Dear brothers and sisters,
The good news this morning is a long reading from Luke 7:36-50.
A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my fee with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
To me this is one of the loveliest stories in the gospels. It is relatively long and, thus, full of details. It humanizes all the characters, treats them gently instead of as adversaries. Most importantly, it illustrates the power of forgiveness, the power of love.
In Mark’s and Matthew’s telling of this story, Simon was a leper. Other guests were indignant at the wastefulness of the perfumed oil, which Jesus told them was in anticipation of preparing his body for burial. There is nothing of forgiveness or that she was a known sinner. Mark, Matthew and John all include the oft-repeated verse, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” Interestingly, John places this story in the home of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. It is Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet and Judas who protests the extravagance.
Barclay reminds us that the Pharisees were largely a wealthy class of people; they were part of the elite. A well-to-do man like Simon would typically have had a home with an open inner courtyard in which meals would be taken when the weather was nice. It was customary when a rabbi was invited to dine that people in town were free to enter the courtyard and listen to him. This seems to be the situation here. Apparently, there were a number of guests and people coming in and out so that the arrival of this woman didn’t at first capture Simon’s attention.
When a guest entered a house, the host traditionally put his hands on his guest’s shoulders and gave him the kiss of peace. Since the roads were unpaved, cool water was poured over the feet to wash and soothe. Rose water or some perfumed oil would be used to anoint the head. These signs were all considered good manners. Simon failed to do so for Jesus. But according to Mark and Matthew, Simon was afflicted with leprosy. He would have been considered unclean and certainly wouldn’t have touched his guests. That may be why Jesus didn’t rebuke Simon, he only pointed out that the signs of hospitality had not been extended to him. There is no mention of whether Jesus had been deliberately overlooked while other guests were welcomed with the traditional greetings of hospitality.
Perhaps Simon invited Jesus with hope that Jesus would cure him as he had cured other lepers. Simon would surely have heard of the miraculous healings that Jesus had performed throughout the area. The story indicates to me that Simon was curious about Jesus, he had either listened to him teach in the synagogue or had heard about the wisdom of his teaching. He invited Jesus into his home; there’s no indication that it was an entrapment or an opportunity to castigate Jesus.
But then Jesus did something that stepped over the bounds of custom. He allowed himself to be touched by an unclean woman. Some commentators believe that she was a prostitute, though there’s no indication here. In fact, is seems unlikely that a prostitute would own an alabaster flask containing such an expensive amount of ointment. However, whatever her sins, they were widely known and she was cut off from “polite” society. Also, Barclay points out that no woman after her marriage appeared in public with her hair down; it was always bound up. Perhaps she was never married, but the practice was that women wore their hair up. So, this was a scene of immodesty — the woman had let her hair down and she was flagrantly extravagant in anointing Jesus’ feet.
What drove this woman to seek out Jesus, to cry copious tears, to let her hair down and use it to wipe his feet, to kiss and anoint his feet with expensive ointment? Some commentators believe that Jesus had already had an encounter with this woman and had already forgiven her sins. This it was gratitude that drove her to Simon’s house. But then why would Jesus forgive her sins again? It seems to me that she must have been in the presence of Jesus earlier. Maybe she had heard him teach or reach out to someone with a healing touch. Or maybe she had witnessed his love in some personal way. Something had touched her deeply. She must have felt his redeeming love for her, felt forgiven and accepted, and resolved to change her life, to sin no more. When she learned that Jesus was as Simon’s home, her heart led her back to Jesus in gratitude, in love, in an outpouring of emotion that she couldn’t contain and expressed in all the ways she could think of. She couldn’t give him enough in return for the love she felt. In return for repenting of her sins and loving Jesus, he gave her peace, a gift far more precious than perfumed ointment.
This would have been an extraordinary thing to witness. It embarrassed and angered Simon, causing him to question whether Jesus really was a prophet as many believed. Simon was muttering to himself in annoyance. Jesus, it appears, overheard him. So, Jesus must have been seated near Simon, which would indicate that Jesus was an honored guest, not someone little regarded. Or perhaps Simon just thought this to himself and Jesus was able to see Simon’s judgement in his face or in his eyes. Since his words are quoted, it seems to me that they must have been uttered. But Jesus didn’t react angrily as he did so often toward the Pharisees and scribes. He seized this as a teaching moment and addressed Simon by name as a guest would. He was trying to help Simon see this woman, this sinner, in the same light that God sees Simon, also a sinner, also in need of love and forgiveness. He told Simon to forgive much in order to receive much love, withhold forgiveness and love will be withheld.
I can relate to both the woman and Simon. I have been moved to tears by Jesus’ love and forgiveness. But I have been like Simon, quick to judge and slow to forgive, stingy with my love. That’s the story. When I forgive, I am loving both the one who has hurt me and Jesus. I am doing as he teaches me and he gives me his peace in return. When I love, I am changed; I am slowly transformed into the person I have been created to be from the beginning. Do you think Simon learned his lesson? I hope so; I like happy endings. I like it when loves wins out.
“Happy the sinner whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven.” Psalm 32:1