One of the trips Caroline and I took when we visited Alaska recently was to visit the old gold-rush town of Skagway. We took a bus up in the mountains, and then came down on an old-fashioned train – the views were impressive, even though it rained most of the time.
On our arrival back into the town, we were taken to ‘Liarsville’, where after a salmon bake we were watched a melodrama, where two women whose breasts were only just contained in their outfits exchanged a series of lewd jokes about the prostitutes and brothels of that time. We had the old brothel spouts’ joke: ‘What do you call a child born in a whorehouse?’ – ‘A brothel sprout of course!’ I seemed to be the odd man out – almost everybody fell about laughing, but for me it was akin to the lavatory humour familiar from school days.
But the tour was not complete. We were then taken to the Red Onion, the local brothel museum. A weary minister could wander into the Red onion for a taste of ‘liquid courage’. Then, when the time came to cure his thirst for some ‘love’, he would chose from ten dolls that represented the ten girls upstairs. As each customer would choose a doll of his choice, the bartender would then lay the doll on her back, indicating that the girl was ‘busy’. Once the ‘client’ had come back down the stairs, the doll was sat upright so that every customer in the bar knew what she was once again available. All very interesting, you might say, but in fact the young woman leading us round the various rooms in the brothel kept up a running commentary of innuendo which again everybody else seemed to find funny beyond.
Most of the people we were with were from the USA. Bearing in mind the sexual peccadillos displayed by people like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, as also the fact that among American clergy pornography is a major issue, I wondered whether some Americans have yet to grow up. It is not that I am a prude – there are ‘rude’ jokes which make me smile too. However, I was saddened that the presentation of life at the time of the Klondike gold rush was so unbalanced. Yes, of course, there were some women who followed men to the gold rush with the specific intention of selling themselves. But the reality is that there were also women who turned to prostitution out of desperation – when they had exhausted all other options and this was the only way to survive. Venereal disease was rife – and conceiving a child in such a situation must for most have been a disaster.
My mind went to Jesus, who went out of his way to befriend prostitutes of his day (see Luke 7.34; Matt 11.19). In this context Luke went on to tell of the occasion when “a woman was a sinner” (Luke 7.37) gate crashed a dinner that a Pharisee was putting on for Jesus. Although Luke does not use the term, almost certainly she was a prostitute. She certainly seemed to act like a prostitute. She let her hair down in public, an act in those days deemed not just shameful, but seductive. Then she anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, kissing them repeatedly, and drying them with her hair. In another context this would have been an erotic act, but as her tears showed, this was not the case. Yet the Pharisee didn’t see her devotion. All he saw was a notorious prostitute. He said to himself “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v39). She was everything he was not. As befitted their name (‘a separated one’), Pharisees did their best to separate themselves from the world and its sin. They sought to be paragons of virtue. They accepted the teaching of the Book of Sirach, written some 100 years before Jesus’ birth: “No one pities a person who associates with a sinner and becomes involved in the other’s sins” (Sir 12.14); “What does a wolf have in common with a lamb? No more than a sinner with the devout” (Sir 13.17); “A prostitute is regarded as spittle” (Sir 26.22). Simon was appalled by this woman – but not Jesus. Jesus thought that holiness was stronger and more contagious than sin. Although he did not approve of sin in any shape or form, Jesus never rejected the sinner: he embraced the sinner. I love the question Jesus asked of Simon: “Do you see this woman?” (v44) All Simon could see was a prostitute, but Jesus saw a woman who was of value to God – and a woman in whom God was at work.
Jesus wouldn’t have laughed at the plight of the prostitutes of his day. He probably saw them as woman trapped by the narrow-minded legalism of their day. For although in theory prostitute could be made clean by repentance, purification and atonement, her ill-gotten gains could not be used to pay the bill. So she stood no chance: she was trapped in disgrace and condemnation. But Jesus refused to conform to the norms of his day. He offered acceptance, he offered hope. We who follow Jesus should do the same.