The first in a series of five addresses reflecting on characters appearing in the Gospel readings for the each day of Holy Week from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Seeing something for ourselves is always much more convincing than being told by someone else. The Prayer Book presents us with a series of witnesses through whose eyes we might try to see the unfolding events.
The Prayer Book Gospel reading for the Monday before Easter says of Jesus, “And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper”. “Who?” we might ask. He’s not one of the most obvious characters in the story, yet clearly, he is well known to Jesus and his disciples because they gather at his house.
Standing in Simon’s place, we would find those few words to be a very important statement. We know from other Bible stories about the way in which leprosy sufferers were treated; they were regarded as unclean, as outcasts. No devout Jew would have gone too close to anyone with leprosy; religious laws as well as health fears were a bar to contact.
To be afflicted with leprosy was not just a health problem, it meant that you were no longer a member of society; nobody wanted contact with you, few would do anything to help you.
The Bible tells us nothing of Simon’s background, perhaps he was someone whom Jesus had healed, but if this was the case, the mention of leprosy seems odd. However, if we had been standing in Simon’s place, those few words would have said much more than we might first imagine.
Firstly, they tell us that we still have a house, that we are not living out on the streets as was the way of many leprosy sufferers. Secondly, they tell us we still have an income; we could not have been entertaining guests if we relied upon begging at the roadside. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they tell us we have not become a social outcast; people gather in our house; we still have friends, a rare thing for someone with leprosy.
Standing there, in the place of Simon the leper, we would count ourselves very fortunate that life had been much kinder to us than it had been to many other who suffered a similar disease. We would count ourselves very fortunate that this man Jesus had come to visit our house; a great man, the Messiah, and he was here in our house sharing the evening meal.
Jewish people were traditionally careful about with whom they would eat; sharing a meal with someone was counted as a sign of respect towards that person. For Jesus to have come to Simon’s house for a meal would have been a sign of respect towards Simon.
So, we imagine ourselves in Simon’s place: happy with the way that life is and very happy that a very special guest is sitting at the table.
Watching the scene through Simon’s eyes, we see a strange incident. A woman comes in and pours very precious ointment over the head of Jesus and then there is a sharp exchange of words between Jesus and some of the people there. What do we make of it?
Amongst rich people, this would have been common: to pour oil over someone as a means of refreshment would have been courteous. However, in the house of Simon the leper it would not have been a familiar sight, and even in the houses of the rich, it would have been olive oil that was usually used; few people would have gone to the extravagance of using spikenard.
We are not sure of the exact value of the ointment, but it could have been as much as a year’s wages for a labourer. In modern terms, it would be like pouring thousands’ worth of Chanel over someone’s head.
Understandably, some of the people are scandalised. This seemed like a criminal waste, so much could have been done with the money.
Jesus doesn’t deny that the money could have been used for the poor, but he looks at the hearts of people, at their real thoughts and intentions.
The ointment was almost certainly the most precious possession the woman had, something which she had probably kept for years, but she does not begrudge a single drop of it. The clay container is broken and every drop is poured out. She doesn’t just give a little of what she has to Jesus, she gives all.
Saint Mark does not say so, but it seems likely that Judas Iscariot was one of those who complained about the woman’s behaviour. “This could have been sold and the money given to the poor”, they say. But Jesus could see into their hearts; if they had had the ointment, what would they have done with it? Maybe they would have sold some and given the money to the poor, but how likely is it they would have given everything away?
Perhaps, after the guests have gone that evening, Simon would have sat and thought to himself about the things he had seen. In his mind, he would probably have gone over things again and again, and what would he have made of the people he had seen?
There was the woman who gave all she had to Jesus. “No”, he would have thought, “I am not like her. I have a house and, although I am not rich, I have enough to get by. I haven’t really given everything the way she did”.
But then, there were also the complainers, those ready to find fault, to pretend to be indignant when, really, they were annoyed that their meanness had been shown up. “I hope I am not like them”, simon would have thought to himself.
Had we been in Simon’s place that evening, with whom would we have agreed?
Would we have supported the woman who gave the most precious thing she had to Jesus, or, being honest, would we not much more likely have sided with the begrudgers and the complainers?
Putting ourselves into the shoes of Simon the leper, and thinking of how we might have responded to the woman who poured the ointment over Jesus’ head, can tell us a lot about our response to God.
Are we ever prepared to throw our whole selves into what we believe, like the woman in the story, or, like the moaners, do we maybe give a little, but keep most for ourselves?
What sort of response does Jesus expect?