Picture this scene from Luke chapter 7: Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner, and everything seems to be just right. The meal would take place in an outer room of the house. Typically, there was a porch circling this outer room. The door of the house would be left open so guests could come and sit on the porch and listen to the conversation. They didn’t have internet or television back then, so people weren’t sitting home watching the Real Housewives of Jerusalem. People would listen to the dinner conversations of important people as entertainment. So Simon is excited about sitting down with Jesus to talk about God and theology.
Simon can’t wait to impress his guests. But in walks this woman whose reputation has gotten around. She’s likely either a prostitute or a loose woman, and people around town know about her past. If the dinner started at 7:00, maybe she got there at 6:45 and waited for Jesus to arrive. She’s got a container of perfume, perfume she may have used for other purposes before this. But she comes ready to anoint the feet of Jesus. The normal custom would have been for the host to kiss Jesus, wash his feet, and anoint his head with oil. The woman comes expecting that somebody will have already washed Jesus’ feet. But she notices that this courtesy is undone.
Think about this woman. I can’t imagine that she grew up hoping to become a prostitute. Children don’t grow up planning on being ashamed of themselves, of their sin. They just end up there. Like she had. And she thought she would always stay that way. She would always be uninvited and unwanted — except by men who just wanted to use her. I think this woman has lived with a deep sense of shame. The only thing she has received from men up to this point is abuse or condemnation. But I’m convinced she has heard Jesus speak somewhere before. We can’t know for sure, but maybe she was there when Jesus said this in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” For the first time in her life she hears a message of compassion and grace. That God loves everyone: even loose women.
But what she does is scandalous in every way. Maybe she’s dressed provocatively. And what she’s about to do is taboo in proper Jewish culture. Emotion has been building up inside her. A reservoir of tears she’s been holding back breaks loose. She smothers Jesus’ feet with her tears. She doesn’t have a towel, so she loosens her hair and dries his feet. Which was unheard of, because no proper Jewish woman would ever unbind her hair in public. Then she uses her lips. This is a woman who knows how to use her lips. To attract men into her bedroom. But now she uses her lips to cover his feet with kisses. Now comes the perfume. She takes an expensive vial of perfume and drizzles it all over the feet of Jesus. It drips down over his ankles and his feet and between his toes. As it does, she’s planting kisses on his feet.
The perfume costs her a lot, but the biggest cost to this woman is the scorn of Simon and the other men. People tell dirty jokes about this woman and Simon gives her dirty looks. Simon would have given anything if this woman hadn’t come. He didn’t want her to be there--she was crashing his party. But Jesus wasn’t about to separate himself from this woman. He wasn’t about to throw up a wall, and say, I won’t have anything to do with you. He knew his only chance to have any influence on this woman was to be with her, to spend time with her. Holiness doesn’t always mean being separate. It means being distinct. It means being in the world without being of the world.
The story continues: “When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Then Jesus answered his thoughts. “Simon,” he said to the Pharisee, “I have something to say to you.” “Go ahead, Teacher,” Simon replied. Then Jesus told him this story: “A man loaned money to two people—500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, canceling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.” “That’s right,” Jesus said.” (Luke 7:39-43)
Luke 7:44-50, “Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume. “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” The men at the table said among themselves, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?” And Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Jesus applies the story to Simon and the woman. Do you see this woman? What an incriminating question!! Simon hasn’t seen anything except a sinner. What do we see when we look at others? Do we understand that we need grace as much as they do? But Jesus says, everything you should have done for me, she did instead. You didn’t even show me the minimum courtesy of washing my feet. But this woman not only washed my feet, she did it with her tears and her hair. You didn’t kiss me on the cheek, but this woman kissed my feet. You didn’t anoint my head with oil: this woman covered me with Chanel. She is the real host tonight.
Simon had seen this woman all right, but all he’d seen was her sin. Jesus saw something very different when he looked at this woman. He saw the abuse and exploitation she had suffered. He saw the guilt and shame that kept her trapped in that destructive lifestyle. Jesus saw her as something more than an object--more than just “that sinful woman.”
Jesus makes a statement in v. 47 that’s often misinterpreted. “Her many sins have been forgiven: for she loved much.” Jesus isn’t saying that her love earned her forgiveness. He’s saying that her love is proof she’d already been forgiven. It was her response to God’s grace. Her sins must have been forgiven her, or she wouldn’t have shown so much love. She recognizes her need for forgiveness: Simon doesn’t. He who has been forgiven little loves little. That’s you, Simon. You haven’t shown much love, so you haven’t been forgiven much.
I wonder: who are we more like: Simon, or Jesus? Is the church a gated community where we shut ourselves off from people in the world? Or is it a hospital where we welcome the wounded? How do we treat people who have failure in their lives? Are we the kind of community where people can feel welcome, no matter what they’ve done?