A close reading of the gospels gives one the distinct impression that Jesus enjoyed rattling people’s cages. He had a habit of eating with losers, outcasts, and traitors to the dismay of the religious leaders. He seemed to go out of his way to heal on the Sabbath because he knew they didn’t like it. He brought women into his inner circle as disciples and praised hated foreigners. He broke the law and touched lepers. But of all his radical behaviour, what Jesus did the night a prostitute disrupted a dinner party may be the most disturbing. Indeed, had you or I been there, we would no doubt be shaking our heads and murmuring that this time, Jesus has just gone too far.
The community was abuzz with the news that the rabbi who’s turning Israel upside down is in town and will be dining at the home of Simon the Pharisee tonight . A Pharisee in first century Judaism is a big deal. He’s a leader of the community. To be a guest at his house would be like being invited to the home of a CEO of a large corporation, an important government official or perhaps the home of a megachurch pastor.
The meal goes along fine. Pleasantries are exchanged. The roasted lamb is succulent; everyone smiles after tasting the wine. Then, all of a sudden she barges in unannounced, a woman well-known all over town as promiscuous, quite possibly a prostitute. She’s entered the room because she knows that when a rabbi like Jesus eats at a leader’s home, other people can watch and listen. But for a woman of her standing to do so is a big risk.
As she approaches the entrance of the room she’s confronted by an onslaught of inner voices. “You’re a shameful slut. What are you doing here? This man is holy. You don’t belong. Don’t go through that door. You’re going to make a fool of yourself. You will be a laughing stock in this town for the rest of your life. You’re a loser. Get out of here.” She doesn’t listen, but rather, tiptoes up behind Jesus as he reclines on a pillow, a mat spread out with the meal in front of him. His body trails away from the feast and she sees his sandals have been removed as is the custom. At the sight of her, Simon’s eyebrows raise and his nostrils flare with indignity. The guests’ faces show undisguised disgust as well. One woman draws back as though from vermin. Jesus’ face, however, radiates a captivating acceptance encouraging her to come forward. She takes no notice of the hostile stares and the sneering lips. Now, more than ever, she just wants to do something extraordinary for Jesus.
As she gets closer to his inviting presence, her heart begins to melt. Thoughts of her past and all that she has become fill her heart. Even before she kneels down to anoint Jesus’ feet a dam bursts within her. The pain mingles with the warmth of Christ’s love and her past washes away in a flood of tears. But as she looks down she sees her tears splashing on Jesus’ feet. “The Master’s feet are getting soaked by my tears! What do I do now?” She has nothing to dry them with. Jesus’ feet are getting wetter and wetter. The woman is now desperate and comes up with a plan that will only dig her deeper into the hole of public shame. She throws caution to the wind not caring what others think.
She is only focused on Jesus and so she does something that is totally culturally indecent–she lets her hair down in front of them all, and begins to dry his feet with her hair. Her anxiety now abating, she enacts the next part of her plan. She pours out the precious anointing oil she’s brought on Jesus’ feet. As she does so a torrent of love erupts from somewhere deep inside and she pours that out too– now doing the completely unthinkable! Overwhelmed by a sense of grace and mercy , she starts kissing Jesus’ feet, not once or twice, but continuously, for a long time.
Can we grasp the sensuality of what’s happening? Jesus, fully human, fully male has a woman let down her hair, rub his feet with it, anoint and possibly massage them with oil and then start kissing them repeatedly. In first century Judaism a woman letting her hair down in public had sexual overtones and was considered immodest. Furthermore, this particular woman is known by the whole community as promiscuous, quite likely a prostitute. The same lips that had kissed so many other lusting lips go on kissing his feet in full view of all the guests. And Jesus let it all happen! Later, he will even draw Simon’s attention to how long her kissing went on!
“Did Jesus go too far this time?” Simon thinks so. This is all the evidence he needs. Jesus is a false prophet. “If he were a real prophet,” Simon says to himself, “he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is.” His thoughts perfectly reflect the Pharisees’ attitude. Their life’s work was to make and enforce rules that excluded others from their “holy” inner circle. How much pain they inflicted by this judgment of others was irrelevant.
Jesus, however, yanks Simon off his judgement seat and puts him in the defendant’s box. Simon had scoffed to himself about Jesus’ lack of discernment concerning the woman. As one scholar notes, the irony is that Jesus not only knows what kind of a woman is touching him, he also knows what kind of a man Simon is. He even knows what he is thinking!
In not recoiling from the woman but instead receiving her washing and anointing of his feet with prolonged kisses, Jesus’ passivity is remarkable. As we study the life of Christ in the gospels, it becomes obvious that most of us need to do what Jesus makes explicit in Matthew 11:28-30, learn of his gentleness and meekness. We tend to equate those qualities with weakness or laziness, but that shows a misunderstanding of Jesus’ nature. Furthermore, gentleness and meekness may mean we are passive at times, but they may mean the opposite at other times. Jesus lives in the exhilaration of a Spirit-led life, now passive, now taking action. When he turns to Simon, we see his assertiveness in full display. Although Jesus lets all of the woman’s actions go, he doesn’t even let Simon get away with what he’s thinking. Jesus wants to give him a chance to repent and so is proactive even to the point of apparent rudeness in order to do so. Simon’s hardening of his heart is serious indeed. Changing it requires strong medicine which Jesus is not afraid to administer. God’s mercy does not mean he’s a benevolent grandfather “who just wants to see the young people have a good time” as C.S. Lewis characterized this false view of God.
In allowing this scene to develop, Jesus has initiated a drama. Now he invites the Pharisee into it with an interactive parable. He says in effect, “Simon, you like judging people. You’ve judged this woman; you’ve judged me. I want you to make one more judgment. One guy owed $50,000 to a rich man and another owed $5,000. When they couldn’t pay, he completely forgave both their debts. Which one of these guys will love the moneylender more?” Simon realizes he’s being sucked into something that may not go well for him and so grudgingly answers, “I suppose the guy who owed the bigger debt.”
Jesus says he has indeed given the right answer. He then turns toward the woman and asks Simon a profound question, “Do you see this woman?” The story makes it clear that he didn’t see her. Trapped in his own mind with his self-righteous fantasies, he only sees the category into which he ’s put her, sinner. Simon sees only the surface. He lives a shallow, imprisoned life, his religious system a boa constrictor that squeezes all love out of him. Furthermore, Simon can’t see the big heart of the One who is his guest. He only sees the label he ’s put on Jesus, “false prophet.” His self-confident knowledge blinds him to love incarnate eating dinner with him.
On the other hand, Jesus sees not merely a category, but the woman in her God-created beauty. Even though he acknowledges that, indeed, she had sinned much, he didn’t see a “sinful woman.” In light of her past, the high view Jesus articulates concerning her is extraordinary. He will commend her as someone with great faith, a faith that “saves” her, he says. Not only that, he says she’s a person of great love. Jesus saw her true self, a woman who “loved much.”And now we know why Jesus let this scene unfold the way it did. The drama highlighted for all to see the response of lavish love from one who had encountered heaven’s mercy. From a human point of view it was an overly sensual, questionable scene for the Son of God to be involved in . From a divine perspective the fragrance of angels filled the room because one sinner had repented. It was not about romance but forgiveness and redemption of a messed-up sexuality . It was about a woman finally finding the love she’d been looking for in all her illicit relationships with men.