This may be one of the most well known stories in the gospels. However, in this familiarity, we can often overlook the deep and poetic beauty contained within. Let’s take a look together. Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman36When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. Now, to understand what’s going on here, this story needs to be broken down into a few distinct elements. First, the people. Jesus Jesus was a prophet. A man who has begun to make a name for himself around this region. A man who has begun to garner respect. This is a man who has, at this time, a very steady number of disciples and even more followers, and this was a Rabbi who has accepted the invitation to attend the party of… Simon the PhariseeNow, not much is known about Simon, but we do know that he’s the host at this party and was most likely the owner of this house. It was Simon who had put this party together, and it was Simon who invited the guests. Now, from what we read in this passage, it seems as though the jury is still out on what Simon thinks of this nomadic teacher from Galilee. He seemed conflicted as to who he believed Jesus to be. Theologians speculate that this might be the very reason he invited Jesus. Maybe he hoped to see Jesus up close, talk with him, examine over dinner his politics and theology. It’s not so foreign, is it? This is something we would do today, right? If we hoped to get to know someone, we might invite them to coffee or to share a meal. We learn a great deal about people by drinking and breaking bread together. We have the sceneFor a respectable Jew, a dinner party would look very different from a party today. A typical dining room had 3 beds which were situated with tables at their head. These beds were arranged in the shape of a square with the sides and middle being left open to allow the servants to move in-and-out as they brought in food and removed dishes. While the process from start to finished isn’t completely known, many scholars say that as they ate, the men would lay on their chest and elbows, and as they finished they would they lay on their sides. Reclining and leaning on an elbow. How did the lady get in?This does feel to us a bit random, doesn’t it? Here we see this party happening, they’ve eaten, talked, laughed, and are in the midst of conversation and in comes this woman. I mean, upon first reading, does this seem a little odd to anyone else? However, it doesn’t seem odd to those at this dinner party. I mean, as you read this text, there are many questions asked, none though, seem to be about why this woman is there. As you dig a bit, you learn that it was customary for parties, like they one Jesus was currently at, to allow the poor to make their way in and help themselves to the extras, and crumbs from the party. (Expositors Commentary, F. Gaebelein, pg 903). It was an act of societal care and compassion. Nobody was shocked she was there. The same cannot be said about what she did next. This woman begins to make a scene.As Jesus was talking, this woman stands behind him, weeping. Her tears freely falling, landing on the feet of Jesus, she begins to wipe them from his feet with her hair. Then, as she wipes them, she begins kissing his feet, soon she begins washing them with perfume. People are beginning to take note of what’s happening here.Like a movie, as this lady is washing Jesus’ feet, we are invited into the mind of Simon, privy to his attempt at wrestling with the scene taking place before him. We read:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”As he’s watching this scene take place, he has this internal-monologue happening. It goes like this…“If Jesus was the prophet he said he was, then he would know who is touching him. He would know that she’s a sinner. That she is defiling him through this scene.” If we take a step back, and try to sit in Simon’s seat, this question really makes complete sense. After all, it seems as though Simon has invited Jesus to come and eat with him in order to gain a better grasp of who he is. He hopes to have a few questions answered. Is Jesus really the messiah he claims to be? Can he really do the miraculous? In asking this questions, it seems as though Simon lands on the answer, “No.” This man can’t be who he says he is. He can’t, because any respectable messiah would understand that this lady is unclean and unwelcome. Simon’s internal monologue leads him to an answer he wasn’t expecting.Jesus, intuiting Simon’s conflict, responds in his familiar way. He tells a story.40Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”“Tell me, teacher,” he said.41“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. This story centers on debtDebt is something nearly all of us here can relate with. Debt can be all consuming. It can be all encompassing. Debt is something that hangs over you at night. Keeping you awake. Wondering how on earth we will be able to be rid of it. For some, freedom from debt feels possible, for others, it’s an insurmountable obstacle- a mountain as high as Everest. Something they can only dream being free from. We understand debt, and Jesus knows it. So he invites us into a story with debt, not the woman, as the center. A story about two people in debt. A debt neither could pay back, and a story about a moneylender who does the unthinkable- he forgives the debts. The crux of the story being, who is more grateful for their loan being forgiven? The one who is forgiven little, or the one forgiven much? This is a fascinating story on two counts: First, it leaves no innocent party.Part of the beauty of powerful story telling is that it invites the listener into that world. Story is more than ink on a page, no, story is something we become part of.
Whether it’s movies, or musicians, or athletes, the more relatable they are, the more we like them. The more we can see ourselves in them, the more we fall in love with them and want to be like them. In our participation in story, we find characters we relate to, and project ourselves onto them. This is the brilliance of Jesus telling this story, because almost assuredly, Simon placed himself in this story, and more than likely, Simon placed himself as the lesser of the debtors. Yet, in this story, they are both guilty; guilty of a debt they cannot pay. Then, just to make sure the story sinks in, Jesus asks Simon to offer his take. This is an obviously leading and pointed question. There’s purpose behind it, and Simon knows it. “Which loves him (the money lender) more” Jesus asks. Simon is stuck, and so begrudgingly answers, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” Second, this story becomes real life.Jesus takes Simon’s answer, and transitions from theory into actual reality. We read:“Jesus, hearing Simons response, turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” In front of this dinner party, Jesus contrasts the sinful woman and outwardly righteous Simon. He says, “listen, you’re sitting here smugly; proud of this dinner you provided and the hospitality you’re showing me. You sit here silently judging me, and silently judging her.” Then, Jesus reminds Simon of the reality of their situation.
Jesus says “You didn’t wash my feet.” There might not have been a more humble (read: humiliating) act in the time of Jesus. The most common footwear was sandals. The most common road was dirt. The tradition form of transportation was donkey or horse. Let’s take a moment and process this. Imagine you’re walking, in sandals, on the same dirt road that donkeys and horses are, what do you think your feet will end up looking like? Understanding this, it was common courtesy for the host of the home to provide the washing of feet for any guests who visited their home. This foot washing allowed the guests to clean themselves. Because of the humbleness of this task, it was commonly provided by the lowest servant. However, here they sat, dirty feet and all. Everyone knowing Simon did not provide the customary foot washing. He failed to do something, and as a result, this “unclean woman did it.”As her tears were falling on Jesus’ feet, she wiped the mess, the dirt, the feces off his feet with her hair. Hair, in the ancient near-eastern cultures was a woman’s beauty. Paul, talking to an early church in Corinthians, says a woman’s long hair was her glory. Her pride. After wiping them with her hair, she kissing his feet. She washed his feet with expensive perfume. Perfume that was almost surely used as part of her life as a prostitute. The scent which was most likely used to lure men into her bed, was now used as a sacrifice for Jesus. In this act, this woman is saying all that I have, the best I can provide, is only worth wiping the filth from your feet. What Simon was unwilling to delegate to a servant, this woman was willing to do herself.
Her beauty, brokenness, and trades of her past life, were all she had to give. Jesus continues. You didn’t give a kiss or anoint my headLike foot washing, the anointing of a person’s head was also tradition. When a host invited a person over into their home, they would anoint their head as a deep sign of respect. A kiss offered to a guest held this same sign of respect and homage. Yet Simon refused Jesus acts of hospitality. This woman however anointed Jesus’ feet and she wouldn’t stop kissing them. It’s as though Jesus is telling Simon, you asked me here to figure out what you think of me, but your actions have already shown your heart. It is in this that we are brought to the thrust of this passage.Simon was a man who believed himself to have it all together. A man of respect. And religious clout. This woman was flawed. Deeply. And nowhere in this passage does Jsus deny it. Everyone at the table knew it…including her. This woman deeply and desperately knew her inadequacy and faults.On one side of this table we see a man who was believed (in his mind, and the minds of others) to have it together. On the other side of the table we have a woman nobody cared for. Nobody trust. Nobody wanted.A woman who’s history is longer than than she wants to admit, and darker than she wants to remember. However, at this table, in front of everyone, Jesus evens the playing field. Through the telling this story, he reminds the powerful that we all have a debt to pay. All of us. We may choose to ignore the ways in which we need grace, and we may choose to try to forget the ways in which grace has already taken hold, but this doesn’t change the fact that we owe a debt that we cannot pay. Jesus reminds us that there is freedom in understanding and accepting our powerlessness.Our inability to pay back what we owe is not the deal breaker. What is a deal-breaker? Believing we have no debt. We are all people with a debt bigger far greater than our ability to pay, and the spiritual journey is the road that takes us to the place of understanding we’ll never be able to pay it back. Ever. It’s a journey towards powerlessness.
Some circles call it rock bottom. Others call it an epiphany. Not matter what we call this moment, it always equals an understanding that we need a lot of help, and the only one who can help us in inside that door eating at a dinner party. What then?We give what we have. This woman had nothing proper to offer. She didn’t have an animal that was proper for sacrifice. She didn’t have money. She had the tools of her trade. Her beauty and her perfume. And she had a willingness to be humble. We so often forget that, the absolute worst we have to offer coupled with complete humility equals the perfect sacrifice.As this story comes to a close, we see Jesus talking directly to the woman. He says,48Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”49The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”50Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Go in peace. Go in completion. Go in the understanding that you’re forgiven, loved and accepted. Go in the beautiful knowledge that only these things can bring.