if any in the gathering should realize just who she was? He had been very careful all these years, he told himself. Surely no one in the assemblage could know that this thing was his. And yet what if someone did guess it? What if this pathetic creature revealed to whom she had provided her sordid pleasures all these years? In the light of the dining room (much brighter than he was accustomed to see her in) he realized too how old she was becoming. She must know that this shameful display was the end of any consideration she might expect from him. She would not see him again. Now if only she would take herself away before someone realized.

The rabbi finished his pat little tale of the debtors, supported obediently in the question and answer by his disciple. The Pharisee's eyes met the rabbi's for a moment, but he could not hold them. There was something in the young man's eyes that seemed to see right through him.

The woman's feelings might have taken the same names, but they were very different. Shame, certainly, of a sort. After all these years of walking with head upright, while others subtly moved away or stepped aside so as not to be seen too near her much less brush against this walking sin, she found herself unable to raise herself from the floor. Not from the weight of the stares of others, which she had long grown accustomed to shrugging off by thinking of their own likely hidden sins, but rather from the weight of her own knowledge of herself, which all at once came crushing down.

In her mind too, as the waters of her tears seemed to purge her of her sins even as they washed the dust from the feet of the rabbi, was a certain fear. All of the little treasures which she had put away over the years to serve the place of her lost children when she was old had been spent in her sudden impulse towards complete repentance. No look towards the Pharisee was necessary to know that she would never see him again. And so the matter of what would happen to her, an aging woman with no children and no family, newly washed of sin but not of ill reputation, was a matter that was only known to God. Yet as she wept at the rabbi's feel, she felt that perhaps this was a burden that God was willing to take upon Himself in return for her repentance.

I'm not sure if creating a relationship between the woman and the Pharisee completely obscures the point about the Pharisees as a group holding themselves so much closer to God than the rejected in society. Another variation I toyed with was that perhaps the woman was mistress to a Roman officer, and thus not merely a notorious sinner but a traitor to her race -- and thus in the eyes the Pharisees doubly unworthy of forgiveness.

2 comments:

Alexandra said...

Hi. I've been lurking on your blog for a while, enjoying it a great deal. Delurking time:

Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed the story. And I do so hope that you'll write the whole series of "variations on a theme." Would you call this speculative fiction? Exegetical fiction? It seems rather like the medieval habit of composition, taking (say) an obscure character of Arthurian legend and expanding that character's brief 'cameo' into a romance of his own.

Karie said...

I love stories like this. I don't know if it's wrong - perhaps it deflects the message away from the point of the story - and yet I find it refreshing when someone tries to find a different angle to a very familiar story. Adding detail to me seems rather innocuous as long as it doesn't change the basic theme and message of the story.

Have you thought about writing any more? Looking forward to them if you do.