[In our gospel lesson today, we hear of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet. This isn’t the only time it happens in the gospels. Luke is the only one who doesn’t put this well-remembered story immediately before Jesus’ passion. This story comes in the first third of Luke’s gospel, and with good reason. He doesn’t put it so close to Jesus’ death that we make the connection between the anointing and the preparation for burial. Rather, Luke places the event in the house of a Pharisee, mixing it with a parable to give us a memorable image of the power of forgiveness, and the emptiness of life without it.]
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
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.
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 kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus 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 bathed my feet with her 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 has 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.”
Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the 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.”
Have you ever wondered why we tell the stories that we do in church? What do these stories have to do with us? They are from so long ago and so far away… 2,000 years ago and far more than 2,000 miles- another place and time, virtually another world, separated by language, technology, governance and more history than we can begin to know.
It’s a testimony of faith of why we are here in the first place; that somehow in re-telling these stories, retracing the words and steps and actions of Jesus, we can remember what he did, and re-enact and somehow re-embody who he was and how he lived, as individuals and as a community of faith.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt a real presence of God in the stories of Jesus… Maybe it goes back to my early years in Sunday School, when one of my Sunday School teachers, Mrs. Bartholomew it was, would ask: “What would you do if Jesus came to your house?”
In just asking that question, she helped bring Jesus present. So, it would go, that after reading one of the numerous Bible stories where Jesus had a central role, she would ask us to take our crayons and that big & wide, yellowish-brownish paper we had, and draw the scene that came to our mind’s eye.
I honestly can’t remember what it was that I drew, if it was Jesus playing with my matchbox cars, or playing catch with a baseball, but there was something very real about the idea of doing something with Jesus that was a comfort to me.
Funny thing… I remember that other kids were actually pretty antsy about the whole thing, like Jesus had X-ray vision and could see into the messy closets that we would have stuffed all our clothes in trying to clean up, or that he could read your mind and tattletale on you, that you had taken somebody else’s crayons or something.
Ever remember things like that from Sunday School?
In the gospels Jesus was invited to a number of homes, and he never once checked in anyone’s closets, as far as I can tell. How he was received did vary from place to place, however.
In our Gospel lesson, to Simon the Pharisee, this roving Rabbi, Jesus, was definitely someone to invite to be checked out. As a community leader and an expert in the Law, extending an invitation was one of the expected tasks of Simon’s station in life.
It’s not too difficult to reimagine this story.
On the evening of the happening, the tables are set up in the courtyard, low benches angled around them like petals on a flower. This is an event planned for twenty or so, with standing room behind for others who can look on, mingle, observe the festivities and count themselves included in the fold of those invited.
The extra space was common in the day, with people coming and going throughout the small village.
As guests arrive, servants appear with basins of water to wash the dust of the streets off their feet.
Then after washing their hands -all the way up to the elbows- and waiting while a servant sprinkles rose oil on their hair, the dinner guests stretch out on the benches, careful to lean on their left elbows, leaving their right hand to reach for food and drink. The details are all part of the stringent Pharisaical code.
When the visiting rabbi arrives, Simon, instead of rising to welcome the supposed guest of honor and greeting him with the traditional kiss of peace, ignores him. Out of the corner of his eye, Simon watches how his plan will work. The rabbi stands for a moment, looking around at the assembled guests. Eventually he finds an empty spot on a bench where he sits down to take off his sandals. Having been instructed by their master to ignore the rabbi, the servants don’t bring a basin of water for his feet or offer to perfume his hair.
Simon smiles to himself, now waiting for what this upstart rabbi might do. Perhaps the guest rabbi is waiting for an invitation to move to a better seat (which he will never get); maybe the guest will let the evening pass with no object lesson, no witty parable told. That might be the best.
At this point, though, a small commotion develops just inside the entrance of the courtyard. Simon can’t quite make out what’s going on- the lights of the oil lamps don’t reach into the shadows along the walls. It’s probably some villager just wanting a closer look at the guests in their finery, a diversion on an evening stroll. Well enough.
It’s only a moment later, when this figure moves from the walls out into the lamplight that Simon recognizes who this intruder is.
She is well known in this small town, and not for anything good. Her reputation almost precedes her, bad as it is. Now Simon wonders what’s going on.
Has the young, clever Rabbi planned this?
If nothing else, her presence itself has defiled his house; how he’ll repair his reputation- he’ll never know. Simon glances at Jesus to see his reaction, not really knowing what to expect. He is passive enough, but this intruder is not. And she isn’t quiet, either.
He sees her tears, he hears her weeping, babbling something unintelligible while she cleans his feet with the only thing she has to serve as rags; her hair. Simon flinches in disgust.
Without even looking up at Jesus, the woman unstops a small vial of perfume she carries on a string around her neck and pours it on his feet.
All of this is clear enough in view, both to Simon and to all of his guests. What is he to do, what can he say?
It doesn’t take too much for Jesus to know just what is going through Simon’s mind, the scandal the guests must think of all of this.
From one vantage point, what in the world is this intruder doing, blubbering all over a guest, making such a scene? From a different perspective, how inconsiderate has this host been to Jesus? No welcome extended, no hospitality shared, whatsoever- just a place at the table, if he can find one…
So Jesus goes ahead gives him a piece of his mind… and he does so with a story and a question, teacher to teacher…. “Once upon a time, a banker loaned two people some money. One got twice as much as the other. But when the loans came due, neither debtor could pay up.
So the banker simply wrote both the debts of his books. Just like that. Paid in full. Now then, tell me, Simon, which one of these bankrupt debtors is going to love that banker more?”
One corner of Simon’s mouth lifts in a condescending smile as he gives the obvious answer, ”My guess is the one who owed the most.”
“Correct”, says Rabbi Jesus, and he’s not done. Looking at the woman, still at his feet, he contrasts the welcome she gave him over against the Pharisee. It is no contest.
The shrewd, calculating reception that Simon concocted versus this woman’s open, heart-felt embrace; Simon’s modest outlay of resources to entertain his special guest, over against her going all-in.
Whether it had to do with the amount of sin, acknowledged and committed that the woman was able to openly fess up, and how Simon would still have to go back and parse out each and every possible less than honest act, and the degree of lack of trust he had in God’s ways, or the amount of forgiveness that God would give in return; it was too much of an excruciating endeavor for Simon to endure. He would rather test Jesus than simply open his heart. It’s not an unusual thing, really.
I wonder if Simon choked on the piece of Jesus’ mind given him in this story. Maybe. “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” I wonder how close to home those words struck.
I wonder if Simon was ever able to unburden himself and know of the simple and infinitely deep well of grace that Jesus accessed through God’s love.
Perhaps he one day learned of Jesus’ love and mercy. Maybe he was able to celebrate the miracle that he found release and forgiveness, that his slate was wiped clean of fault and he was even able to forgive himself.
And with that realization, he was able to share all of the energy that used to go into protecting himself to be given over to others in the free gift of love.
I hope is it was so, for Simon, and for all of us; in Jesus’ name. Amen.