It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Jesus asked Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks us the same question, “Do you see this woman?” We think we see her; we think we know her—a penitent prostitute abjectly seeking Jesus’ forgiveness by abasing herself in front of him, anointing his feet, bathing them with her tears, wiping them with her hair. We think we know her, we think we know her story. It’s all so familiar.
But in the middle of this story, Jesus tells another story, a parable, that ought to get us to rethink everything, if only our assumptions and prejudices would allow it. A man had two debtors, one owed five hundred denarii; the other fifty. He cancelled the debts of both when they were unable to pay. Jesus asked Simon a rather odd question, “Which one of them will love him more?” Simon responds with the obvious answer, “the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” Indeed, this may be so obvious that we pay it no mind, we don’t think about it in the context of the story taking place. We see it instead as a criticism of Simon, a typical criticism Jesus might have made of pharisaic legalism.
But wait. Let’s reconsider all this. Why does Jesus tell this parable at this moment? What is he trying to tell Simon, and us? Let’s look at the story again, more closely, and in light of Jesus’ point that those who have been forgiven more, love more. First, a little background. Immediately before this incident, John the Baptist has sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus responds by telling them what he has already done, given sight to the blind, restoring the hearing of deaf people, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. After their departure, Jesus turns to the crowd and complains that For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
And now, while Jesus is dining at the home of a respectable Pharisee, a woman interrupts the dinner. But not just any woman, she is identified in our translation as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” The Greek reads more literally, “a certain woman was in the city a sinner” suggesting not so much that she was a sinner, but that the city regarded her as a sinner. In first-century Judaism, sin meant a number of things, in the first place, having broken the laws of Judaism. She might have been involved in an unclean trade, like dyeing; she might have been in some occupation that brought her into regular contact with Gentiles, making her unclean. And yes, she might have been a prostitute. What’s important to note here is that whatever her past, whatever her sins, they were not visible to the eyes. Simon’s observation that if Jesus were a prophet, he would know that she was a sinner, make that clear.
The second thing we see if we take the parable as our guide to understanding the story is that her actions in anointing Jesus are a response to the forgiveness she has received. Indeed, it’s likely that her sins have already been forgiven before she comes to the dinner party. The parable suggests that she is acting out of love and gratitude, acting in response to having been forgiven. This brings us to another question: just when were her sins forgiven? If she comes to the house to anoint Jesus out of love and gratitude for having been forgiven, that implies that her sins were forgiven before she came, before this encounter with Jesus. In other words, she may have met Jesus before this occasion, earlier at which time Jesus offered her forgiveness. His statement about her “that her sins were many” suggests that he had previous knowledge of her.
There’s one final bit of information that may shed light on this story. Our reading includes the first few verses of chapter 8. In it, Luke mentions some of the women who were Jesus’ disciples—the twelve, as well as some women. Luke names several of them and then adds, “they provided for them out of their resources.” These verses are tacked on to our reading to underscore the inclusion of women among Jesus’ disciples and their importance to Jesus’ ministry. Whether or not Luke intended it, including these verses with the story of the anointing woman invites us to see her actions both as discipleship and as an example of “providing for them out of their resources.”
Jesus asked Simon, “Do you see this woman?” He pointed out to him all the ways in which she performed actions of hospitality that were traditionally expected of a dinner host, washing his feet, welcoming him with affection. Simon saw a sinner. Jesus saw her love and gratitude, her ministry and discipleship.
What do we see? Who do we see? Do we see a penitent prostitute or a woman so overwhelmed by love and gratitude that she expresses it with kisses and tears? Do we see a disciple, a follower of Jesus, or a social outcast who deserves Jesus’ help but has nothing to offer in return? Do we see a sinner who we would rather not join us at coffee hour or dinner, or at the Eucharistic feast, or do we see someone like us, forgiven by God’s grace, full of love and gratitude? Do we see someone to whom we can minister, or someone whose ministry and discipleship we can receive?
Who do we see? A Jesus who meets our expectations and conforms to our norms of propriety, or a Jesus who allows his feet to be bathed and kissed by a sinner and to receive the love of someone who is unloved and shunned? Who do we see?