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.