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.’
I suspect I would have enjoyed Simon’s embarrassment if I had been invited to dine at his house. He probably got what he deserved by having let the wretched women into the house in the first place. As for forgiveness…? None of my business. God forgives, not me.
But I doubt whether I would have laughed for long. We are all Simon the Pharisee at heart. Perhaps Simon at his best, would have accepted that the woman wanted to be forgiven and that proper penitence and a change of life as a consequence, was something to rejoice about. But it’s irrelevant; Jesus had already forgiven her.
When Mary does the same thing in another gospel story, Jesus takes her action as a token of her love and tells Judas and the others to “leave her alone”.He knows what is coming and so, it would seem, does Mary; myrrh, the oil of burial. But how could Luke’s harlot know that? She anoints his head with myrrh, and although Jesus tells her that she is forgiven, it is not her penitence which moves him, but her love. “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven”. The woman comes to Jesus to show him love and respect because she already knows that she has been forgiven, and her foot washing is an act of thanksgiving and love. What Jesus says next pierces all our hearts and the Simon that lurks in them: “Where little has been forgiven, little love is shown”. We can only love truly, when we know that we need to be forgiven and accepted by God, regardless of whatever judgment the world may choose to pass.
When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. God be merciful to me, a sinner. Amen
The Rev’d Peter Moth, retired minister Northern Synod, St Andrew’s URC Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne