What I like about them, as Barry says, is that the new lens with which these images have been shot forces us to reappraise scenes from the gospels that have become over-familiar and domesticated. The story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet is shocking in many ways, and some of the problems with the gift exchanges associated with the story I touch upon in ‘Other‘:
Gift exchanges can very often be about displays of power, and Jesus understood this perfectly. In Luke 7 he is dining with a group of Pharisees who become embarrassed when a ‘sinful woman’ comes into the room and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, an expensive jar of perfume and her hair. The story is slightly problematic in that we read that the ‘Pharisee who had invited [Jesus] saw this and said to himself . . .’ and of course we have no way of knowing how Jesus heard what he’d said under his own breath. Even so, the dramatic intention is clear: ‘I came into your house,’ Jesus says to him, ‘You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet . . .’
What is important to note from this story, and others like it in the Gospels, is that Jesus understands that all gifts, even the absence of gifts in contexts where it would have been customary to expect them, carry cargo. That the Pharisee had not offered the customary foot wash or kissed greeting to Jesus when he entered his house is a powerful statement of his disregard for Jesus. Equally, the woman’s flamboyant offering is a powerful statement of her high regard for him. Both gifts say something about the perceived power-relations between the giver and receiver. The Pharisee wanted to be seen to be entertaining Jesus, so invited him to share food – yet his neglecting to offer the simple things of hospitality on Jesus’ arrival betrays his real motive. His gift of a meal to Jesus was loaded with cargo: I am wealthier than you and more important than you; I can afford to give food to a poor itinerant preacher, but I won’t pretend to really care about you.
The woman, on the other hand, clearly felt hugely indebted to Jesus, perhaps for his respectful treatment of her. Her tears are a gift welling up from within. Her hair, which in her line of work would have been integral to her need to be alluring, is sacrificed as a towel to dry a foot, and perfume which she could perhaps barely afford is poured out liberally. These gifts came loaded too, but their cargo speaks of poverty of spirit, rather than pride. Her sacrifice is genuine, for the passage tells us it comes from her love for another; the Pharisee’s ‘sacrifice’ is rejected, like Cain’s offering, because its voice sings only about himself.
Given that both gifts came with other cargo it is perhaps worth considering if, outside of the immediate context, Jesus would have been critical of both the Pharisee and the woman. We read at the beginning of Matthew 6:
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the syna- gogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Neither the Pharisee nor the woman did their giving in secret that night. One gave in the right spirit, yes, but both were very public displays of generosity. Is Jesus contradicting himself by not chastising the woman for following his teaching? If it would have been ungracious to point out the lack of secrecy in her giving, was it not also insensitive to embarrass the Pharisee in his own home?
I then go on to explore some of the difficulties associated with any sort of gift-exchange – and particularly the power-relations that inevitably come carried with them as ‘cargo.’ What philosophers such as Derrida have found is that the perfect ‘contentless’ gift is impossible to give. What our response to that fact is from there – should we just give up on giving? – is something that Jesus’ words and life-gift continue to challenge us with.