THE SINNER AND THE PHARISEE.
BUT not even yet apparently were the deeds and sayings of this memorable day concluded; for in the narrative of St. Luke it seems to have been on the same day that, perhaps at Nain, perhaps at Magdala, Jesus received and accepted an invitation from one of the Pharisees who bore the very common name of Simon.
The cause or object of the invitation we do not know; but as yet Jesus had come to no marked or open rupture with the Pharisaic party, and they may even have imagined that He might prove of use to them as the docile instrument of their political and social purposes. Probably, in inviting him, Simon was influenced partly by curiosity, partly by the desire to receive a popular and distinguished teacher, partly by willingness, to show a distant approval of something which may have struck him in Christ's looks, or words, or ways. It is quite clear that the hospitality was meant to be qualified and condescending. All the ordinary attentions which would have been paid to an honoured guest were coldly and cautiously omitted. There was no water for the weary and dusty feet, no kiss of welcome upon the cheek, no perfume for the hair, nothing but a somewhat ungracious admission to a vacant place at the table, and the most distant courtesies of ordinary intercourse, so managed that the Guest might feel that He was supposed to be receiving an honour, and not to be conferring one.
In order that the mats or carpets which are hallowed by domestic prayer may not be rendered unclean by any pollution of the streets, each guest, as he enters a house in Syria or Palestine, takes off his sandals, and leaves them at the door, He then proceeds to his place at the table. In ancient times, as we find throughout the Old Testament, it was the custom of the Jews to eat their meals sitting cross-leggedas is still common throughout the Eastin front of a tray placed on a low stool, on which is set the dish containing the heap of food, from which all help themselves in common. But this custom, though it has been resumed for centuries, appears to have been abandoned by the Jews in the period succeeding the Captivity. Whether they had borrowed the recumbent posture at meals from the Persians or not, it is certain, from the expressions employed, that in the time of our Lord the Jews, like the Greeks and Romans, reclined at banquets, upon couches placed round tables of much the same height as those now in use. We shall see hereafter that even the Passover was eaten in this attitude. The beautiful and profoundly moving incident which occurred in Simon's house can only be understood by remembering that as the guests lay on the couches which surrounded the tables, their feet would be turned towards any spectators who were standing outside the circle of bidden guests.
An Oriental's house is by no means his castle. The universal prevalence of the law of hospitalitythe very first of Eastern virtuesalmost forces him to live with open doors, and any one may at any time have access to his rooms. But on this occasion there was one who had summoned up courage to intrude upon that respectable dwelling-place a presence which was not only unwelcome, but positively odious. A poor, stained, fallen woman, notorious in the place for her evil life, discovering that Jesus was supping in the house of the Pharisee, ventured to make her way there among the throng of other visitants, carrying with her an alabaster box of spikenard. She found the object of her search, and as she stood humbly behind Him, and listened to His words, and thought of all that He was, and all to which she had fallenthought of the stainless, sinless purity of the holy and youthful Prophet, and of her own shameful degraded lifeshe began to weep, and her tears dropped fast upon His unsandalled feet, over which she bent lower and lower to hide her confusion and her shame. The Pharisee would have started back with horror from the touch, still more from the tear, of such an one; he would have wiped away the fancied pollution, and driven off the presumptuous intruder with a curse. But this woman felt instinctively that Jesus would not treat her so; she felt that the highest sinlessness is also the deepest sympathy; she saw that where the hard respectability of her fellow-sinner would repel, the perfect holiness of her Saviour would receive. Perhaps she had heard those infinitely tender and gracious words which may have been uttered on this very day"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And she was emboldened by being unreproved; and thus becoming conscious that, whatever others might do, the Lord at any rate did not loathe or scorn her, she drew yet nearer to Him, and, sinking down upon her knees, began with her long dishevelled hair to wipe the feet which had been wetted with her tears, and then to cover them with kisses, and at lastbreaking the alabaster vaseto bathe them with the precious and fragrant nard.
The sight of that dishevelled woman, the shame of her humiliation, the agonies of her penitence, the quick dropping of her tears, the sacrifice of that perfume which had been one of the instruments of her unhallowed arts, might have touched even the stoniest feelings into an emotion of sympathy. But Simon, the Pharisee, looked on with icy dislike and disapproval. The irresistible appeal to pity of that despairing and broken-hearted mourner did not move him. It was not enough for him that Jesus had but suffered the unhappy creature to kiss and anoint His feet, without speaking to her as yet one word of encouragement. Had he been a prophet, He ought to have known what kind of woman she was; and had He known, He ought to have repulsed her with contempt and indignation, as Simon would himself have done. Her mere touch almost involved the necessity of a ceremonial quarantine. One sign from Him, and Simon would have been only too glad of an excuse for ejecting such a pollution from the shelter of his roof.
The Pharisee did not utter these thoughts aloud, but his frigid demeanour, and the contemptuous expression of countenance, which he did not take the trouble to disguise, showed all that was passing in his heart. Our Lord heard his thoughts, but did not at once reprove and expose his cold uncharity and unrelenting hardness. In order to call general attention to his words, he addressed his host.
"Simon, I have something to say to thee."
"Master, say on," is the somewhat constrained reply.
"There was a certain creditor who had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty; and when they had nothing to pay, he freely forgave them both. Tell me then, which of them will love him most?"
Simon does not seem to have had the slightest conception that the question had any reference to himselfas little conception as David had when he pronounced so frank a judgment on Nathan's parable.
"I imagine," he saidthere is a touch of supercilious patronage, of surprised indifference to the whole matter in the word he uses"I presume that he to whom he forgave most."
"Thou hast rightly judged." And thenthe sterner for its very gentleness and forbearancecame the moral and application of the little tale, couched in that rhythmic utterance of antithetic parallelism which our Lord often adopted in His loftier teaching, and which appealed like the poetry of their own prophets to the ears of those who heard it. Though Simon may not have seen the point of the parable, perhaps the penitent, with the quicker intuition of a contrite heart, had seen it. But what must have been her emotion when He who hitherto had not noticed her, now turned full towards her, and calling the attention of all who were present to her shrinking figure, as she sat upon the ground, hiding with her two hands and with her dishevelled hair the confusion of her face, exclaimed to the astonished Pharisee
"Simon! dost thou mark this woman?
"I was thine own guest: thou pouredst no water over my feet; but she, with her tears, washed my feet, and with her hair she wiped them.
"No kiss gavest thou to Me; but she, since the time I came in, has been ceaselessly covering my feet with kisses.
"My head with oil thou anointedst not; but she with spikenard anointed my feet.
"Wherefore I say to you, her sinsher many sins, have been forgiven; but he to whom there is but little forgiveness, loveth little."
And then, like the rich close of gracious music, he added, no longer to Simon, but to the poor sinful woman, the words of mercy, "Thy sins have been forgiven."
Our Lord's words were constantly a new revelation for all who heard them, and if we may judge from many little indications in the Gospels, they seem often to have been followed, in the early days of His ministry, by a shock of surprised silence, which at a later date, among those who rejected Him, broke out into fierce reproaches and indignant murmurs. At this stage of His work, the spell of awe and majesty produced by His love and purity, and by that inward Divinity which shone in His countenance and sounded in His voice, had not yet been broken. It was only in their secret thoughts that the guestsrather, it seems, in astonishment than in wrathventured to question this calm and simple claim to a more than earthly attribute. It was only in their hearts that they silently mused and questioned, "Who is this, who forgiveth sins also?" Jesus knew their inward hesitations; but it had been prophesied of Him that "He should not strive nor cry, neither should His voice be heard in the streets;" and because He would not break the bruised reed of their faith, or quench the smoking flax of their reverent amazement, He gently sent away the woman who had been a sinner with the kind words, "Thy faith hath saved thee: go into peace." And to peace beyond all doubt she went, even to the peace of God which passeth all understanding, to the peace which Jesus gives, which is not as the world gives. To the general lesson which her story inculcates we shall return hereafter, for it is one which formed a central doctrine of Christ's revelation; I mean the lesson that cold and selfish hypocrisy is in the sight of God as hateful as more glaring sin; the lesson that a life of sinful and impenitent respectability may be no less deadly and dangerous than a life of open shame. But meanwhile the touching words of an English poet may serve as the best comment on this beautiful incident:
"She sat and wept beside his feet; the weight
An ancient traditionespecially prevalent in the Western Church, and followed by the translators of our English versiona tradition which, though it must ever remain uncertain, is not in itself improbable, and cannot be disprovedidentifies this woman with Mary of Magdala, "out of whom Jesus cast seven devils." This exorcism is not elsewhere alluded to, and it would be perfectly in accordance with the genius of Hebrew phraseology if the expression had been applied to her, in consequence of a passionate nature and an abandoned life. The Talmudists have much to say respecting herher wealth, her extreme beauty, her braided locks, her shameless profligacy, her husband Pappus, and her paramour Pandera; but all that we really know of the Magdalene from Scripture is that enthusiasm of devotion and gratitude which attached her, heart and soul, to her Saviour's service. In the chapter of St. Luke which follows this incident she is mentioned first among the women who accompanied Jesus in His wanderings, and ministered to Him of their substance; and it may be that in the narrative of the incident at Simon's house her name was suppressed, out of that delicate consideration which, in other passages, makes the Evangelist suppress the condition of Matthew and the name of Peter. It may be, indeed, that the woman who was a sinner went to find the peace which Christ had promised to her troubled conscience in a life of deep seclusion and obscurity, which meditated in silence on the merciful forgiveness of her Lord; but in the popular consciousness she will till the end of time be identified with the Magdalene whose very name has passed into all civilised languages as a synonym for accepted penitence and pardoned sin. The traveller who, riding among the delicate perfumes of many flowering plants on the shores of Gennesareth, comes to the ruinous tower and solitary palm-tree that mark the Arab village of El Mejdel, will involuntarily recall this old tradition of her whose sinful beauty and deep repentance have made the name of Magdala so famous; and though the few miserable peasant huts are squalid and ruinous, and the inhabitants are living in ignorance and degradation, he will still look with interest and emotion on a site which brings back into his memory one of the most signal proofs that no onenot even the most fallen and the most despisedis regarded as an outcast by Him whose very work it was to seek and save that which was lost. Perhaps in the balmy air of Gennesareth, in the brightness of the sky above his head, in the sound of the singing birds which fills the air, in the masses of purple blossom which at some seasons of the year festoons these huts of mud, he may see a type of the love and tenderness which is large and rich enough to encircle with the grace of fresh and heavenly beauty the ruins of a once earthly and desecrated life.