The story of the sinful woman who wipes Jesus’ fee with her tears and anoints them with oil is a tender but rather uncomfortable story. [i] A Pharisee had invited Jesus to eat with him at his house. While reclining at the Pharisee’s table, a woman, a known sinner, came up behind him.
Where did she come from? How did she get into the Pharisee’s house? Was she, perhaps, a daughter of the Pharisee, one of whom he was not very proud? was there something else going on? We don’t know.
When she came up behind Jesus, she was weeping, and she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped his feet with her hair, kissed his feet and anointed them with oil. A greater display of open, unabashed affection is hard to imagine. Thinking of the vulnerability and openness of her affection is even uncomfortable.
The Pharisee was taken aback, as we would be, mumbling to himself that surely Jesus must know who this woman is. Her reputation was well known, at least to the Pharisee.
Jesus, either knowing what the Pharisee was thinking or hearing his mumbling to himself, responded with a short parable of a moneylender who forgave the debt of two debtors, one owing 500 denarius and the other one 50 denarius. Jesus asked which would love the moneylender more. The Pharisee answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.”
Jesus responded, “That’s right!” and turned to the woman while saying to the Pharisee,
“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss 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 are many, are forgiven – for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Many people view the jailhouse conversions of criminals with a high degree of skepticism. We might doubt the sincerity of drug addicts who become become pastors and gangbangers and even prostitutes who become “religious”. This short passage describes a phenomenon that plays itself out in the modern world today. Many of us know people that have “changed’ when they became “religious”, and they are often viewed with suspicion or incredulity.
People can change, but the kind of change that turns a criminal into a pastor or a prostitute into the leader of a ministry for prostitutes is not any kind of human doing. It is purely the work of God. Only forgiveness and grace and the power of the Holy Spirit can change someone so radically from the inside out, making them new, truly born again.
The parable of the prodigal son also comes to mind. Consider the older son, not the prodigal son, but the one who never left the father’s house and didn’t squander his inheritance. He was the “good” son. When the father wept for joy at the return of the prodigal, killed the fatted calf and celebrated his return, the older, “good”, son was jealous.
Many prodigals never return home, and many of the faithful, “good”, sons love the father and are not jealous of the prodigals who return home. Rather, these are mindsets that we might all tend to have at one time or another.
The ultimate point is that we cannot know and understand the grace and the love of God in any deep or sincere measure unless and until we have a sense of our own unworthiness, our own sinfulness, our own wrongheadedness. The “bad” son is often painfully more aware of his own failures than the “good” son. But, it ultimately doesn’t matter how good (or bad) we are in comparison to others.
Isaiah, who was a prophet of God, a righteous man in that sense, a faithful, older son, found himself feeling completely undone in the presence of God. His response in the presence of God was to utter, “Woe is me, a sinner!”[ii] Even the good, the righteous among us, are utterly undone in the actual presence of God because God is so completely Holy.
Regardless of our life history, if we have not seen the extent of our own sinfulness or have not caught a glimpse of God In His Holy Otherness, we don’t have a good sense of what the forgiveness and grace of God means really. All we can do, and all that we do, is to compare ourselves to others. In that comparison, we may feel self-righteously smug, or we may feel self-consciously inferior, depending on our sense of how we stack up.
But that comparison to our fellow man is not the one we need to make. The Pharisees, who were superior to their kin in their observance and knowledge of the religious and moral laws of the day, were nothing but hypocrites, white-washed tombs and a brood of vipers in the eyes of Jesus.[iii] Yet, Jesus tenderly received the awkward expression of love and gratitude from a known sinful woman and her, “Your sins are forgiven!”
Jesus commended her for her faith. She had no station in this life to protect. Her reputation preceded her. She was labelled. But she knew her hope was in Jesus, and she knew that Jesus was God who is love in the flesh. She grasped that God alone is Holy and that He is also a loving, forgiving God.
We need to have some idea of God’s Holiness (otherness) compared to us in order to have an appreciation and understanding of what his grace and forgiveness means. If we compare ourselves only to other people, like the older son, like the Pharisee, we don’t see ourselves as we are in relation to God. Only when we see ourselves in relation to God as He really is can we truly begin to understand and experience what the forgiveness and grace of God means.
In the end, God does not have more love for the prodigal then for the older son. God does not have more love for the sinner then for the Pharisee. God’s love is the same for each person. The difference is our perspective on God, and our love for God is proportionate to the understanding of our own failure, sinfulness and weakness in comparison to God.
God does not cast us away when we approach Him with a repentant heart. He welcomes us and receives us and forgives our sins. As with the woman caught in adultery, He exhorts is to “go and sin no more”, but He doesn’t leave us alone to our own devices. He will dwell with us and in us and begin to change us from the inside out.
[i] 36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among[a] themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
[ii] Isaiah 6:5 (“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”)
[iii] Matthew 23:27-33 (““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”)