Sometimes I forget that the Bible is full of humans. Messy, tear-stained and snot-filled, biologically hazardous humans. Sometimes I’ll read something that will highlight the hot mess that is all of humanity, and it’s beautiful. Because Jesus was there. These moments only happen though, when I really read the Bible — not just give it a perfunctory skim in order to douse myself in some sort of pseudo holiness the way I wear a pair of knock-off jeans.
The scripture is Luke 7:36-50. Jesus has gone to dine at the home of a Pharisee. A woman — described as a sinner — has learned that He is there, and goes with an expensive jar of perfume. The following is from the NIV:
When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is — that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
I imagine the story in technicolor like an old Moses movie. Here is the bustling house of the Pharisee. Here comes my first thing:
Jesus. Eating with Pharisee.
It’s important to note that in the day and age of Jesus, eating with someone was a way of identifying with that person. You dined with someone to make a cultural statement. That’s why the Pharisee’s were always in such a tizzy over this man Jesus, who brilliantly preached in the temple by day and went to have dinner with hookers and drug lords by night. Jesus was a subversive. A rebel with a pretty major cause.
So Jesus ate with sinners. And here is no exception, except, perhaps, in the mind of Simon the Pharisee.
Simon didn’t consider himself a sinner. The Pharisees were all about pointing out other people’s sins, but they considered themselves quite holy. There is an irony here that dances around the edges of my brain — I can’t quite capture it in words. The over arching idea of Jesus, friend of sinners. Of the Pharisee, not thinking himself a sinner. Of Jesus knowing the Pharisee is definitely sinner. This weird dynamic of denial in the Pharisee even when face to face with the savior. The counter-images of the holiest of men eating with humanity’s lowest, and the holiest of men eating with humanity’s self-appointed “highest”.
This story is so much about the woman. At least, when I started writing this essay it was all about the woman. But if we fast-forward the Gospel to the cross, Jesus hung there for this Pharisee, too.
It’s all pretty deep.
Especially when I think about how so many people these days are willing to say, “Well, nobody’s perfect, including me,” but refuse to say, “I am a sinner.” We move the little bar up and down the sliding scale to suit our needs. I do it too. I have been the Pharisee.
Anyway. Back to the woman. Something’s up with her. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps she’d had an encounter with Jesus previously that caused her to experience His amazing grace. Or, maybe she’d just been watching Him from afar, much the way some people today dance along the edges of faith, trying to catch a glimpse of something that will tell them Yes, this is real.
Either way, she’d made a decision.
She’d somehow come to the conclusion that she was messed up. Whether she was a hooker or a PTA mom who was a nasty gossip — she became aware of all she was lacking and experienced the amazing love that He has to offer. Jesus affected her so strongly that she — a sinner — came to the Pharisee’s home to see him.
I dunno. I think this is a pretty bold statement. The Pharisees went around having people stoned for their sins. If she were “The Town Sinner” — in whatever form that may have taken — I’m thinking that something pretty powerful drew her to the Pharisee’s house.
And there was God. Approachable. Available. Right there, close enough for sinners to touch.
That’s what Jesus does, isn’t it? Once we realize that’s it’s not condemnation but love that he’s pouring out, don’t we just want to come running to Him, social constructs aside? Don’t we just long to fall into his outstretched arms? Especially when we realize that he’s not the God hates fags signs, or the political right, or the spiritual leader who hurt us, or the committee head who gossiped about us, or the man who said women are less than, or whomever it is that has hijacked his identity for their own purposes today. When we realize that none of these are Jesus and Jesus is everything these are not, we come running to him. Pure Jesus. Who cares what anybody thinks, just give me my Jesus.
Here she comes, moved to such a degree that she goes right to where he is reclining, stands behind him and at his feet, weeping.
Long, deep, quiet sobs. The kind that pull your mouth down into a grimace. A pain so deep it loses its sound on the way out. Tears spilling out of the containers of your eyes, swimming in a grief so deep and grey. And snot. Snot like an ocean, wiping you clean of the germs of your sin. She stood behind him, weeping.
And then she baptized him in her tears. I imagine they were tears of grief and mourning as she awakened to how dead in her sins she was previously, and tears of gratitude and relief at the new life of grace and forgiveness that is her eternity. She lovingly bathed his feet with them. And in a moment of intense public intimacy, she let down her hair (an incredibly inappropriate thing to do) and used it to dry his feet. She took her insides — in the form of her tears — and her outside — in the form of her hair — to serve him. Everything she may have sinned with, she now used to love him.
Simon could only think of appearances.
How many times have we stood on ceremony, idealism, standards, or some other form of “cultural good” while just a few feet away there was a human being writhing in emotional pain? There’s a song: You gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything, right? I like that song, but I wonder if as Christians we’re so busy standing for something we forget about the people who are writhing at our feet.
There is Simon, thinking privately to himself, If this guy were really a prophet, he’d know that she is a sinner.
Of course, Jesus knows exactly with whom he is keeping company. He knows that she is a sinner. And he knows that Simon is, too. So he tells Simon this story about two debtors, and points out that if the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.
At first glance, it may seem that he is affirming Simon as a “lesser sinner”. But I think the message in this story is more about the self-awareness of sin. The woman in this story received an immense gift that touched her profoundly, but in order for her to receive it, she had to become aware that she was in need of it. Simon was so busy walking around thinking to himself “Hey, I’m a good person,” that he was blind to his own need for the gift Jesus was offering. Isn’t that always the way of the self?
But then something amazing happened. Jesus turned to the woman.
He looked at her.
He spoke to Simon, but his eyes never left her. With each word he said, he lifted her up. He carefully listed all the ways puffed up Simon had fallen short. And he listed the beautiful love sacrifices she had made. And the whole time, Jesus’s eyes were on her, filled, I imagine, with compassion and love. And he tells her, You are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.
Go in peace.
I have been the Pharisee, and I have been the woman. I have walked, oblivious to my own need. I have been the oh-so-holy one who believed the forgiveness I needed was oh-so-small. Finally, I became the tear stained, snot-filled woman, who came face to face with a visceral God. And when he turned his beautiful eyes on me, with love and an incredible, sweet affection, he gave me a message I had no idea I needed so much.
You are forgiven. Your faith has saved you.
Go in peace.