At that time, one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now 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.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
One day after the weekly synagogue service a rich Pharisee invited all the teachers who had been in the synagogue over for lunch. Jesus was one of them, but he was not the guest of honor. He was invited more out of obligation to include everyone and not because he was wanted there.
They had a practice of putting the most important guests at the head of the table next to the host, and then the farther you were away from the host the less important and welcome you were.
I have experienced this myself. A whole group is collectively invited, but I knew from the moment I entered the house that I was resented for being there. But the host didn’t quite have the gumption to tell me I wasn’t welcome. Not outright.
I remember ending up at a summer gathering in Sweden where everyone brought their own snacks and drinks. And I asked the host for a glass to pour my drink into so I could share it with my daughter. And the host just told me straight up no. I was a guest in his yard but no, I couldn’t use one of his glasses. No apology. No explanation. Just no.
This is a way of telling someone that while they may have slipped in on a group invitation they are not really considered a real guest.
Jesus was such a guest in this gospel passage.
This is what condescension means. This is the incarnation. Not glorious but humble, or even humiliating. This is self-emptying, kenosis. When you think of the incarnation, think of this.
Jesus told Simon, “you gave me no water for my feet.”
In the ancient world, not giving people water for their feet was like not letting someone take off their coat when they come in during the winter in Canada, or not giving them a chair to sit on at dinner. You ALWAYS washed your feet when you came inside. The streets were places full of camel dung and filth. It was very unhygienic not to wash your feet. It was outrageous to not offer someone water to wash their feet.
Jesus was at the back of the room crowding together with a bunch of other people who were technically allowed inside but who were not really guests.
Jesus said to Simon, “you gave me no kiss when I entered.”
Again, this is the equivalent of not speaking to someone, or refusing to shake their hand. You could not express a more clear and unambiguous insult to a guest than to not kiss them when they arrived, in that culture.
Jesus said to Simon, “You did not anoint my head with oil.”
That would be like going to someone’s house and you ask where the washroom is and they tell you there is none. I mean, in that case it’s probably a lie, but basically the insult of not offering someone oil for their hair was similar. We don’t put much oil in our hair these days so it’s hard to imagine why this would be done at all, and then it’s hard to understand why it was an insult.
Ok so Jesus is this unwelcome guest crowding at the back of the room with the other unimportant and unwanted people, while the popular and important people are at the front of the room resenting the presence of the people at the back of the room.
Now a prostitute pushes her way inside and makes this ridiculously lavish display of affection to Jesus. It’s over the top and embarrassing and almost grotesque.
She starts to wipe his feet with her hair. Unveiling her hair in public like that was like going around with very revealing clothes or something. It was way too personal. In those days women kept their hair covered until they were alone with their husbands in their bedroom. This was shocking.
And then to take the thing that is on the top of your body, and touch it to something that is at the bottom of another person’s body, was also grotesque and odd and completely against all the rules.
The reason they washed their feet in that day was that there was donkey dung and camel dung out in the streets, and all kinds of other things, all on a muddy street, festering in the puddles. People’s feet were filthy when they came off the streets, and they needed to wash that filth off in order to be hygienic. Now she’s wiping his feet with her hair. And crying.
No one said she was crying quietly or discreetly. This was not discreet. She was wailing and making a scene.
Everyone froze like a deer in the headlights. They were cringing and thinking, “someone stop her now. Please, please make her stop!
Jesus knew what was going through their minds, and you didn’t need to be able to read people’s minds and know what is in their hearts to see what they were thinking.
If you had been there you would know what they were thinking too.
“How did she get in here? Why is she so familiar with Jesus? Perhaps he knows this lady from a previous encounter which he shouldn’t have had.”
Jesus had every reason to be horrified that she is implying to the whole crowd that they are friends.
“How holy is this holy teacher, Jesus, if he is so familiar with the prostitute.”
And Jesus takes the opportunity to tell the host (so that everyone else could hear it too), “Simon, you have treated me like riffraff since I got here. You did it because you don’t want to know that you also have sins that need to be forgiven. Maybe she owes five hundred, but you also owe fifty.”
You don’t want to know about the Kingdom of God in which what counts as righteousness is love and compassion and humility because, you have none of those things. You can’t accept forgiveness because it would cost you and you would have to learn how much you have in common with sinners.”
Finding out that we have shortcomings is unpleasant and doesn’t feel like we are being loved.
I am intrigued by the fact that people balked when Jesus said to the woman that her sins were forgiven. “Who are you to forgive sins? Surely only God can do that. What kind of arrogance. You can’t even get a good seat at the party, how can you be the arbiter of who is forgiven and who is not???”
Why did they balk at the notion of Jesus forgiving sins?
Because they were jealous. Being forgive of their sins was the one thing they were secretly longing for and believed could never happen. Legalistic people don’t think it’s possible that they can be loved. People who judge are judging because they are afraid that God cannot love them like a father.
People who get easily offended and dismayed when something doesn’t go the way they expected: they do this because they are terrified that if everything is not in perfect order that their heavenly father will not want them and will not embrace them and will not accept their efforts as good enough.
“How dare you tell that lady who is not even trying to do things the right way that she is good enough!!!” That indignation is born out of a heartbreaking sadness and desperation.
But the desperation of these righteous men is twofold. They want to be loved. But if they let down their guard it will cost them their pride. They want their pride and they want the love of their heavenly father. And they can’t have both and they can’t choose.
Jesus says to the people at the head of the table, “is life at the head table really all that great? Are you really living the high life? You guys treat each other with just as much cruelty and contempt as you treat me, it’s just that you’re obligated to give each other outward courtesies. You have no community and no communion.”
The life of the person who is petty and legalistic is a cold existence. When we are stuck in that place of ambivalence between our pride and our need for God’s love, we are ambivalent about whether or not to make an offering, a sacrifice, of repentance to God. Can I make a worthy offering? Will it work?
Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice so that you could join his sacrifice. You have the proof that it worked because he rose from the dead.
Today, Jesus says that the love of the father is so lavish that he can forgive even this sinner. So surely the Father loves you too.
When Jesus allows us to see how we are failing, that is an act of love. He allowed the sinner to repent publicly as an example to show everyone where true life is.
Just think how liberating it is not to hold in the tears. How freeing would it be for you to pour out your love so freely as that woman did before Jesus? How free would you feel if you could embrace the feet of Jesus?
The promise of forgiveness emboldens us to rediscover the love of our heavenly father as we rediscover that we stand among many other children that the father loves equally.
The love of the father is discovered by those who stand shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity, in commonality, not being better than or above or beyond, but with and beside and closely interconnected with all the other children of the father.
Unless this sinner here is your sister you will never know the love of your father. May the love of Jesus fill you with courage to join the lady who is wiping his feet with her hair.