Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible by Chester Brown and published by Drawn & Quarterly carries a title that might make it seem like a doctoral thesis. With a four-page bibliography and some forty pages of notes, it certainly is worthy of one. However, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is far more palatable of a study thanks to its portrayal of biblical stories in a collection of comics.
The art in the comics is what first strikes readers. Brown’s rounded characters are reminiscent of the art of ‘zines in the Eighties and Nineties, somehow innocent and gritty at the same time. There is an added flair from Brown’s eye with a keen use of innovative angles, close-ups, and title-cards to keep the stories quickly paced while the characters themselves are largely in stationary, almost thoughtful, poses. The backgrounds and character designs alike are rich with detail, contrasting white space with thorough inking and crosshatching.
Just like the art with its frank juxtaposition of innocence and grit, the content of Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is profound with bluntness. Many of the stories are those heard in Sunday schools all over the world: the spies of Israel hiding out at the house of Rahab in Jericho, Ruth finding her kinsman redeemer, and the affair between King David and Bathsheba, which results in the orchestrated death of her husband Uriah. Some of the tales have a bit of a twist different from most tellings, and Brown defends his artistic choices with rigorous linguistic and anthropological study.
One of the most fascinating arguments comes from the usage of the term “feet” among the ancient Hebrews as a euphemism for male genitalia. The thought perhaps makes the story of Ruth more understandable as she uncovers the sleeping Boaz’s feet to inspire him to marry her, often portrayed as a display of romantic care while it just as arguably could have been seduction. This line of thought, of course, may paint a very different picture of the anointing of Jesus by Mary Magdalene where she washes his feet with her tears, kisses them, dries them with her hair, and pours expensive perfume upon him.
The overall theme of Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is to turn traditional thinking on its head, portraying God as desiring humans to go beyond the law and live full lives rather than being Puritanical sticklers. This is illustrated from the beginning with God’s favor toward Abel’s animal sacrifice even though Cain holds that man should only harvest what grows from the ground. The parable of the prodigal son fits perfectly into this portrayal as the son is welcomed home with a feast after spending all of his inheritance on prostitutes and drink. Another parable, that of the ten talents, is rewritten following an old Aramaic version with similar reward going to the servant who spent all he was entrusted with.
Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising, brow-furrowing read. Many may disagree with Brown’s discussion, but his thorough academic study gives it great clout, and he welcomes the conversation in his afterword. He sets the thematic stage with a quote from Jesus (himself quoting Psalms), “Bring me the stone the builders discarded. That one will be the key,” which is a clear reminder that, for all the stigma of prostitution, God used and blessed many prostitutes in His works.
A bonus comic of Job in the notes section reminds readers to keep an open mind. After Job’s life is destroyed and his family killed seemingly out of punishment even though he is blameless, he and his friends struggle to make sense of it until God shows the utter ignorance of mankind, “Where were you when I created the world? … Do you question My judgment?” Thus Brown creates a fascinating and positive depiction of the world’s oldest profession.