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A Teeny, Tiny Review: Julie M. Smith, Search, Ponder, and Pray

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 12, 2011

Julie M. Smith, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels. New York: Universe, Inc., 2003.

This maybe doesn’t count as a review, even a teeny, tiny one. Mostly it’s an appreciation for an insight found while preparing for tomorrow’s Sunday School lesson (#10: “Take My Yoke Upon You, and Learn of Me”) (my ward might be behind yours; we’ve already had both ward and stake conferences this year) (and I don’t get to teach any more, but I can still prepare, can’t I?) (and is this a record for serial parentheticals?).

Julie Smith – yes, Julie Smith of Times and Seasons – uses questions to engage a reader with the content of the New Testament Gospels. She offers no answers, just a list of questions to accompany each story or sermon in the Gospels. It’s impossible to read any page of Search, Ponder, & Pray with your mind on autopilot, because unless you take a stab at answering the questions yourself, there is really no point in reading.

The questions are most emphatically not the typical questions of the lesson manuals. There are no “and what happened next?” questions, and no “and how can we apply this in our own lives?” questions, either. Instead, she asks you, the reader, to explain the scriptures to yourself. “Is this verse talking about X, or about Y? Does it change your understanding of the passage if you think it’s X instead of Y?” “Compare this verse with Verse Z. How are they different? What does that difference mean?” Using this book has made me a better teacher by causing me to ask better questions during class discussions. It’s made me a better reader of the scriptures by training me to ask similar questions as I study.

Once in a while, Julie offers an insight from her reading of non-scriptural books, and asks the reader whether she agrees or not, and why. It’s one of those insights that I never would have come across on my own that provoked this shout-out.

Our Sunday School Lesson #10 covers Luke 7:36-50. That passage begins,

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment …

The woman, who is never named, anoints Jesus’ feet with that ointment, wets his feet with her tears and dries his feet with her hair. Jesus uses the occasion to teach the Pharisee and his company about forgiveness, and asserts his own right to forgive sins.

Then Julie quotes Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part?: Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996):

It is curious that although the text does not say what sort of sins the woman had committed, much attention is given to speculation on the nature of her sinful past. By contrast, commentators never discuss what might be the type of sins Simon Peter has committed when he says he is a “sinful man” in the story of his call.

That call is in Luke 5:8:

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

Hunh, I thought. Never thought of that. But she’s right. I know exactly what everybody assumes is the past of the unnamed woman, yet it never occurred to me to think that Peter had been a tomcat in his pre-disciple days, or wonder at all about the nature of his sins.

I have a row of books that I check, one after another, when I’m preparing a block of scripture for a lesson. I don’t check them in any particular order, and they don’t always go back on the shelf in the same order. But I was glad that Julie’s Search, Ponder, & Pray happened to be at the end of the row this time.

The next volume I picked up was Bruce R. McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary. I don’t find it very useful as a matter of course, because he doesn’t really explicate the scriptures. He merely uses some phrase or idea in a scriptural story to launch into a sermon that may or may not really be based on the story (in this case, most of his commentary is about how the unnamed woman must have been baptized by one of Jesus’s disciples, because baptism, of course, is a prerequisite to the forgiveness granted by Jesus. Okay, whatever.) but I’m in the habit, still, of checking that book just to see what he says. His relevant note reads:

A woman] Not Mary Magdalene and not Mary of Bethany [scripture citations for similar anointings of Jesus by named women omitted], both of whom were righteous women of good character. A sinner] Presumably an unvirtuous woman.

Next on the shelf was James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. Talmage comments on the story under question:

The name of the woman who thus came to Christ, and whose repentance was so sincere as to bring to her grateful and contrite soul the assurance of remission, is not recorded. There is no evidence that she figures in any other incident recorded in scripture. By certain writers she has been represented as the Mary of Bethany who, shortly before Christ’s betrayal, anointed the head of Jesus with spikenard; but the assumption of identity is wholly unfounded, and constitutes an unjustifiable reflection upon the earlier life of Mary, the devoted and loving sister of Martha and Lazarus. Equally wrong is the attempt made by others to identify this repentant and forgiven sinner with Mary Magdalene, no period of whose life was marked by the sin of unchastity so far as the scriptures aver.

Next on the shelf was Daniel H. Ludlow’s A Companion to Your Study of the New Testament. His only commentary on this passage is … to quote both Bruce R. McConkie and James E. Talmage.

So, yeah. If my mind hadn’t already been pointed toward unchastity as the unnamed sinfulness, pointed there by years of assumptions in other Sunday and seminary and institute classes, it certainly would have gone that way after checking the only LDS commentaries I have. Not that the gentile commentaries are any better – the first one I picked up, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, heads this section of its discussion with “The Pharisee and the Loose Woman.”

After laying all that out, I still can’t tell you why I appreciated so much the observation – very obvious, in hind sight – that the scripture doesn’t identify the nature of her sins. Is it the novelty of a new idea? a new understanding of a familiar story? an appreciation of fairness for an unknown, long-dead sister whose reputation remains sullied by “an unjustifiable reflection”? a lively bit of cynicism over the confirmation that men, even men in the scriptures, are spared the assumptions and judgments that women have to be so careful to guard against where our own reputations are concerned?

Whatever is the exact source of my appreciation, this was worth the purchase price. But then, I say that almost every time I use Julie’s book. It’s a gem.



20 Comments »

  1. You don’t get to teach anymore? Sad for your class. :-(

    Comment by Paul — March 12, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  2. Julie’s book is absolutely terrific; thanks for highlighting it for those who may not have seen it. I wish I had her talent for asking searching questions.

    As it so happens, I’m teaching this lesson tomorrow. I knew the nature of the woman’s sin wasn’t mentioned, but it hadn’t occurred to me that we assume we know what it must have been, but make no such assumption in the case of Peter. That is indeed a profound observation; if I have occasion, I’ll mention it.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 12, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Thanks, Ardis!

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — March 12, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

  4. Actually, McConkie’s and Talmage’s assumptions about the nature of the woman’s sins are simply parroting a longstanding (very longstanding—medieval, at the very latest) tradition.

    That said, i’ll note that i’ve run across a number of speculations of what sins made Peter a “sinful man”. Very few if any are from the Mormon tradition, though, and i suspect that that’s the result of the strong belief in Mormon culture that someone can’t become an apostle or prophet if one has serious sins in one’s past.

    Comment by David B — March 12, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

  5. What speculations have you seen, David? I’ve got eight non-LDS-oriented references here, and the only one that discusses it at all is the Harper Collins Study Bible, which turns Peter’s sinfulness on its head, turning it into a sign of his righteousness: “Peter’s recognition of being a sinful man indicates his sense of divine presence.”

    Incidentally, the references that try to give some rationale for their assertions of the woman’s unchastity stretch so far as to say that the ointment she used on Jesus’s feet was a perfume, and perfumes were often used by prostitutes.

    Seriously, I’d be interested in a citation to any source (LDS or non) that speculates about the nature of Peter’s sinfulness.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 12, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

  6. Tangential, but you really made me laugh with this line, Ardis:

    The next volume I picked up was Bruce R. McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary. I don’t find it very useful as a matter of course, because he doesn’t really explicate the scriptures. He merely uses some phrase or idea in a scriptural story to launch into a sermon that may or may not really be based on the story

    Comment by Ziff — March 12, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

  7. Yeah … I suppose I’m piling on BRM again with that … I haven’t given up on him entirely, but I’m more and more frustrated with his style. That style is, I think, why we have moved so heavily toward proof texting as compared to lessons from earlier in the 20th century. He doesn’t usually support his assertions with appeals to the scriptures or even other latter-day teachers. He just asserts. People who find any understanding from his writings have to quote him and no one/nothing else, because there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot but himself supporting his statements. (Who else could read “baptism” in this story of the woman and Jesus??)

    But at least it made you laugh!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 12, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  8. I thought your “Okay, whatever.” was pitch perfect.

    Comment by smb — March 12, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

  9. Ardis, Thanks, these are questions I hadn’t considered. I’ve always been taught the same things you have and from the same books. I never paused to consider the alternatives.
    Also, good pitch for JMS book.

    Comment by mmiles — March 13, 2011 @ 12:51 am

  10. Thanks, Ardis. I love Julie and her writing. This sounds like a book that I need to buy!

    Comment by meems — March 13, 2011 @ 2:22 am

  11. The comparison of this woman and Peter is along the lines of the (should be) obvious question where the woman caught in adultery was to be stoned: Why weren’t they stoning her partner too? Didn’t the law apply to him as well?

    I don’t know where I got it, but at some point over the years, I picked up the idea that “sinner” in NT times could have meant anyone who didn’t follow all the minutiae of the Mosaic law, such as the dietary code, but also including the many rabbinical restrictions added thereto, such has how many steps one could travel on the sabbath.

    In other words “sinner” doesn’t necessary mean someone who is breaking one of the 10 commandments.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 13, 2011 @ 4:13 am

  12. I taught this lesson today and shared your insights. Comments were made that if she was “known” as a sinner, then some type of sexual sin would have been the number one candidate. Another comment was made that being a “tomcat” was de rigueur for the life of a fisherman. (I know. Lame.)

    A couple of the sisters in the class were a bit emotional over the fact that the true hero of the story – the courageous one – would be identified as a pariah.

    Comment by reed russell — March 13, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  13. p.s. Thanks for offering these insights and comments, Ardis. They provided good fodder for an important discussion.

    Comment by reed russell — March 13, 2011 @ 11:39 am

  14. Thanks for this, Ardis, we had this lesson today and the teacher quoted the McConkie theory of the woman’s prior baptism, which had me puzzled and going through the verses in question trying to find any foundation for that (there was, as you point out, none whatsoever; I’m glad it’s not just me then!). I’ll certainly try and get hold of a copy of Julie Smith’s book.

    Comment by Alison — March 13, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  15. I definitely will print out this post, and the comments, and put with my file on Gospel Doctrine Class, NT, in case I get asked to teach GD again. I want to get a copy of Julie Smith’s book too.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — March 13, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  16. Actually, i don’t know of any speculations on Peter’s sinfulness in published works (though i have a couple of likely places i’d look, if my religion library wasn’t mostly packed away in hopes of moving to a place with more shelf space later this year)—my exposure to mainstream Xian thoughts on that subject comes mostly from years misspent on USENET alt.religion.* newsgroups back in the nineties and naughties.

    Comment by David B — March 13, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

  17. I need to get a copy of Julie Smith’s book!

    Comment by Steve — March 14, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  18. All you shoppers in the market for Julie’s book: the book’s title in the very first line of this post is a link to the Amazon page for Search, Ponder, & Pray

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 14, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  19. This reminds me a little of a time when I was helping to teach a member on my mission. My companion began a long diatribe about how wicked Enos had been, much to my shock.

    Although I have never met the Savior myself, from the accounts of those in scripture who have, I suspect that meeting Him with a Spiritual testimony of who He is brings with it a very real and acute understanding of sin (as in JSH 1:28, or Alma 36, as well as the scriptures cited in your original post.)

    It is not beyond reason that Peter’s declaration of sin, as well whatever moved this woman to the actions she took towards Jesus, was brought about by a sudden awareness of things previously not considered. As Bookslinger points out, her sins could have been anything, possibly even a ritual uncleanness similar to that of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus (which would explain the contagion aspect). After all, she was in this Pharisee’s house to begin with, possibly part of his household.

    We mortals like to speculate about relative degree of sin. I find it interesting that Jesus never disputes that this woman had grievously sinned. But most especially, I find it poignant that it doesn’t matter how much sin she has, it was all forgiven by Him.

    And that Christ used this very evocative and personal moment to testify to the Pharisees of His own divinity.

    Comment by SilverRain — March 14, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

  20. The phrase Luke uses to describe her as a, “woman in the city” seems to infer that her fame preceded her, thus Simon’s assumption that Christ could not be a prophet, for not only did he not foresee it as God would, but he didn’t even pick up on the common knowledge of everyone in town. Now, the nature of the sin is not stated, so it’s just as likely she was a tax collecter or shepherdess as a prostitute. Basically, Simon was saying, “everybody knows what sort of person she is!”

    Ironically, the Pharisee’s attitude is the same we seem to adopt. “Well, everyone knows she was a prostitute, duh!” I find it tremendously fascinating how we seem to self-identify with the righteous int he scriptures, but more often we’re really like the people being condemned. I think that’s an important aspect of “likening” the scriptures unto ourselves. Yes, we can put our names in for peter or the woman, but we can also replace Simon the Pharisee with “Me the Pharisee”.

    If we put ourselves in the right shoes here we can begin to see that the Savior was teaching how far from useful our classifications of people are. He’s showing that they’re a distraction from the true need, and that is of faith and forgiveness.

    Comment by Gdub — March 14, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

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