Luke 7:36-8:3 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
36 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. 37 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. 38 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. 39 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.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
8 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Women figure prominently in the Gospel of Luke. In this lectionary reading, Luke first tells us about Jesus’ encounter with a woman who burst into the home of Simon, who, according to Luke, is a Pharisee. This unnamed woman engages in an act that scandalizes Jesus’ host. After this episode, Jesus goes out proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, accompanied not only by his male disciples, but also by several women, who are providing financial support to the group. For some reason the creators of the lectionary connected the scene at Simon’s house, with this account of the three women who are part of Jesus’ community. Apparently they, like the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, have reason to be thankful to Jesus, for they had been delivered from evil spirits.
Before we get to the heart of the issue before us, something needs to be said about the way Luke offers up the story of the woman washing his feet. Each Gospel has its own version, with Luke’s version taking place at the home of a Pharisee. It is quite likely that Luke did this as part of an effort to undermine the reputation of the Pharisees as the Christian and Jewish communities were in the process of separating. Since we still find ourselves equating a narrow self-righteousness to the Pharisees, we need to continually take note of how we portray Jews and Pharisees in our preaching, teaching, and conversations. If we can do this, then we can hear the message of inclusion that seems to be at the heart of the conversation.
There a number of ways of approaching this passage (I am preaching on this text Sunday with a stewardship emphasis, since the story lifts up the connection between gratitude and giving). The connection of the story of the story at Simon’s house with the account of the three women who accompany Jesus, offers us the opportunity to consider the role of women in the Christian community. In a world where men and women lived largely segregated lives, it seems, at least from Luke’s perspective, that women played a rather central role in Jesus’ community. It’s true that the men remain in the foreground, but there is less separation than one would expect in this context. While we shouldn’t push the dynamics too far, so that we honor Jesus at the expense of the Jewish community out of which he emerged, there’s still something powerful about this scene at Simon’s home and the commentary that follows that invites us to consider how women are present in the community.
What I find intriguing about the story is that the women identified here, including the woman who washed Jesus’ feet and anointed his head and feet with precious oil, had multiple social/cultural strikes against them. They do seem to be women of means, but they had also been delivered from evil spirits by Jesus. Mary Magdalene, who makes her first appearance in Luke’s gospel, had been delivered of seven spirits. She would become a key disciple, being one of those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (Luke 24:10). So, they all had reason to be grateful to Jesus. He had freed them from some form of bondage that would segregated them from society—though we don’t know the nature of these acts of deliverance (Mary Magdalene appears only twice in Luke).
Perhaps that’s the message we need to hear. Jesus was gathering together not a school of elite students, but people who lived on the edge of society, that would include single women, including widows. These were not insiders, but outsiders; people who required societal rehabilitation. When we approach a text like this we need to look at ourselves. Where do we fit in the story? Are we on the inside or the outside? By gender, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, and religious background, I am surely counted among the insiders. I am Simon. It’s not that being on the inside is bad. It simply requires me to be more conscious of my own situation in life. Having been born an insider, how can I be aware of the presence, gifts, and needs of those who generally stand on the outside?
When the woman approached Jesus, Simon was scandalized. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Here was this revered religious teacher, and he was allowing a woman to not only touch his feet, but wash them, anoint them, and kiss them. I had not really thought of it in this way, but in the ancient world, to let down one’s hair, as she did, often had erotic connotations. You can understand why Simon was concerned. Surely Jesus knew that this wasn’t acceptable behavior. So, why didn’t he put a stop to it?
Simon didn’t need to say anything. His face said it all. We all know that look—the look of disgust. Jesus saw the look. He knew what Simon was thinking. So, he turned to his host and told a parable. It’s a parable about forgiveness. Two people owe a debt. One owes a rather large amount; the other a relatively small amount. Five hundred denarii would have been the equivalent of about a year and a half worth of wages, while the fifty denarii would be worth maybe a month and a half of wages. Jesus asks Simon: who would be more grateful if they had these debts forgiven? The one who owed the most or the least? Simon knew the answer. It would be the one who owed the most. Putting it in economic terms helps us understand the deep chasm between the two. Obviously this woman required more forgiveness, and thus she was more grateful. Simon, being an insider, and by societal standards a good upstanding man, required little. Thus, he didn’t express the same level of gratitude.
Indeed, when Jesus arrived at his home he had failed to offer the basic rudiments of hospitality. It’s not that he would have washed Jesus’ feet, but he should have had someone on his household staff take care of this. No kiss either or anointing. But she offered him all of this. Yes, she was grateful. Apparently so were the three named women who accompanied Jesus and provided financial support to his ministry. It’s interesting to note that both Mary Magdalene and Joanna were among those who witnessed the resurrection and reported the empty tomb to the disciples (Luke 24:8-10). When we think of Jesus disciples, we think of the twelve (or the eleven), but among the most faithful were the women. It is unfortunate that down through history this faithfulness has not been sufficiently honored. We do well to emulate their faithfulness in discipleship. Part of this is recognizing the depth of our own need for forgiveness and restoration. At the same time, we can commit ourselves to the task of inclusion.