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The Protagonist Syndrome

We are ego-centric creatures. And maybe it’s not our fault—we constantly perceive the world through our own emotions, thoughts, and feelings. No wonder it’s hard to be truly empathetic to another human being. No wonder it’s such a breakthrough when you do connect to someone else’s experiences.

Going off my last post about reading Scripture for the simple enjoyment of it, I also wanted to share some thoughts around the ways we do read Scripture. Who are the characters that we focus on? Resonate with? Strive to learn from or identity with?

Maybe it’s not always the person we should be focusing on.

I realized this when I was reading through Luke 7 this morning. It’s the story of Jesus being anointed by the woman with the alabaster jar:

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[c] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said 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. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

And I realized that I immediately (and subconsciously) put myself in the shoes of Simon. My takeaway thought: Jesus loves those who have “bigger” debts. In another gospel telling of this, I remember the disciples objecting to such expensive perfume being “wasted” on Jesus instead of it being sold and given to the poor—that would have been my same objection, had I been in their shoes. As a character in the story, I would have been reprimanded: Jesus honors those who love him extravagantly, even excessively.

And then I realized afterwards, why did I automatically put myself in the story in the shoes of the disciples, or of Simon? Was I so desperate to have gleaned some “truth” or “moral” from this passage that my mind automatically went to the characters that had to “learn” something from Jesus? Do I read the bible only as a cautionary or instructional text?

That’s a dangerous way to approach the Holy Scriptures. And I think it’s because we’re all self-centered creatures who usually think about ourselves all day long. When we interact with stories or words, we usually think: “how is this relevant to me?” “Why should I pay attention to this?” “What do I need to remember or learn from this?” We’re always the protagonist in our own lives, so it makes sense that when we read a story, we often resonate most deeply with the character that is mentioned the most, or told mostly from their point of view.

I tried to imagine this passage told from a different point of view:

I heard that Jesus was in town, and that Simon was having him over for dinner. He was well known in town and hosted people over for dinner regularly. He openly announced and invited the dinner, and though something inside me was longing to go, I knew I couldn’t. I was too ashamed—what would people think and say of me? We know who you are and what you’ve done, they would probably think. You don’t belong here, in this kind of space.

But at last I gathered my courage and went anyway. I could scarcely believe I might have the chance to meet this powerful prophet. I thought about what I could bring to make my presence worthwhile, so I took my whole savings and bought an expensive gift–maybe that would redeem me. When I showed up at the party, I could swear Simon gave me a dirty look even as I walked in through the door. But the prophet, this Jesus—everything I had heard about him was true. He had kind eyes. He spoke with compassion and yet also authority. In the evening, something came over me and I found myself compelled to go up to him. I wanted to say something, but I was too ashamed–so I approached him from behind.

Tears were falling from my face before I reached him. I fell at his feet and sobbed, so consumed by my misery and yet equally, a longing that rose up inside of me. He turned and helped me up. He graciously accepted the gift in my hands and looked me in the eye. He thanked me in front of everyone, and suddenly my entire heart went warm.

I could tell from the way Simon was looking at me that he was hating me in that moment. I was used to being judged by others, but I even I felt I had overstepped my bounds. People exchanged knowing glances around the room. Some even showed outright disgust. I felt the shame inside me again—what had I done? I had flaunted myself and inconvenienced the entire party. People were grumbling at the interruption.

Jesus turned and addressed Simon directly. He told him a parable. In the parable both a person with lesser debt and a person with greater debt were forgiven. Who would be more grateful? He asked. I suppose the one with greater debt, Simon answered, though his face looked taut and strained. I couldn’t tell if it was a reprimand, or had some deeper meaning and context beyond me, but Jesus spoke measuredly and forcefully. He looked back at me. You are the one with greater debt, he said. And you have been forgiven by your faith.

A flicker of hope burst inside of me. This man saw me. This powerful prophet knew my plight. He didn’t toss me beneath his feet or point at me with accusation. In the same way he took my gift in his hands, he received and accepted me. He acknowledged my dirty self, the self I didn’t even want to look at myself, the self that I took such pains to hide away from others. The dinner continued on. But as I left that night, though mostly unchanged…I felt at peace.

Of course, this was just an exercise in my imagination. But even in writing it, and imagining a different way the story could have been told, I have a different reaction. The way I associate myself to the story depends on whom I deem to be the most important in the story. My mind has been trained to relate to the character that is mentioned most, so by making the woman the protagonist, I’m more able to vividly imagine her encounter with Jesus here. I feel like I’m able to lean into the story a little more rather than just jumping off with a conclusion.

I think that’s how we normally proceed throughout life. Other people’s words and actions are usually just ingested as information. What would happen if we started seeing other people as the protagonist, rather than ourselves? What if we interpreted the Bible throughout the eyes and experiences of the secondary, lesser-mentioned characters?

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