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 cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’
Then turning towards 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.’
Today’s reading calls us to, once again, reflect on the nature of ‘love’: our love for God. We are presented with a scene that is easy to picture in our mind’s eye. Jesus is at a dinner party in the house of Simon the Pharisee. Our attention is also drawn to an uninvited guest: the unnamed sinful woman, who wept and bathed Jesus’ feet with ointment and then dried his feet with her hair. As we look upon this scene we are invited to observe a ‘sleight of the hand’, a trompe-l’oeil,which is almost worthy of a good whodunnit. The question we need to consider revolves around the motivations and practices of the principal characters.
Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus to dine with him. The unnamed woman, who had not been invited to the meal, comes into the scene and performs a ritual act of cleansing that demonstrates a level of poor taste that would offend any who knew the strict rules of Judaism. Which one is the ‘good’ guy, and which the ‘bad’?
Not surprisingly, and very much in the spirit of so many of those whodunnits that amuse and entertain, things are not as simple as they seem. It is revealed that Jesus’ host failed to offer the normal courtesies of ritual cleansing when Jesus arrived. This is both surprising and suggestive. It suggests that Simon did not consider Jesus worthy of such normal courtesies and, perhaps, he was not that observant a Pharisee as he would like others to believe. The unnamed sinful woman, for her part, was a gate-crasher, an uninvited presence at the party, but it was she who performed the rituals that should have been offered by the host. What a tangle of actions and motivations!
Perhaps we should not be surprised to read that Jesus did not join Simon the Pharisee in condemning the actions of the unnamed woman. She recognized her sinful nature and the need to seek forgiveness. She recognized the true nature of Jesus and sought forgiveness through an act of lowly service. The arrogance and the negligence of Simon demonstrated a disregard for Jesus’ divinity, perhaps even a contempt! The faith and love demonstrated by the unnamed woman led to her sins being forgiven, and the opening up of a new future. Not so for the negligent host.
Let us pray that we might take our sinful lives to Christ and seek his forgiveness. Let us pray that we might approach God in lowliness and humility, setting aside human pride and vanity. Let us pray that, as we seek God’s forgiveness for ourselves, we might also forgive others with an open, generous and loving heart.