“And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.... Jesus said, ‘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.’” (Luke 7.37-38, 47)
Imagine this: you are throwing a dinner party and the guest of honor is the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama or even Billy Graham. Suddenly, there’s a stir at the door, and a slightly disheveled woman bursts into the room. She is, as they say, a woman of “a certain age”, but has gone to great lengths to make herself look younger. Her makeup is, well, excessive and her dress is cut much too low for decency and she wears bright red high heels. This uninvited guest goes over to your guest of honor, a man of great wisdom and holiness, a man who should have known what kind of woman this is. And she begins to weep, her mascara making dramatic streaks down her face. Then, even worse, she begins to remove the archbishop's or the Dalai Lama’s, or Billy Graham’s shoes and socks. Her tears bathe his feet and she takes a bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of her bag and pours it on his feet. Then, she begins to dry them with her hair.
What feelings and thoughts do you have watching this woman of the street, this practitioner of the world’s oldest profession, bathe the feet of your guest, this holy man, with her tears, pour expensive perfume on him, and finally dry his feet with her hair?
I’m sure the first feeling you’d have would be the most profound embarrassment, and then you’d probably feel extremely uncomfortable, as though you were watching a scene that should not be played out in public.
What struck me in reading again the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was the remarkable intimacy of it. The commentaries on this story always point out that this woman was more than likely a prostitute. She is described as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner”. Furthermore, prostitutes were identifiable by the fact that they did not cover their heads like respectable women but rather wore their hair loose and flowing, as this woman did.
She stepped across all the boundaries. Women and men did not even speak in public, much less touch. She not only touched and bathed Jesus’ feet; she kissed them. This is a scene the American Family Association would have banned from primetime television.
Notice a little detail in Luke’s version of this story. The text says that “when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him for she is a sinner.’” Then when Jesus speaks to the Pharisee, he asks him, “Do you see this woman?” Jesus is implying that the Pharisee had seen only a woman of the streets perform a nearly indecent act that had completely ruined his dinner party. But Jesus had seen a forgiven sinner who had a profound understanding of God’s love.
All four of the gospels contain a version of this story. One important detail of the story that Luke omits is the reaction of Jesus’ disciples. In the other three gospels, the disciples, too, are shocked by the woman’s actions, but what shocks them is the apparent waste of a perfectly good bottle of Chanel No. 5. In Mark’s account of the story, the disciples say, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” (Mark 14.4-5)
Like the Pharisee, the disciples saw only what they wanted to see, or perhaps what their culture had conditioned them to see. They saw a woman who was not only disreputable but wasteful, a woman who had squandered a valuable bottle of perfume or ointment. The disciples’ mistake was in the way they assigned value. They believed that the most valuable thing the woman offered Jesus was her ointment. However, I think the story implies that Jesus thought her most valuable offering was not her perfume but her tears. “...her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but one who is forgiven little, loves little.” Her tears were an offering from her heart, a sign that she had been forgiven much and therefore loved much.
Roman Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton put it well: “The woman’s recognition of her failure to meet her own needs had opened her heart, made her available to God’s mercy. The mercy of God is the tenderness which by the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of God’s love.” (Thomas Merton, as quoted in Merton by Monica Furlong (Harper and Row, 1980))
“...the infinitely mysterious power of pardon turns the darkness of our sins into the light of God’s love.”
Psychologists tell us that every character in a dream represents a different aspect of ourselves. That is also true of many stories in the Bible.
Where do you locate yourself in this story?
I have to admit that I see myself in the Pharisee. My initial reaction would probably have been a lot like his: “Doesn’t Jesus know who she is? How could a rabbi allow her to touch him, much less caress his feet like that?”
The tragedy of the story is that the Pharisee was a very good man. The goal of the pharisaic movement within first century Judaism was to keep the law in the strictest possible manner. Jesus never implies that the Pharisee is a hypocrite. What Jesus implies is that the Pharisee had a vision problem. He saw “a woman of the city, who was a sinner”; he failed to see someone whose copious tears and profound love indicated a heart that had been touched by God’s love and forgiveness. He observed the law, but he missed the whole point. For keeping the law is not so much cause as effect. God’s forgiveness is not our achievement; rather it is God’s gift. Paradoxically, Jesus seems to be saying, we cannot repent until we have been forgiven. “...her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but one who is forgiven little, loves little.”
It’s probably most difficult for us to imagine ourselves as the “woman of the city, who was a sinner”. Not only have most of us have lived fairly good, decent lives, but it’s probably almost impossible to imagine ourselves going up to Jesus at a dinner party and bathing his feet with our tears.
But apart from Jesus, she is the hero of this story. What courage it took for her to defy social conventions!
Another detail that Luke omits from his story of the sinful woman is Jesus’ final comment about her action. Matthew and Mark conclude their versions of this story when Jesus says, “...wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14.9)
No where in any of the gospels does Jesus make such a remarkable comment about anyone. “...wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14.9) The words echo what Jesus said at the last supper, “Do this in memory of me.” The two actions sum up the gospels. The bread broken and the wine poured vividly represent Jesus’ life, God’s love, poured out for us. The woman weeping at the feet of Jesus and pouring out the precious ointment represents us when we fully appreciate and appropriate God’s love and forgiveness.
This story is not just a rebuke to the Pharisee’s hard, cold legalism. This story is an invitation to us to become intimate with Jesus. What makes me most uncomfortable about this story is the terribly intimate nature of the woman’s actions. But I think that is exactly the point. Jesus wants us to enter into an intimate relationship with him - to open our hearts, to kneel at his feet, to share our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears as freely as this woman shared her tears.
In a sense, this story is also about stewardship. The woman offered Jesus the most precious and costly gifts she could afford and I don’t just mean the bottle of Chanel No. 5. She offered Jesus her heart, her tears. What do you and I bring to Jesus?
In conclusion, let’s go back to the dinner party. The guests have departed, the servants are gathering up the dishes and washing them. You escort the last guest to the door, say good night, and turn back to the dining room. On the floor beside the place where Archbishop of Canterbury or the Dalai Lama or Billy Graham had been seated is the bottle of Chanel No. 5 that the woman left there. You pick it up and ponder the words you heard this evening. “...her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but one who is forgiven little, loves little.” And you try to remember the last time you cried.