Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/QVdQEw30GyM.
Pentecost 4 C
Luke 7:36- 8:3
Well, what do you make of this event in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus? I think it’s quite a difficult story for us to really grasp the implications of in our world without quite a lot of cultural background. The first thing to say is that there is some controversy about whether this is Luke’s version of the same story that John tells as being just before the passion of Jesus, where Mary, sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus with nard. There is also another account in Mark and Matthew. After reading the evidence for and against, I am inclined to the view that it is a quite separate incident. In fact, I think that possibly Mary had heard the story of this earlier incident and emulated it as a way of expressing her devotion to Jesus. So if we take it as read that this incident occurred a long time before the passion, and it is not about anointing Jesus’ body for death, what does it tell us?
It seems to me that it is all about grace- repentance, forgiveness and freely given love. Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee for a banquet. We know that it is a big event as there are other people there. When Jesus gets there, he reclines at the table- which is how they ate, with his body supported on his left elbow, his right hand being used for eating and his legs stretched away from the table, feet, then as now, not being considered suitable for being near the food. Apparently it was very usual for a large crowd of people to gather to see the guests and to observe the proceedings so the presence of the woman is not as odd as it seems. It is important to understand that the woman and Jesus have already had an interaction, which is not recorded in the gospel in which the woman has confessed her sinfulness to Jesus and she has received forgiveness. This has already taken place and it is in response to this that she comes with perfume in a jar, ready to give Jesus honour and thanks. Now it seems fairly clear that the woman was a prostitute and well known to those gathered in the room. In fact, I was speculating that perhaps some of them knew her quite well, but the scholar Kenneth Bailey assures me in his book that there is no reason to suppose this, but in a small town everyone knows these things, which of course, is true. However it is, this woman makes a bit of a spectacle of herself and Jesus. I want you to imagine yourself in Jesus’ place for a minute, a “notorious” woman comes up behind him, and then begins to cry all over his feet- why we’ll think about in a minute, and then strokes his feet with her hair, kisses his feet and then massages in perfumed oil. This is very sensual stuff isn’t it? I am not at all surprised that the people watching were shocked by it. Jesus does nothing to stop her because he understands at a very deep level what this is all about.
Simon then makes a couple of judgements, the first about the woman- he doesn’t wonder what is going on with her- he judges that he knows exactly what is going on and that Jesus isn’t so great because of it, in fact that leads him to the second bit of wrong thinking which is that Jesus is obviously not the prophet that they thought he was because he would have had knowledge of who she was. In fact, of course, he is wrong about it all. Jesus does know all about the woman’s past, but he also knows about her future, Jesus knows that she has been forgiven for her sins and that she is rejoicing because of that and that salvation has come to her because of her willingness to confess her sins and put her faith in the saving power of Jesus.
So Jesus asks Simon a question. It was a common occurrence at dinners for the guests and host to exchange riddles, so Simon may be expecting a trick question. However the way Jesus speaks, “Simon, I have something to say to you,” is, just as it might sound to us, the prelude to a rebuke- the teacher is about to reprimand the student. Jesus begins by telling him, and of course the others listening, a mini parable about debt that has been forgiven. This is the crux of the story- it points to what has happened to the woman and to Simon’s own personal failure. Two people are forgiven, one a large amount one a lot one a smaller, but still significant amount. He asks Simon, pointedly, who will “love” the creditor the more. The debt isn’t money, it is sin. Simon, you can imagine was probably a bit wary as he answered he was expecting a trick question but he can’t quite see where this is going, it seems so obvious. Jesus tells him he is right but then goes on to rebuke him. Now notice what the text says, he turned to the woman and speaks to Simon. He is holding this despised woman in his gaze while he makes a series of comparisons between them.
This is where a bit of cultural context is helpful. When a guest came in the host would always give them a kiss- where depended on the person’s status. Equals kissed each other on the cheek, just as we do today, a student or disciple would kiss the Rabbi’s hand, a servant would kiss the Master’s hand and a son his parent’s hands. If a person was really grateful for something they might kiss the person’s feet. Simon addressed Jesus as teacher so he should have kissed his hand, but he has offered no kiss at all. Water for foot washing was also expected. It might be provided for the guest to wash their own feet or a servant might do it, but Simon has provided neither. Oil for anointing, was usually olive oil, plentiful and cheap and used for all kinds of medicinal and ceremonial uses. Jesus, directing his remarks towards the woman, in order to highlight the honour she has done him, gently rebukes Simon by a series of comparisons. Simon gave him no water but the woman has washed his feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair, Simon gave him no kiss, but the woman has smothered his feet with her kisses, Simon doesn’t even provide cheap olive oil to anoint Jesus’ head but the woman has anointed his feet with perfumed ointment. Jesus is turning this all back on Simon. Simon has made judgements about the woman and about Jesus but suddenly it is him under the spotlight. And then Jesus explains this outpouring of love- no, it is not about sensuality, it is about deep gratitude. Her sins, which were many have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love.
Now, the really important thing that Jesus is trying to do here is to let everyone know that this woman has undergone a great change- she can be accepted now as part of the society because she has been forgiven, her slate has been wiped clean, so he says loudly, “your sins are forgiven”. He is not forgiving them then, he is reiterating what has already occurred between the woman and God, but the people around the table are offended and begin to wonder if he is committing blasphemy.
There is one more thing that we need to hear, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” This is directed at Simon who thinks that he has nothing to confess, his pride and arrogance not being apparent to him. He does not love with the extravagant love that the woman shows because he has not put himself in the way of that kind of forgiveness.
Jesus dismisses the woman by confirming her salvation and sending her out in peace. All the way through this exchange Jesus has shown honour to the woman just as she has shown honour to him. She is female, therefore pretty worthless, and what’s more a “harlot”, to use the word that old translations favoured, and yet she is precious and honoured in God’s sight, as Isaiah said in Chapter 43. What a pity that Simon hasn’t recognized his own sinfulness and joined her in being forgiven. And that is the thing for all of us- we need to recognize our own failure to live as God wants us to. No matter how good we are, no matter if we think we are righteous, in fact we have failed to come up to God’s standards. Before God, however, we are not good or bad, we are forgiven or not forgiven, because we haven’t asked. But you know, Jesus cares just as much for Simon as he does for the woman- we must never forget that. Jesus wants Simon to repent, turn around and join Jesus in the life of faith. The woman’s faith has saved her, Simon can choose that too. And we face the same choice. In this confrontation with Jesus we can choose faith or we can choose to take offense. When we stand before Jesus we can choose to admit our failings and be forgiven or we can hang onto our self righteousness. We can choose how we relate to others as well. We can choose to judge people or we can choose to honour them. I said right at the beginning that this story is all about grace. Jesus offers us unconditional love, and free forgiveness. Jesus offers us a living and vibrant life with him, in him, through the power of the Holy Spirit and we have only to accept the forgiveness and turn to Jesus in love just as this woman does.