The Life of Christ

Mgr. Le Camus




JESUS, desirous of returning to Capharnaum, turned toward the shores of the lake and came to Magdala, a small borough about three miles north of Tiberias, at the entrance of the plain of Genesareth. The Mohammedan village of ElMegdel has retained with its poor huts only the name of ancient Magdala and, perhaps, the remains of the tower (Migdol) from which this name was derived. Yet its site, at the foot of a steep mountain, upon the lakeshore is very picturesque; and the imagination depicts with ease, even amid the hedges of thorny bushes, the gigantic nettles, the pools of water, and the black stones that now cover the soil, the gracious spectacle once presented in this favoured spot when countless brooks kept alive the fertile orchards, the flowers and fruits and the luxuriant vegetation, that made the land of Genesareth, as Josephus says, a veritable earthly paradise. Beneath a sky that will bear comparison with that of the tropics, amid a nature so beautiful, it is not surprising that morals were very lax. The Rabbis attribute the destruction of Magdala to the misconduct of its inhabitants.1

It was probably2 in this town that Jesus was invited to dinner by a Pharisee named Simon. Whether this man had been cured of some infirmity by The Saviour, as might be inferred from the conversation that followed, or had invited the Master to his house through curiosity or vain glory, it is not easy to say. Jesus accepted his invitation.

His reception was rude and scarcely civil. It was difficult for the ancient pride of Pharisaism to bend before one who used but little regard in treating with a sect as haughty as it was powerful. The master of the house failed to give the illustrious guest he received even the most ordinary marks of respect and friendship.

It was customary when entering a house as a guest, first to remove the shoes, almost as we remove our hats, and to leave them in the vestibule. The head of the family then kissed his guest upon the cheek, saying to him: "Peace be to you!" He then escorted him to a seat, and servants at once came to bathe his feet. In warm countries, where roads were thick with dust, this bath was most refreshing. In addition to this the Jews looked upon it as a rite of purification which was almost indispensable.

A special servant, or the master of the house himself, afterwards anointed with fragrant oil the hair and beard of him to whom welcome was accorded. Even today the Orientals sprinkle their guests with rosewater. And, finally, when the time came for the repast, the guest was given an opportunity to wash his hands. As we shall soon see, this ceremonial was neglected in great part in the reception given to Jesus.

In the meantime the company had seated themselves at table. Following a custom which has more than once afforded us interesting observations in our travels,3 the Orientals freely open the doors of the banquet hall to all the curious who desire to enjoy the sight of the feast. These come and go, and while there may listen to what is said, or even take part in the conversation. No doubt it is thought that the presence of these outsiders adds to the pleasure and the solemnity of the repast.

In the crowd that had followed Jesus into the Pharisee's house was a woman whose presence was something of a scandal in a respectable gathering. The unfortunate woman, led on, perhaps, by some one of those sudden, stupefying accidents that all at once cast a pearl amid the offal, had unconsciously reached the very bottom of the pit. A momentary weakness, during which woman is despoiled of that protecting halo called honour, nearly always leads to the greatest disorders. Family, friends, courage abandoning her, misery, passion, human brutality torturing her, all contribute to beat down the last ramparts that remain standing. The sinner here spoken of (who was, very probably, as we shall see later on, Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus) belonged to an honourable and wealthy family. Nothing had checked her debaucheries; she astonished the whole town by the story of her license. Prostituting her youth and her beauty, she had become, in the Evangelist's words, a public sinner, a harlot.4

What were the memories, what the remorse, what the discourses that succeeded in moving this soul in its abandonment? Had she heard on the Master's lips one of those merciful utterances capable of exalting our lives more surely than the threats of eternity? Had Jesus surprised her and reprimanded her in the very midst of her follies, in the filth of the public square, when the seven demons, the hideous symbol of all the vices, were tormenting her, and had He with a word put an end to their possession5 of her, by giving the wretched woman back to herself and to her bitter reflections? This latter is the best explanation6 of what follows, and the best means of understanding how, even before she had received forgiveness for her crimes, Magdalen already owed to Jesus a great debt of gratitude. It is certain that a deepfelt emotion had stirred her whole being. It is no rare thing, when virtue springs up again in contrite hearts, to see them attain all at once the limits of the most astounding heroism. To their repentance they bring the same intensity of passion they had brought to their crimes. The most profound humility, the most courageous love of God, the most pitiless hatred of self were all suddenly revealed in the poor woman's soul and inspired her conduct on this occasion.

Holding in her hands a box of ointment, one of the wonted accessories of a life as lawless as hers, amid the baleful smiles and humiliating words that greeted her as she passed, she broke through the crowd and reached the banquethall. On her brow the blush of shame had replaced the impudent stare of vice, her downcast eye was nothing bold, her gait was that of a victim advancing to the sacrifice. But her past had been so degrading that no one noticed her present change. Nothing is more painful, to one who has by force of energy effected one's own moral resurrection, than entrance among surroundings that are cold, sceptical, and licentious, where no credit is given for victory in the struggle, but where, rather, unfeeling and inconsiderate remarks drive one back again into the past from which he has completely emerged.

After the first movement of malignant surprise, as they beheld the woman approach Jesus, the company wondered what was going to happen. They were unaware that their Guest had already performed a service for her.

The ancients, it is well known, took their meals reclining, resting upon the left arm, while their unsandalled feet were concealed behind the triclinium. It was there, undetected by the Master's gaze, but beneath the eyes of all the assembly, that Magdalen fell upon her knees. Overwhelmed with sorrow, shame, and emotion, she had not the courage to utter a single word; but her love, her contrition, and her faith were spoken in her every act. Her eyes, which had once been guilty of so many evil glances, extinguishing what was left of their impure flame, had become like a twinfountain of tears religiously bedewing the Saviour's feet; her hair, which had once been the crown of her wicked vanity, and which was even yet redolent of luxuriousness, fell unkempt, as if to give emphasis to the public avowal of her misconduct;7 she used it to wipe the feet which she bathed with her tears. Her guilty lips were thus purified by contact with virginal flesh, and her heart was breaking in sobs of repentance and of love for God. Then she opened the box of ointment, fit symbol of her own soul, which with all its newly acquired virtues she was desirous of pouring forth with out reserve before Jesus, and she began to anoint His feet, clasping them the while most tenderly.

Such a manifestation of repentance must have been all the more astonishing to the assembly, since He to Whom it was made seemed absolutely insensible to it. In the proud, hard soul of the Pharisee it aroused only this unkind reflection: "If this man were a prophet, he would surely know who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner." The touch of a public sinner, according to the teaching of the Pharisees, was as foul as that of the leper.8 Such are the sad consequences of formalism! The only thought that strikes Simon before a spectacle so sublime is that the Master is in danger of contracting a legal impurity! A cutting criticism, at once of Jesus and of the heroic penitent, is all that he can find in his soul. As he imagines that the Master knows not what sort of creature the woman is, he must be taught that he does not know what manner of man he is himself. "Simon," said the Saviour, breaking the silence at last, "I have somewhat to say to thee." "Master, say it," responded the Pharisee. And after these phrases of mere civility, Jesus began. He desired to explain this woman's attitude by recalling that she was His debtor. For some reason, which we are not familiar with, Simon, also, was under obligations to Jesus; the indebtedness, however, was less than that of Magdalen. Hence the natural sense of the parable that follows. "A certain creditor had two debtors; the one owed five hundred pence, the other fifty. And whereas they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which, therefore, of the twain loveth him most?" Simon, answering, said: "I suppose he to whom he forgave most." And He said to him: "Thou hast judged rightly."9 From that moment the outburst of feeling on the part of the sinful woman is understood. It must be looked upon as the expression of great gratitude, which, upheld by her faith,10 now draws upon her another favour from Jesus.

For, as He turned toward Magdalen, pointing to her, at the same time, with a gesture of sympathy, He observed: "Dost thou see this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest Me no water for My feet; but she with tears hath washed My feet, and with her hair hath wiped them. Thou gavest Me no kiss, but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss My feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint, but she with ointment hath anointed My feet. Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much." There is the crowning grace of divine mercy. And, turning again to Simon, Jesus adds: "But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less." So it happens that those who have fallen low, by the very fact that they rise again through cooperation with a first grace, may in the outburst of their gratitude rise to sublime heights; while cold natures, because they are all but blameless, will remain fixed in their condition of halfvirtue. The lesson goes straight to the conscience of all those who look down upon sinners, and suspect not that by a movement of the soul these can rise on the wings of repentant love not merely to justice, but even to a perfection which they themselves may never attain. The mainspring of the moral and religious life being in the heart, he will approach the nearest to God who can, love the most. The point from which one starts matters little; the point reached is the thing to consider.

To Simon nothing is said of his own soul or of his need of spiritual regeneration. To the sinful woman Jesus addresses this consoling remark: "Thy sins are forgiven thee." She, therefore, is done with sin; the divine mercy with a word has effaced the whole shameful past that weighed down upon her head. Whom God pardons, shall men still blame? He it is Who had borne the offence; He it is Who, forgetting that same, enjoins upon all to think of it no more.

In this identification of Jesus with God Who forgives, there was an evident proof that personally He deemed Himself God like His Father, and those present, once again, were shocked. But He, unmoved, as if He heard not their murmurings, simply said to the humbled woman: "Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace."11

She is no longer the lost woman. Because she has believed, the Good Shepherd has taken her to Himself, has removed her outcast estate, has clothed her with new womanhood. On the firm ground of righteousness, where He has just established her, there is no more remorse for her, no more moral suffering, but the peace that comes of obedience and the joy of union with God. Magdalen having received the peace of the Lord, feels already springing in her heart a new life and a savour of unexpected chastity. Her happiness radiates from out her tears. "Go," the Master says; her love makes reply: "I will abide with Him Who hath given me life."

Magdalen, in truth, never after left Jesus' side. Through her sorrow and her virtues she became the blessed and saintly friend of her Saviour.


1 Echah Rabbathi, fol. 71, 4. and Taamit Hieros., fol. 69, 1: "Quare destructa, est Magdala? Propter scortationem."

2 In relating the story of the repentant sinner, St. Luke neglects to name the town where this touching scene was enacted and it is solely because of the identification of Magdalen as the sinful woman that the name of Magdala has been put forward. The reasons alleged to prove that the town was Naim or Capharnaum are not solid. The incident as found in St. Luke vii, 36, is altogether fragmentary, and has no connection with what precedes or what follows.

3 See Notre Voyage aux Pays Bibliques, vol. ii, p. 211.

4 The qualification amartwlos, which signifies a sinner of any kind whatever means, in the case of a woman, a courtesan or an adulteress, and especially is it so if there be no other designation. In reality a woman's great sin is either conjugal faithlessness or prostitution. And we need not hesitate to believe that the offences of this woman were as numerous as they were humiliating, since Jesus deliberately says of her: anths ai amartiai ai pollai, and Simon qualifies her misconduct as extremely scandalous. This, in fact, is the meaning of the words tis kai potaph h gunh.

5 St. Luke viii, 2.

6 The supposition that Jesus had delivered Magdalen from seven demons (St. Luke viii, 2) previous to the incident of the feast related in this chapter, logically follows, if we identify this illustrious friend of Jesus with the sinful woman. It cannot be admitted that a demoniac would have been capable of such a demonstration of repentance and of love. It follows then that her conduct during the feast was an act of gratitude. The guests, ignorant of her past, were shocked at her boldness and at Jesus' forbearance. It was then that Jesus, Whose habitual contention in the presence of the Pharisees was that there is no creature so deeply fallen that he cannot be restored by grace and be admitted into the kingdom of God, even before the children of Abraham, expounds to Simon the very appropriate parable of the two debtors. This simple woman owes to her deliverance from the seven demons (500 pence), the Pharisee was bound to Him by a smaller but undenoted service (50 pence). What a difference in attitude therefore on the part of both disciples toward the Master! The gratitude of Simon is a small matter, the devotion of Magdalen reaches the extreme limits of heroism. In a way, it was well for her to have fallen so low, since now she has a chance to rise again so high. For what is the issue of it all? The grateful love that Magdalen testifies for Jesus insures for her the pardon of her past sins. The wretched demoniac, who was delivered in body yesterday, regains today, together with purification of hersoul, the liberty of the children of God. Simon, who deems himself irreproachable, remains just where he had been in his pharisaical righteousness. For a first favour the one feels herself borne on to immense gratitude, the other shows but little emotion. The result will be that because of her great love, much will be forgiven to her, while for his indifference nothing is said of the other.

It is in this presentment of the facts that we must seek a satisfactory solution of certain difficulties found in the Gospel story. If it is not admitted that Jesus had been the benefactor of this sinner before the feast, we must logically conclude from the parable uttered by the Master that Magdalen loves because she is pardoned, and not, as Jesus clearly says later, that she is pardoned because she has loved. If the five hundred pence remitted represented, not the expulsion of the seven demons, but the remission of her sins, we must acknowledge that Magdalen's love is the consequence, not because, of her absolution. But, in that case, what shall we say of the explicit declaration on the part of Jesus: "Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much"? The cause of her pardon is clearly said to be her penitent love; her absolution is the consequence. For it is impossible to deprive the word dti of its sense of causality. The aorist hgaphse, besides, is there to imply that the love preceded the pardon, as a cause precedes the effect. There would, therefore, be a flagrant contradiction between Jesus' parable and His declaration if Magdalen had not been indebted to the Master previous to the feast. It disappears if she was already bound to Him.

It is to be regretted, no doubt, that St. Luke did not express all that was needed to clear away this difficulty. But we have here another instance of the great respect with which he treated the fragmentary narratives which were at hand in the preparation of his Gospel. The identification of Magdalen with the sinful woman was not in the narrative, and he was unwilling to insert it.

7 The priest loosened the Jewess' hair before making her drink the bitter water when she had been guilty of unchastity. In a country whose women always kept the head covered, unkempt hair was a sign of great humiliation or of profound grief. Cf. in the Talmud, Sot., f. 5, 1; III Macc., i, 9. Profane history relates, also, of pagan women, that in times of public calamity they went to wash with their tears and to wipe with their hair the threshold of the temples, and that the master at times wiped his hands in the hair of the slaves who served him.

8 "Quanto spatio a meretrice recedendum est? R. Chasda respondet: Ad quatuor cubitos." Schoettgen, Hor. Hebr., i, p. 348.

9 This word of the Master, orqws ekrinas, recalls the panu orqws of the Socratic Dialogues.

10 From verse 50, it is evident that for Magdalen faith was the first element of salvation; love was the second.

11 To insist on identifying this account with St. Matth. xxvi, 6; St. Mark xiv, 3; St. John xii, 4, is to lose sight of those differences of place, time, and persons which forbid us to consider as one two distinct anointings. The present one, it is true, is given by St. Luke alone, while he, in turn, passes over those of the other three. In St. Luke's account we are in Galilee, almost at the beginning of the Messianic ministry, and the woman in the scene is a stranger to the house Simon supposes that she is unknown to Jesus of unsavoury reputation in the town, inspiring the guests with scorn. Later we shall be at Bethany in Judea at the gates of Jerusalem, within six days of the fatal Passover, and the anointing will be done in quite a different manner, by a person whom Jesus knew because He had received hospitality at her house, and who, besides, appeared to be at the banquet as if in her own home with the members of her family. Finally and most important of all, the results of the two anointings are very dissimilar. In the first, the Master grants a solemn pardon to a bravely repentant sinner. In the second, He praises a friend, and announces His own approaching death.

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