I marvel at her, grateful for her embodied witness to the saving power of God’s love. The woman in Luke Chapter 7 makes the gathering at the Pharisee’s house into a true thanksgiving dinner, even though she isn’t on the official guest list. She gives testimony to the immeasurable grace of God as only a person who has truly known God’s mercy can.
Jesus is at the supper, too, in his case as an invited guest. His place has been set by his host Simon, an elder in the local house of worship; the two are joined by Simon’s fellow Council members. Since Jesus has been known for eating with tax collectors and sinners, this may be a well-meaning attempt to rehabilitate him by giving him a more pious crowd to share table with.
No sooner has the banquet begun when a collective gasp erupts. The woman in question intrudes on what has been a carefully orchestrated scene, the scandal of her action obvious from the tone of the narrative. She is not afforded the dignity of a name by which we might personalize her, but is quickly laden with two labels: sinner, and woman of the city. Each is meant to impose a distance, to shackle, to reduce her humanity. Yet she is not deterred.
The pulpit Bible in our church sanctuary offers a subtitle for this story: “A Sinful Woman Forgiven.” My apologies to the publisher, but that really misses the essence of the story. This missionary of God’s gracious love doesn’t come to the Pharisee’s house seeking forgiveness. Instead, she risks crossing hardened boundaries, enduring sure ridicule and rejection, all the while pouring out her substance, her fullness, her grace, her gratitude, her healed and healing power, precisely because she has already experienced the forgiveness of God! What we are seeing is the kind of wonderful thing that happens when God’s fore-giveness is real-ized!
Forgiveness is God’s power to remove barriers, to loosen bonds, to set people free, enabling us to lay down distorting burdens. Forgiveness is God’s gifting of his people in ways that move us to gift others.
In this story, for this woman, and for you and me, forgiveness is the promise that God sees us in the fullness of who we are, in all our creative, inspired beauty, no matter what has happened in our lives. Luke says the woman has “learned” that Jesus was sitting at the table in the Pharisee’s house. The Greek word in the original text is suggestive. It means “to come to know.” What has she been “coming to know?” What movement in her life has led to her to this time and place? What form has God’s forgiveness already taken? Has she met Jesus previously and been touched by him? Has she heard the good news of God’s love, a love that most definitely includes her? Has she encountered a community of belonging? We are not told specifically; but we are given the opportunity to behold her.
What follows her initial appearance is breathtakingly beautiful. The woman brings ointment with which to anoint Jesus. She humbly takes a place at his feet, her tears flowing freely as testimony to so great a love being realized. She wipes his feet with her hair and kisses them, intimacies she risks because she knows he will understand. The final bestowal of ointment almost pales by comparison. Those of us listening to the story should take note: any reference to the original host, Simon, has been temporarily suspended. The focus of the narrative is completely on the woman ministering to Jesus. The world turns upside down in these moments. What Jesus will eventually do for his disciples in the Upper Room, washing their feet, she first does for him! This kingdom of mercy is being revealed to us in a way meant to enliven our imaginations.
It is only upon completion of this kindness that the jealous thoughts of the religious leader are permitted to intrude. The brusqueness of his “inner words” is meant to startle us into realizing that we have assumed a new position vis-à-vis the characters in this scene. We are reminded crudely that it was he who offered the original invitation to Jesus, and that he is now offended by the inappropriate action of the “sinner” and her claim on Jesus’ attention while in his house! Simon’s upset is not reserved for her: “If he (Jesus) were a prophet he would have known what kind of woman is touching him.” Indeed, Jesus does know, and rejoices. She is a healed woman, a loving woman who has experienced the balm of mercy in her own life, who has received the “give-ness of God!” For her—but not only for her!! And thus she lives gratefully!
Sensitive to the violence of Simon’s thinking, Jesus turns his attention to the host. In fact, Luke says that Jesus “answers” the Pharisee’s “private” thoughts. This reminds us that even our unspoken thoughts and attitudes can have toxic impact on other people, and on us as well. More hopefully, we are reminded that the Lord knows our inner thoughts and doesn’t leave us to drown in them alone: another manifestation of forgiveness.
Jesus takes the opportunity to initiate a healing process with Simon. The man’s internal eruption has become a kind of confession to which Jesus will offer divine response. There is a dynamic connection between confession and the ability to love. The vulnerability of confessing our limitation, our brokenness, our deep need, our longing, our gentleness in an often brutal world, enables us to further receive what God offers to us—God’s own self—and to share what we have received!
Jesus addresses him quite personally, quite unlike the Pharisee’s labeling of the woman as “sinner.” “Simon, I have something to say to you.” This will be a time of instruction from the Teacher. To his credit, Simon prepares to receive a lesson for one who would do well to cry. Jesus tells the story of a creditor who cancels the debts of two debtors, one for a small amount and one for a much larger sum. “Which one will love him more?” Jesus asks. Simon handles the mechanics of the “credit” story effortlessly; he is quite adept at “judging” situations and people, from a distance, and assigning them worth. What apparently escapes him is his own identification with either one of the debtors in the story. Or, if the two debtors might represent himself and the “sinful woman,” what escapes him may be the possibility that the one with the larger “debt”, the one with the greater distance from God’s way and from God’s other children, might not be her but rather him. Now Jesus leads Simon to the place where the Word hits ground.
Jesus refocuses his own attention on the woman while continuing to speak to Simon: “Do you see this woman?” I imagine the Pharisee responding, “Yes, okay,” with Jesus searching Simon’s eyes, then speaking once again. “No, what I mean is: Do you see this woman? Do you really see her?” This is very hopeful. In his Jubilee proclamation at the outset of his ministry, Jesus promised “recovery of sight for the blind.” Jesus now beckons his host to emerge from his blindness to the kind of clarity born of honest human encounter. The woman becomes for him a model; better yet, a living word. What is remarkable is that, according to Jesus, it is she who has offered the Lord hospitality of the highest order, in a space not identified as her own! She has made a place for the Jesus in the Pharisee’s house, in a way that the official host is either unable or unwilling to do. “You did not . . .but she. . .” How difficult and painful must such an awakening be!
Now to the crux: Love and forgiveness are intertwined. The one who is forgiven much is able to love much. The one who is forgiven little, loves little. The woman’s life is infused with a power that the Pharisee’s existence still awaits, but not because such power is unavailable to him.
Traditional notions of shame are in for a hit as well. “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven.” This is not offered as cause for embarrassment, but rejoicing. The truth has become an open door to the experience of redemption. Each of us is urged to take an honest account of our own sinful condition, without the folly of measuring them against the sins of others.
“Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus proclaims to the woman, a statement about an existing reality which has made what we are witnessing possible. His words are an affirmation rather than a transaction. She is treating Jesus with the kind of love she herself has received, and now desires for others.
His declaration of God’s saving action stirs deep within the Pharisee and his party the poison that needs to come to the surface in order to be overcome. Their voices of judgment begin to rise in the wake of mutual mercy and affirmation, this time out loud.
But Jesus seems deaf to their complaints. Jesus’ diagnosis of the situation, captured in the parable, and his prescription, “Do you see this woman?,” remain as invitations to their healing.
Jesus commissions the beloved one: “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” It is not a reference to possession, but a celebration of relationship.