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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Spy Wednesday

Fr. Scott A. Haynes


A Meditation for Holy Week 

“Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee”



Peter Paul Rubens, Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, (1618-1620)

 

As we speak, we are in the middle of Holy Week. It is “Spy Wednesday.” According to Sacred Scripture, Judas arranged his betrayal of Jesus with the Temple Priests on this day (Matthew 26:14-25). It was on “Spy Wednesday” that there was a feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). This, then, is a fitting occasion for us to consider the painting by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) entitled, Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee.


The Bible recalls how Jesus and His disciples were invited by Simon the Pharisee for a dinner at his house (Luke 7:36-50). We are not told in plain terms why the Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him. The envy and cunning which characterized the Pharisees leads us to be unduly suspicious that there may have been evil motives behind this invitation. The narrative, however, shows that his motives were somewhat akin to those of Nicodemus. He wished to investigate the character and claims of Jesus and was influenced more by curiosity than by all Pharisees were not equally bitter (John 7:45-52). But he desired to avoid in any way compromising himself, so he invited Jesus to his house, but carefully omitted all the ordinary courtesies and attentions which would have been paid to an honored guest. Jesus accepted the invitation, for it was his custom to dine both with Pharisees and publicans, that he might reach all classes of men.

 

As we consider Rubens’ concept of this scene in Simon’s house, the artist has divided the painting in two parts. We behold Simon the Pharisee on the left. He and his cohort represent material values and religious dogmatism. Surrounding him there is much activity. By contrast, on the right is Christ. Our Lord stands for a world of mercy, forgiveness, charity, and goodness. He is surrounded by calm.


Rubens shows many servants in Simon’s house. They are bringing in the food to the Pharisees amid a conversation. The woman, who is the catalyst for the conversation, is kneeling at Christ’s feet. As was typical in Biblical times, the men reclined on cushions (as seen in the painting). As is evident, Rubens was influenced by Italian masters of the Renaissance, spending time especially studying Michelangelo, but the Baroque style predominates here, as our artist moves the action to the forefront and intensifies the scene.


The woman is set apart by the white tablecloth, a symbol of purity. This contrasts with the sinfulness of the woman. By her partially exposed breast (as her dress is falling from her shoulder) we take it that her sin is that of impurity. In the community, the men all know this woman as a fallen woman (perhaps a prostitute).


In the painting, we see there is a noticeable conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The world of the Pharisees is dominated by wealth. They are well dressed in furs. They are men who are full of corruption. The disciples, along with Jesus, are poor. They depict love, grace, and simplicity. The left side of the painting is contrasted with that of the right. This depicts the conflict effectively. Additionally, we notice that there is much tension with the activity of the servants. We see a servant holding a platter with a peacock, a symbol of immortality and eternal life. With the events of Christ’s Passion beginning to unfold, the glory of Christ’s Resurrection seems distant, and so Rubens puts the peacock far in the background.


The pharisees were powerful religious leaders. The first pharisee dressed in blue, Simon, seems curious about Christ. The pride of his heart is evident in his face and posture. He has not extended Christ common courtesy, though he is the host for this gathering, taking place in his own home. He is reluctant to associate with Christ since the other pharisees are in various states of assessing Christ.  


The pharisees to his left, dressed in blue and red, are whispering to each other. They stare intently at Jesus and seem to be plotting, having passed moral judgement on Jesus already. They are angry and plotting against the Lord. The man in the middle, donned in furs, seems quite smug. He is watching Christ and wonders about these unimportant fishermen. The disciples, seated next to Christ, are an odd mix. One is staring at us, the viewers. The others are wondering what the Lord is doing by allowing this woman to anointing Jesus’ feet.


The guests at this dinner are reclined at table, as was the custom in Biblical times. While the old Jewish method of eating was to sit cross-legged on the floor or on a divan, the Persians, Greeks, and Romans reclined on couches, and the Jews, after the Babylonian exile, borrowed this custom. So, Jesus reclined at table along with the disciples and pharisees in the house of Simon.


The primary interest in this scene is the woman “who lived a sinful life.” She has arrived at Simon’s house with an alabaster box of expensive perfume. The woman, strongly feeling the contrast between the sinlessness of Jesus and her own sin-stained life, could not control her emotions. The tears poured down in a flood upon Our Savior’s naked feet, as she bent down to kiss them; and deeming them rather fouled than washed by this, she hastened to wipe them off with the only towel she had, the long tresses of her own hair. She thus placed her glory at her Master’s feet (1 Corinthians 11:15), after which she poured perfume on them (Luke 7:38).


Public opinion widely held that Jesus was a prophet (Luke 7:16), and Simon, from the Pharisee’s standpoint, feared that it might be so; and therefore, felt great satisfaction in obtaining this evidence which he accepted as disproving the claims of Jesus. He judged that if Jesus had been a prophet, He would have both known and repelled this woman. He would have known her because discerning of spirits was part of the prophetic office, especially the Messianic office (Isaiah 11:2-4; 1 Kings 14:6; 2 Kings 1:1-3; 2 Kings 5:26;  John 2:25).


In Simon’s mind, Christ should have repelled her because, according to the Pharisaic tradition, her very touch would have rendered Jesus ritually unclean. Furthermore, the Pharisees, according to later Jewish writings, forbade women to stand nearer to them than four cubits, despite the warning of God (Isaiah 65:5). Thus reasoning, Simon concluded that Jesus had neither the knowledge nor the holiness which are essential to a grasp the truth that it was as wonderful condescension for Christ to sit at his board as it was to permit this sinner to touch him. Jesus heard Simon’s thoughts and answered them. Simon called Jesus “Teacher,” little thinking how fully Jesus was about to vindicate the justice of the title, thus given Him in compliment.


We can easily fall into the error of Simon the Pharisee and succumb to our own prideful arrogance. We can categorize people by their sin and judge them. We disassociate ourselves from others because, in pride, we are dismissive of others. As the woman who anoints Jesus is held up as a model of a penitent, she is held up before these prideful men. He shows a simple and contrite heart pleases God. If we value what Christ values, we will open ourselves to having hearts open to forgiveness. We will strive to not label people according to their own failings.


Simon the Pharisee criticized Christ for allowing a sinful woman to touch Him and for allowing the waste of a valuable perfume.  Christ responded to Simon: “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. 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. You did not put oil on My head, but she has poured perfume on My feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:44-47). To the sinful woman Christ responded with the words “Thy sins are forgiven...Thy faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:48-50).

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