Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
12th June 2016
We’re told she’s a “sinner.” That’s all we’re told about her. We’re never told her name. She’s always the nameless one, almost invisible. Was she supposed to be at dinner that night, in the home of the Simon the Pharisee? It’s not clear. Perhaps her presence wasn’t all that surprising. Perhaps she showed up often. We don’t know.
It’s clear she has a plan. She’s a woman on a mission. It looks like she just slipped into the room, unnoticed. She has an alabaster jar of ointment. The men were eating at table. They weren’t sitting on chairs arranged around a table. They were reclining. They were dining in the Hellenistic manner, which was to lounge on one’s side, on a sofa bench or on the floor, with head facing toward the table and feet pointing away from the table. Eating this way sounds uncomfortable, a good way to get indigestion. But that’s how she had easy access to his feet.
She came along and stood behind him, at his feet. Weeping. We’re never told why she’s crying. All we know is that she had enough tears to wash, to bathe Jesus’ dusty feet. She never says a word. Her gestures say everything. She dries his feet with her hair, then kisses them, and anoints them with oil from the jar.
This is an extremely sensual scene, provocative, steamy, full of Eros. It’s rare to see Jesus in such a setting. Rarer still is to see female sensuality portrayed so honestly in scripture. It’s rare to see faithful devotion, adoration so beautifully embodied; she expressed the mysterious connection between Eros and worship, adoration. And Jesus never judges her.
Whenever the feminine spirit acts with boldness, the preservers of patriarchy usually become agitated and angered and then attack. When the Pharisee, a religious leader, the dinner host, noticed what she did, he was horrified, disgusted. And because Jesus allowed her to wash his feet, because apparently Jesus didn’t know her story, the Pharisee used it as an occasion to question Jesus’ judgment and authority. “If this man,” meaning Jesus, “were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Luke tells us that he said this to himself, but I wonder if he uttered it aloud, hoping no one would hear him—or maybe he wanted to be heard. Either way, Jesus didn’t miss a thing, spoken or unspoken.
He knew what Simon the Pharisee was getting at, so he asked him a question—Jesus went into teacher mode and shared a parable. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.” Remember, a denarius was the average daily wage for a skilled laborer. One owed more than a year’s worth of salary, the other just less than two months. “When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” It was an easy question for Simon. He said, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Then Jesus turned to the woman and spoke directly, boldly truthfully to Simon and said: “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she was anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” And then, to reinforce what Jesus knew to be true before she arrived with the ointment, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
We’re not told how the rest of the evening went. My guess is that Jesus left right after the women with her jar. Luke tells us that “soon afterwards” Jesus went on through the cities and villages preaching the kingdom, healing, showing mercy, extending God’s forgiveness—bringing “good news.” It shouldn’t surprise us that in addition to the twelve traveling with Jesus we’re told that there “were women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, “who provided for them out of their resources.” So in addition to the twelve men, there was also a community of women followers who were engaged in bringing the good news. Jesus’ ministry made space for women, he relied upon their witness and their resources. These were women with questionable histories or reputations or associations, women now forgiven of their sins, women given a new life, a fresh start, women who were loved, truly loved, and judged worthy of such love.
It’s remarkable, really, to see this strong feminine presence among the first disciples—remarkable, given the long abusive history of Church patriarchy that claimed that women were second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom, that they couldn’t preach or teach or administer the sacraments. It’s extraordinary. Jesus was radical with regard to the treatment of women. My guess is that there weren’t many like him, early feminist that he was. I wonder if, perhaps, this, too, agitated the animus of the patriarchal religious and political authorities against him.
Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the unnamed woman. What we do know is that she knows something about God’s mercy. Again, we don’t know her story. We don’t know what her sins were—everyone else seemed to know, thus increasing her shame. I wish we knew her name, although she is a kind of Everywoman. In a way, though, I’m kind of glad that we don’t know much about her sinful past—given human nature, we would probably zero in on the sin. It obviously doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus. He doesn’t say. He doesn’t deny the past, but he’s not going to allow her past to determine her present or future. This what forgiveness does—it doesn’t deny what happened in the past, but it doesn’t keep one trapped there either. Jesus never allows what occurred in the past to determine the future, to hinder something new to emerge.
And Jesus knows all about the terrible sins of men inflicted on women. He knows the terrible damage done to the psyches and bodies of women by men who have forgotten that the divine spark dwells in women. Wendy Farley, a theologian who teaches at Emory University, gives voice to a woman’s perspective. “Jesus ministry continually draws forth witnesses to the sanctity of female embodiment. The unnamed woman whose tears cleaned Jesus’ feet reveals the sanctity of all our tears.” The “our” here refers to the tears of women, but I think this is true for both women and men.
These are holy tears, holy tears that lead to an audacious act of love. The way she cared for Jesus was risky. But why is she crying? Are these tears of sadness? Guilt? Remorse? Is she being so generous because she’s trying to get something out of Jesus, such as mercy? Or are these tears of gratitude, grace, and joy? It’s tough to know from the flow of the narrative exactly when she received forgiveness. Something happened, something good, something that called forth this audacious love, something that called for such generosity.
My guess is that she experienced God’s mercy long before she showed up at Simon’s house. They knew each other previously. She singled Jesus out among the guests. She anoints only him with oil, which, curiously, is the meaning of the Greek word Christos, “the anointed one.” Her act of generous welcome, her radical hospitality is a profound expression of the depth of her love for God, it’s a profound expression of her gratitude, coming from someone who really knows what’s like to be forgiven.
This text is full of mercy for the woman who was a sinner. It’s also full of judgment toward the religious leader—or any person of faith—who talks a good game about mercy and grace, but never bothers to extend mercy and grace to anyone, who never extends hospitality to the marginalized, or someone who’s never experienced the mercy of God themselves, who doesn’t know what it’s like to feel forgiven or will not accept God’s forgiveness, and then knows little about the love for God and how to respond to it.
Jesus makes the direct correlation between forgiveness and love. Little forgiveness, little love. Jesus shows that our capacity to be generous and extravagant is directly related to the depth of the forgiveness and mercy we have experienced in our own lives. The woman with the jar holds nothing back, she’s wildly generous with her resources (no penny-pinching here) and generous with her heart because that’s what love does! That’s what grace does! That’s what forgiveness calls forth from within us!
Sometimes it’s the people who have messed up their lives the most who truly value and cherish the grace of God—and therefore have the most to teach us about God’s transforming grace, who know what it’s like to say, as the old hymn goes, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.” They have the most to teach us about radical hospitality. It’s the people who have really screwed up their lives or the lives of others, people who, for a variety of reasons, have messed things up for themselves or others, who come to have a greater appreciation for the gift of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness. They understand this woman’s tears because they’ve shed similar ones, tears of guilt and remorse, tears of joy and gratitude. Didn’t Jesus say, “I have come not for the righteous, but for the sinners” (Luke 5:32)? Sometimes the one who thinks he or she is righteous and never in need of forgiveness is the greater sinner.
We have to be careful here not to put too much stress on the sin—which is real and present, to be sure. Jesus came to reveal to us the heart of God and there in the depths of God there is mercy, love, grace, pouring itself out upon us, anointing us. This is what the woman discovered. That’s the good news—forgiveness. The human heart needs to know that it’s forgiven. And when we know forgiveness we cannot withhold it from others. We, too, are called to forgive, when the time is right, the one who has offended us. Ultimately, forgiveness transforms; it liberates.
So, thanks be to God for the power of grace, for mercy, for forgiveness. Thanks be to God for this nameless woman whose audacious love and holy tears, whose generosity, whose hospitality, whose devotion and faith, whose life and action, together, preaches the gospel better than any preacher and calls each of us deeper into the ways of God’s Kingdom—with this forgiveness we, too, are invited to go in peace.