The situation was already delicate, to say the least. Surprisingly, Jesus was at a private dinner in the house of a Pharisee, specifically, Simon the Pharisee. It was a great honour to be invited to the distinguished Simon’s house, but at the same time Simon had also dishonoured Jesus by showing none of the usual courtesies due a guest in that culture. It was a scant and insulting welcome.
As dinner proceeded, an unknown woman walked right in without asking and took up a place right behind Jesus. Still worse, she began weeping. We are not told why. Luke only reveals two things about her, that she was known as “a sinful woman,” and that she loved Jesus a lot.
She “began to bathe his feet with her tears.” Then she actually dried them with her hair. Remarkable. As a final gesture, she took out a lovely ornamented flask which she must have brought along warily for this purpose. She spread ointment upon his feet, with repeated kisses.
She was out of control!
Simon the Pharisee said under his breath, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman is touching him. She is an offender.”
In fact Jesus did know. He knew and was happy to receive her goodness. He accepted her tenderly. And he gave the Pharisee a sharp rebuke.
When I entered your house,you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet
since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
His deft words showed that her actions came directly from a loving heart. Here is the important line (which I paraphrase): “Her many sins have been forgiven; that is the reason she has shown such great love. If she had been forgiven only a little bit, her love would be small.”*
Notice what Jesus names as first. Not the woman’s love for Jesus, which many people think would then result in the forgiveness of her sins. Just the opposite. He had already forgiven her sins, and her love flowed from knowing that. Godly love is always the first cause, personal and present, for each of us no matter how sinful we are.
This love shows up in the form of forgiveness because we are all so inadequate.
Usually you and I have it backwards. We think we have to get rid of all our sins and turn into very loving people in order for God to care about us. In reality we are already loved to perfection by the good Lord, and as we slowly let that love in, we begin to change. We begin to recognize who we really are. We soften our hearts toward the mess or messes we have made of our lives because we see that somehow we are loved “as is.”
Jesus and the Pharisee and the sinful woman, with her tender affection, show us what it means to be loved and cared for in the midst of shame.
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. (1 John 4:1-10)
John Foley S. J.