The Next-to-Last Supper

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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.

I thought of Deafy as I was going through Russ Ramsey’s Easter Week in Real Time readings. 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 acFt 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 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.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


18 Comments

  1. Sir Jonathan C. Andrews

    This reminds me of situations I’ve been in around new Christians. You know the ones that haven’t grown up around churches. They don’t know how to “act properly.” I have a friend named Ed who calls himself the nine and a half commandment breaker. Then he’ll say, “because the guy didn’t die.” Ed was hanging out with some Muslims recently in order to share Christ with them. When offered a cigarette he said, “well that’s not my brand but sure.” The next words out of his mouth were, “hey what do you believe about Jesus.” He makes me uncomfortable but he knows how to love people in a way that I don’t.

  2. Laura Peterson

    Glad to see a new post from Jonathan Rogers!

    I heard a sermon early on in Lent about this text, and it has kinda stuck with me all through the season. As I read about this woman and her “beautiful extravagance” again here, it reminded me of this line that I read last week, from “A Room with a View” (E.M. Forster):

    “No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time–beautiful?”

    Whoa. Yes. May we keep an eye open for beauty, even in things which are tacky and indelicate.

  3. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    In the picture, I love the dismissive hand gesture the guy on the left is making, and the smirk on his face–he’s obviously saying, “As if!” The guy behind him is all, “Oh, no you didn’t!” It’s also amazing, though, that the artist still gives both of them halos.

  4. Jaclyn

    I did too. Thank you.

    Whew… Finally, a sigh of relief from my attempts to button myself up too tightly, rather than simply honor the Christ who died for me.

  5. Karen Renee Powell

    Jonathon, your article brings out a mixed reaction in me. My church has often treated me with the same disdain that this woman received for her unconventional act. My attempts to apply God’s love to those who are considered unloveable by social standards has gotten me into hot water on many occasions. And to try to express a passionate love for Jesus is not understood by everyone, and can be received by others as sacrilegious. I have become timid of those who seem quick to criticize love outside the norms.

  6. KRF

    Jonathan, I have to say that the hand gesture from Jesus is a good response to those being made around him ~ one finger lifted, and with it you can see him say “wait, there’s more to the story” ~

    Karen, my first thought was a reaction similar to how you felt, but perhaps for different reasons. Being a member of the deaf community has given me a unique slant on being somewhat of an outcast, but it was a presentation of this very passage some years ago that lifted from me the weight of being different. Through the struggles as a deaf person in a hearing world to find my own place of worship, community, and service, I’ve also found that the opinions of those around me seem to mean less and less as I stay on the path that I feel God has called me to walk. I, too, have often found myself frantically treading in a very hot tub of water, but if I am being obedient in a Christ-like way, as Mary proved herself to be as she anointed Jesus, then the opinions of the critics mean nothing.

    I’d rather tick off a few pharisees here rather than have to explain to Him once I am there why I didn’t follow what He’d asked of me.

    The lyrics from “I Refuse” by Josh Wilson say it much better than I ever could.

    Laura, I just started “Room With a View” ~

  7. kerenee

    KRF – Thanks for you words of encouragement. I enjoyed the Josh Wilson’ song you suggested. Sometimes it “seems” easier to conform and not get in hot water. Lord knows that I am not perfect and face my own comfort zone limits. It’s just that I feel more authentic when I’m awkwardly refusing to follow the norms, and sharing God’s love with others.

  8. LauraP

    Jonathan! What a happy thing to find your post here today.

    Grateful to be reminded of God’s fondness for the not-quite-respectable.

  9. Sue

    Here is something on a possible meaning of Jesus’ hand gesture:
    The Greek Orthodox church began to make use of a symbol derived from a common abbreviation of the Greek version of Christ’s name. In this manifestation of the sign of blessing, the first finger is held erect, representing an ‘I’; the second is bent in the shape of a ‘C’; the thumb and third finger cross to form an ‘X’; and the pinky, like the second finger, curves into a ‘C’. Thus, the five digits together spell out “IC XC” an abbreviation of the Greek name of Jesus Christ, taken from the first and last letters of both parts of his name. (http://art-history.yoexpert.com/artists/what-is-the-significance-of-christ-s-hand-gesture-5016.html)

  10. James Witmer

    We are a beautiful letdown
    Painfully uncool
    The church of the dropouts
    The losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools
    (Switchfoot, “The Beautiful Letdown”)

    I am thankful Jesus makes space for the tacky, foolish and even judgmental. Otherwise, there would be no room for me…

  11. Peter B

    Late to my eyes, but nevertheless timely. Thank you, Jonathan; this was a needed reminder.

    (As an added bonus, you managed to work in a proper use of the word “prodigal” — this makes you my new linguistic hero.)

  12. Allan

    A very good reminder. I’m sure I would have been right there with Judas. “Tackiness is such a poor testimony, my dear!”

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