All four Gospels contain a story about a woman anointing Jesus. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is at the home of Simon the Leper. In John’s Gospel the woman is Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus at their home after Lazarus has been raised from the dead by Jesus.
Luke’s story happens early in Jesus’ Ministry, but the other three occur toward the end, as Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem and crucifixion. These three seem to be a foretaste of the importance of Jesus’ death. But Luke’s story is clearly about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an important topic for us to consider. When guilt is held in secrecy, silence and judgment, it turns to shame and studies have proven that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence and suicide.
It’s not that long ago that a national Gallup poll revealed that 94% of people thought it was important for people to be forgiven, but only 48% said that they tried to forgive other people.
Luke’s version of this story happens at the home of a Simon, he is not a Leper, but a Pharisee. Pharisees were devoutly religious and followed the law carefully. We don’t know the reason for the dinner invitation, but it could have been to test Jesus.
As a Pharisee, Simon would have been looking for violations of the law, because the Law of Moses was very clear about how the people should conduct themselves to maintain their personal purity to prove they are worthy in the sight of God.
Meanwhile, Simon’s position in the community plays a role in our learning from this story. The dinner would have been attended only by men; they would have been served by women who would then eat in another room. For this reason it would have been hard not to notice a strange woman in the room.
The men would have eaten reclining on cushions around a low table. They would have all been facing in with their feet away from the table. The woman in our story would have had easy access to Jesus’ feet.
She obviously knew of Jesus from stories others had told her. We never learn who she is, but she knew that she would be forgiven. In anticipation of that forgiveness, she began to cry and bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears.
Simon observes all of this and because the woman’s sins seem to be known to those present, He wonders why Jesus allows this woman to touch him. It was not enough that people refrained from touching others; the purity laws required that they make certain that unclean people did not touch them.
There at Jesus’ feet the woman is drying them with her hair and anointing them with expensive ointment. This is truly radical behavior.
Now Simons says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner."
Jesus knows that Simon is making this judgment of the woman and himself by association. At this point he decides to test Simon.
In a very direct manner Jesus tells Simon that he has something to say to him. The Pharisee says, “Teacher. Speak.” It’s interesting that he shows Jesus this respect.
Jesus tells a story about a creditor who had two debtors who owed him money. One of them owed an amount ten times the other. When it became obvious that they could not pay the debt he forgave them both.
Jesus asked Simon which of the two debtors would love Jesus more. The Pharisee responds that it would be the one who owed the larger amount. Jesus tells him that he judged “rightly.”
In part he tells him this because he wanted to point out that Simon was judging and not just about the two men in the story, but that he had been judging the woman and Jesus. In reality Simon was constantly judging everyone around him.
Jesus is operating beyond judgment, but he wants to make it clear that on the basis of the things that are important to the Pharisee that the Pharisee’s judgment is one sided. Simon is judging others, but not applying the same test to himself.
Then Jesus goes on to point out that Simon did not follow the law with regard to hospitality by offering water to wash Jesus’ feet. He did hot greet Jesus with a kiss, and he did not anoint Jesus head with oil.
Meanwhile, the woman has performed all these duties in a radical way; tears for water, hair for a towel, and expensive ointment to anoint the least honorable part, Jesus’ feet. Because she knew she would be forgiven and accepted, her sins are forgiven.
One clue is that the woman was waiting for Jesus to arrive since he tells Simon that she was attending him, “from the time I came in.”
She does not speak, but only begins to cry.
Jesus tells us her sins were many and that she therefore must love much. It was not that they were many to others, they were many to her. She takes her sins very seriously.
Meanwhile, the Pharisee’s sin of lack of hospitality was little to him and therefore meaningless by comparison but much greater because of who he is.
This inference is one of those times when Jesus is turning things up side down. Because Simon is judging others, his sins are the greater.
As the story ends we discover a hint of the purpose of the meal. All those who observe Jesus forgiving the woman ask, “Who is this that even forgives sins?” Forgiveness in this culture was complicated at best and certainly not something that was performed by an itinerant preacher and healer.
We need to understand that the love Jesus is speaking of is agape, one of the four Greek words for love. Agape is not a love that is emotional, but a deep abiding acceptance and caring for others.
I’ll let the contrast between the attitudes of the Pharisee and the woman speak for themselves.
This story has a history. It is the basis that Pope Gregory the Great used to declare that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
In many ways it reminds me of the current state of politics in our country. Gregory was taking a story with sketchy details which fits into Luke’s Gospel in a way that lets us know that Jesus ministry is about giving life through healing, resurrection and forgiveness, just as the stories for the last three weeks have shown us.
Instead he pulls her name out of the last verse and says that is proof that she was the sinful woman, a woman whose sins are never specifically enumerated for us. If indeed prostitution was her sin, the author of Luke could have said it outright, there was no reason to avoid the label.
Scholars tell us that women were gaining more power in the church at this time and this was one way that Gregory could diminish them. Mary Magdalene was the perfect target because, as you remember, she was one of the first to see the risen Christ, even before the disciples.
A number of myths had developed about her and he role in both the resurrection and proclaiming the good news after Jesus death. This made her all the more powerful.
Another clue that the accusation about her is specious is that the Greek word that the Gospel writer uses to describe the sin of the woman in our story is the same Greek word that he uses earlier in this Gospel to describe Peter. It is not a word that has a meaning that is sexual.
Jesus instructs Peter to cast his nets which results in a massive catch of fish and he exclaims that Jesus is the Messiah and that he, Peter, is a sinful man. I’m pretty certain that Luke was not trying to tell us that Peter was a prostitute.
Several of us went to Church of the Good Shepherd in Webster yesterday to participate in a workshop by Canon Stephanie Spellers titled the Generous Welcome Workshop.
Today’s Gospel speaks to me about some of what we learned there. Our sinful woman was radical in the way that she welcomed Jesus to this dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee.
Yesterday we learned about radical welcome as it applies to us today in the church.
Canon Spellers said that
Welcome: Embraces People like us.
Radical welcome: Embraces the other, the marginalized.
Welcome: Waits for people to come to us
Radical welcome: Goes out to meet people wherever they are
Welcome: Begins with me and my needs
Radical welcome: Focuses on God
Welcome: Is about knowledge and control
Radical Welcome: Is about vulnerability and humility
In Welcome: I am unchanged
In Radical Welcome: We are all transformed.
If we are to be reconciled to God and our Neighbor...
If we are to be the Body of Christ in our world...
If we are to save the world we live in... we must be transformed.