In our readings this week, we encounter three women. One, Jezebel, is clearly understood to be evil. She has already encouraged her husband, King Ahab of Israel, to worship and promote Baal. Now she subverts justice and orchestrates the murder of the owner of a vineyard simply because Ahab covets the property.
In the alternative reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the track we will be following this summer and fall, we hear the end of the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband and of Nathan’s prophetic judgment against David and his house.
And the gospel story is Luke’s account of Jesus’ anointing. An unnamed woman, a sinner, interrupts the dinner at Simon’s house, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, and wipes them with her hair. After Jesus’ host Simon questions her actions, Jesus tells a parable that sheds light on what she has done. He concludes by saying, “Her sins are forgiven,” and tells her, “Go, your faith has saved you.”
The lectionary’s coupling of the David/Bathsheba story with the anointing presupposes us to imagine that the woman’s sin was sexual. That inclination is strengthened by the highly sexualized act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. The tradition has named this woman Mary Magdalene (although Luke makes no such connection) and has also generally understood her to be a prostitute. But leaping to that conclusion is going much further than the text permits. There are lots of sins that aren’t sexual and we ought to remember that in 1st century Judaism, “sin” meant breaking Torah, which could have been any of the 613 commandments listed by the later rabbis.
There’s something even more curious in the text. The way the gospel writer describes her suggests that something else might be going on. As one commentator translates it, “a certain woman was in the city a sinner.” The word order seems to imply that she was regarded in the city as a sinner. That is to say, we cannot be certain that she is a sinner. All we know is that the city thinks she’s a sinner. This might help to explain Simon’s internal response to the woman’s actions. He wonders why Jesus doesn’t know that she’s a sinner. Her sins are or were not obvious. And the verb tenses suggest that whatever her sins might have been, she is no longer sinning; she has been forgiven already. Her actions in anointing Jesus are expressive of the her love and gratitude at having been forgiven of her sins.
Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon saw a sinner; Jesus saw a forgiven and loving woman, a disciple. Is that what we see, a woman who, like the women Luke mentions in the first verses of chapter 8, women who followed Jesus alongside the twelve and the other disciples, women who ministered to him and the others out of their resources?