Updated May 2021

The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is a familiar story that appears in each of the four gospels. However, as I read it this year, in the midst of deep political and social unrest, it occupied my imagination in a new way and left me curious about the psychological and theological implications of a universal human emotion: disgust. Do we really see one another?

To summarize the scene, a woman enters the home of a Pharisee where Jesus is a guest and she anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and expensive ointment and dries them with her hair. The Pharisee is critical of the gesture and Jesus’ response. Matthew, Mark, and John’s gospels depict the offense as waste of a resource that could have benefited the poor. Luke’s gospel does something different with the story and places the offense around the label of “sinner.” In both cases what gets provoked in the Pharisee is the response of disgust.

Disgust Psychology

To explore the emotion further, I turned to Richard Beck’s book, Unclean, where he delves into the psychology of disgust and its impact on our morality and hospitality. Beck reminds us that while we come into the world prepared for the universal human emotion, much like language, disgust is socially and culturally shaped. The plasticity of our disgust response prepares us to fit into our cultural and environmental ecosystems. In other words, while all cultures exhibit disgust, different cultures have different stimuli/response pairings.

From a biological perspective, disgust is incredibly useful to keep us from ingesting something toxic. At its core, disgust is a response that deals with boundaries and governs the categories of “inside” and “outside.” Our response triggers a reflex when things should be avoided or forcefully expelled from our bodies. In Beck’s words, disgust can be quite “promiscuous,” attaching to any number of things beyond food. Where this becomes violently dangerous is when “people take the place of objects of expulsion” and we divide one another into “ingroups” and “outgroups.”

Boundaries & Your Brain

This made me wonder, what is going on in our brains as we react to people who have been placed in an “outgroup?” It turns out neuroscientist, David Eagleman asked this exact question. In his fascinating miniseries for PBS called The Brain, he highlights that we are social creatures and quite literally need one another to survive. Our brains aren’t just an interconnected network of neurons on their own, but are embedded in a network of other people’s brains. A huge amount of all that neural circuitry is dedicated to reading one another.

Our capacity to determine the internal state of another human being is facilitated by our mirror neurons. When we go to our favorite independent movie theatre, for example, our empathic response fires when we see someone fall in love or scream in pain. In fact, Eagleman suggests the same matrix of pain that tells us when we are hurting is used to tell us when someone else is hurting. This social feature of reading one another has allowed human beings to group together for survival, growth, and well-being. However, something can interrupt our neural response.

Eagleman devised an experiment to engage this question of how empathy is impacted by “ingroups” and “outgroups.”150 participants were shown images of 6 hands being injected with a needle. He then added a single word identifier to label each hand, in this case the religion of the person, and measured the neural response of the participants again. Eagleman found a trend that the pain matrix in the brain wasn’t responsive to the “outgroup,” but remained highly responsive to hands perceived as belonging to their “ingroup.” Even as little as that single word identifier was enough to elicit the discrepancy in response. The takeaway is simply the more “other” and “outside” a person is perceived to be, the less engaged our empathic response, and the easier it is to dehumanize them.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum affirms that our disgust mechanisms can create highly problematic social realities. Just as we might expel an object from the body, certain people or groups can be excluded and expelled from the community. She argues that often, “We need a group of humans to bound ourselves against who will come to exemplify the boundary between the truly human and the basely animal” (Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity, 107). In other words, when disgust transfers to people, we run into trouble with our making and maintaining of boundaries. The “other” can become less than human in our eyes.

Do You See This Woman?

If we run Luke’s account through this lens of disgust, the Pharisee is concerned less with the human being in front of him and more with a complex web of boundaries that encompassed food, gender, body, social status, sin, and religious purity. Jesus’ response provided an alternative model of intimacy that flew in the face of all that sociomoral disgust. Instead of chewing out the Pharisee, Jesus does that great rabbi thing. He asks a question and then tells a parable. He first turns to the Pharisee and asks, “Do you see this woman?”

It’s an odd question given that the focal point of the room has shifted to this unfolding drama. Of course he sees her; everyone can’t not see her. However, the presence of sociomoral disgust has changed his vision and connection to this human being who is an “other” to him in the categories his cultural context has shaped for him. He sees not her, but the representation of boundaries crossed. In the midst of his expulsion reflex to maintain purity, Jesus asks the Pharisee to please look again. His simple question provokes the idea that until we can see one another, we’re not going to understand the open table fellowship that Christ continually invites us into. Jesus’ question reverberates: “Do you see this person?”

What we do with disgust shapes what we do with our neighbors.

Becoming attentive to how our disgust is continually shaped by our sociocultural locations may be an important element of how we navigate the day, read the news, engage on social media, and talk to one another over coffee. We may all have different groups of people in mind that are triggering our disgust and our desire to differentiate, put up boundaries, and expel the “other.” Even still, what has been true for centuries remains true. Our survival still depends on seeing one another well, and making sure that people remain subjects in the unfolding story and not objects of disgust. Beck argues that the Eucharist itself engages the many categories of our disgust: food, hospitality, salvation, and the physical body. At the Eucharist table, we trade the model of expelling the other for a model of welcome. It is here that we exchange the words “get out” for the invitation of “come to the table.”

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Resources for Further Engagement

Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

The Brain with David Eagleman, PBS Series, 2015. (See particularly Episode 5, “Why do I Need You?”)

Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).