When my father was growing up, he knew a fellow called Deafy (pronounced “Deefy”). They called him this because he was deaf. When Deafy wanted to get somewhere, he walked right down the middle of the road. When the occasional car chuggered up behind him, he swerved nary an inch. When the driver honked his horn, he never startled. When the driver cussed him, Deafy never heard that either. The practice of nicknaming people by their infirmities seems to be on the wane. I get the impression that there used to be more Deafys and Stumpys and Shortys than there are now.
Jesus’ last supper before the Last Supper was hosted by a man known as Simon the Leper. As insensitive nicknames go, Simon the Leper has Deafy and Stumpy beat all to flinders. But there Jesus sat, eating in the home of a man whose very name was his shame. Simon the Leper. Simon the Unclean. Simon the Outcast. To the very end, Jesus was pouring his life into misfits and losers, refusing to leverage the influence of the powerful and well-connected but insisting on doing things his way–a perfectly backwards way, by the world’s lights. This was the Savior from Nazareth, after all. The village wasn’t just podunk, but so mean that one of the disciples asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” When Jesus came home for a visit, the locals tried to throw him off a cliff. I picture Nazareth as a place with more than its share of three-legged dogs. Whatever was the first-century equivalent of a speed-trap, I suspect Nazareth had one. And a Deafy and a Gimpy and a Shorty. Jesus, no doubt, felt right at home at the house of Simon the Leper.
And Jesus, of course, was readier than anybody else for the spectacle that would interrupt his next-to-last supper. A woman with an alabaster flask of perfumed oil busted the thing and poured the oil all over Jesus’ head and feet. In so many ways, it was an act of beautiful extravagance. The oil was worth a year’s wages, yet down it dripped, running and pooling all over the floor. The fragrance filled the room like a kind of grace, a beauty that nobody besides Jesus had earned. Yet there were those in the room who made themselves impervious to that beauty, who chose to judge and criticize and quantify the woman’s act rather than let themselves smell the sweet savor of what she had done.
“She could have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor,” they said (and Judas–not just a traitor but a moneygrubber and a thief–was one of them). But Jesus smelled the perfume, and he knew the hearts of the critics. He defended the woman’s act of prodigality. “Why do you trouble the woman?” he asked. “For she has done a good work for me. For you have the poor with you always,” (though, he might have added, you’ve never seemed too worried about them before), “but me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on my body, she did it for my burial.”
I’ve been trying to picture the scene, and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure I would have come down on Judas’s side and suffered the rebuke of Jesus. Like Judas, I might have put my objection in practical terms, but I’m afraid that for me the real issue would have been the fact that the woman was creating a most uncomfortable scene. She showed no reserve whatsoever–no self-respect. John describes her as wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. With her hair! I don’t suppose I’ve ever heard anybody say this before, but there was something tacky about the whole scene. I don’t mean any irreverence here. I mean only to say that according to the world’s ideas of what is acceptable and tasteful and what is tacky, the spectacle at Simon the Leper’s house comes down on the tacky side of the ledger.
And yet Jesus was very clear: we should honor this woman’s devotion. To an upside-down world, Jesus came with upside-down solutions. The lame shall enter first, he said. And the deaf and the leprous and the tacky and the not-quite respectable–those, like Deafy and Simon, who are the butt of the joke rather than those who are making the joke at their expense. As Frederich Buechner wrote,
Blessed are those who see that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, [Jesus] is who he says he is and does what he says he does if they will only, at admittedly great cost to their pride, their common sense, their sad vision of what is and is not possible in the stormy world, let him do it. Blessed is he, in other words, who gets the joke.
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Have a blessed Triduum.
I can never think of this story now without thinking about a hilarious anecdote concerning Mother Theresa.
A new novice came in, dressed very nicely with makeup and earrings, and Theresa looked at her and said dryly, “Do you know how many children could have been fed with the money you spent on all that?”
Without missing a beat, the young lady replied, “Funny, that’s what Judas said.”
Theresa stared for a moment, then just started laughing and laughing… 🙂
Blessed Maundy Thursday to all.
I love that story, FT. Good on Mother Teresa for laughing at herself. “Blessed is he who gets the joke.”
And Charles, you have taught me a new word. Blessed triduum to you too.
As for “Simon the Leper,” I suspect that he had been cured of his leprosy by the time of the meal.
The reason I would suspect/assume that is that Mark gives us that nickname and says the dinner is in Bethany, and from the John account, we have the added information that Lazarus’ family is at the dinner. If Simon were still leprous, he wouldn’t be hosting dinner parties for respectable people in Bethany. My guess is that’s a nickname from the sickness he used to have: Simon, who used to be a leper.
What’s really interesting is that we appear to have two different accounts of a woman pouring ointment on Jesus. Luke 7 gives an account where the sinfulness of the woman is discussed, and Jesus rebukes the murmuring Pharisees while accepting her gift and forgiving her sins. There we don’t hear from Judas about the poor, we hear about the woman’s reputation: “If Jesus only knew who she was, he wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.” Of course he knows exactly what they’re thinking.
Now the host in that story is also named “Simon,” but we could think of that as a coincidence. In any event, nobody would have been talking about Mary’s sinful reputation, so it seems like there were two different women who did this. In Mary’s case, the focus is on the wastefulness of her gift, and that’s where we get Judas grumbling and pretending to be concerned about the poor. Also, Jesus says nothing in the Luke story about being prepared for burial, whereas he does in John’s account. This indicates that the Luke story took place quite a bit earlier in his ministry, while when Mary, Lazarus’ sister anointed Jesus, it was as folks have noted right before his Passion.
This has always been a bit of a puzzle to me, so it was fun to spend some time sorting it out recently! Hope I haven’t bored anyone.
I’ve always heard “Simon the Leper” as “Simon the healed.” It was as if the writer was throwing in a miracle notation that he didn’t have space to write out.It makes me smile. 🙂
What a great way to put another light on this, Jonathan. Thank you! I probably would have been among the grumps, too; in my case it would have been complaining about the overpowering scent. I mean REALLY! Can you imagine? It would have overwhelmed everything, and even if it was sweet, how many of us would have had a royal headache?
And yet that’s not at all how Jesus perceives it, because that’s completely beside the point. I read or heard somewhere a contemplation on the fact that this scent rubbed into Jesus’ hair and skin would have still lingered a few days later amidst his beatings and crucifixion. Every time he moved, the scent of Mary’s offering would have wafted out; a reminder of why he was going through this agony–for people like her…and for people like us grumps….
FT and Dryad, I like your points!
LOL! I just read Russ Ramsey’s post for today over in Rabbit Room. He was WAY ahead of me! Great stuff.
It seems very possible that Simon was a healed leper. But it’s still significant, I think, that he went by the name of Simon the Leper. People still knew him by his infirmity, either former or current.
BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
I needed this reminder, thank you. I’ve been thinking about this post for days.
Ron Block has talked about how God is a master of making us into our inverses. I can’t remember his exact wording, but I was hopeful when I first began to think about how God displays his sufficiency through our weakness. Not only could He make the blind see, but He could also take my grossest insufficiencies and turn them into fullness.
Here’s the rotten bit, though. When it comes to those around me, sometimes I have an easier time believing that God can provide for their physical deformities than their emotional poverty. This means that when I run into people who have annoying personality tendencies, I can become feisty and ungracious.
After two days of soaking on this post, I’ve started renaming some of these folks: “Jan the Self-Promoting,” “Lynn the Controlling,” “Joe the Pharisee”; trying to imagine them made new. God knows how to handle all of this awkwardness perfectly, also. (Afterall… He’s already been handling the tackiness of, “Becca the Older Brother.”)
Thank you for taking the time to reflect, Jonathan. I always leave your blog enriched somehow.
Greatly enjoyed this.