The story begins with a prominent community leader inviting Jesus to a party at his house. (Luke 7:36) Jesus went, of course, because that’s what Jesus did. He didn’t refuse anyone who gave him an invitation.
Jesus was most often found on the streets, in parks or local cafes engaging in small groups with impromptu crowds, but he was equally comfortable in larger, more formal crowds at churches, colleges and public meeting halls with politicians, priests, academicians. Jesus wouldn’t refuse any request to meet and be with people wherever he went. So Jesus went to the party.
Jesus had risen quickly to popularity. No one really knew that much about him, where he came from or what his credentials were, but anyone who was anyone knew about him by now. Many people wanted to meet him. He would be a draw to Simon’s party.
Of course, people alternately loved him or hated him. Few people were neutral about Jesus. Some people hung on every word he spoke, while others questioned everything, wondering what his intentions were, skeptical of everything he said or did.
We don’t know much about the particular party to which Jesus was invited or the host of the party, other than this name, Simon, and the fact that he was a prominent man in the community. One of the few things we really know about the party is the scandal that took place there.
Simon was a well-known leader in his community. His home was open to friends and neighbors. He was generous with his prominence, wealth and lifestyle. He loved to entertain. Inviting Jesus would be a hip thing to do, given the grass roots popularity of Jesus.
Inviting Jesus might would be viewed as scandalous by some of Simon’s peers, but he considered himself to be different than them. He fancied himself more open-minded than that. He wasn’t afraid of a little controversy.
But Simon wasn’t at all ready for what would happen next. While his home was an open invitation to friends, colleagues and neighbors, no one who was not of a particular type would dare, surely, to enter those halls dedicated to showing off the influence, prominence and wealth to which Simon had attained. People who had not attained, or at least aspired to attain, a certain stature certainly wouldn’t think of it…. or would they?
Enter Simon’s house and crash his party Mary Magdalene did… and she wasn’t discreet about it. (Luke 7: 37) If a person didn’t happen to see her enter the house, they would have known the time of her entry by the richly luxuriant stench from the ointment in the alabaster flask she carried with her.
The ensuing commotion she created would become indelibly etched in the memories of all who were present. So much that we are reminded of it today.
She knew exactly what she was going to do. The glass top raised above the flask opening, poised there by her right hand, Mary was totally given to the intention to which she was committed. The pungent odor of her offering accentuated the shock and surprise of those who were drawn to her attention.
Mary was not some anonymous commoner stepping out of the shadows of the unremarkable huts that marked the neighborhoods of the working class poor. Though respectable people looked away when she approached, and no one of good company deigned to know her, she was well-known nevertheless. No one would have mistaken her for a polite woman.
Mary might have been a flower child in the 1960’s, attracted to the lure of free love and the naive, hopeful promises that were the anthem of the sexual revolution sung by Rock and Roll prophets. Her decadence was extravagant, born out of an unrequited desire for meaning and purpose in life and a discontent for the usual and accepted traditions that echoed hollowly in her soul.
Mary’s face was careworn with signs of hard living earned in reckless abandon of convention. They were the price she paid for her disregard of safe living. Mary’s eyes revealed deep pools of pain and struggle mixed with idealistic hope. Her hair was unkempt. Her clothes reminded people of the better years of aged aristocrats, discarded in scrapheaps, and worn to a frayed comfort that Mary accepted as her main solace as she pined for meaning and purpose that long escaped her.
Mary’s life was over for all appearances. She spent her youth recklessly in search of an ever receding glimpse of true meaning in a world that was increasingly not worthy of it. She had chosen her unconventional lot in life, and there was no turning back. Many were the men with whom she slept, but none would provide her a suitable place to call her own.
We don’t know by what means Mary came by the expensive ointment in the delicate alabaster bottle she carried with her into the house in search of Jesus, the prophet who drew her attention on the streets. One can only imagine the price she paid. It was everything she could possibly offer the one man she knew would not take advantage of her. If there was anyone who held the secret to the meaning and purpose Mary lived her life hoping to find, it was Jesus.
When she found him, she hesitated only a moment. Standing behind Jesus, already weeping, unaffected by the stares from the crowded room, she began to pour out the offering of all the hopes and dreams that remained in her. Oblivious to the protest erupting in the mind of her unintentional host, Mary knelt in adoration, giving herself completely and unconditionally to the man in front of her. She wet his feet with tears flowing from the dark pool of her soul. The fountain of her deepest pains, hopes, struggles and joy flowed unhindered by pretense.
She was too far gone, too much committed, too spent in the glorious hope and love she saw in Jesus to be self-conscious. Wiping the tears that fell on his feet with her hair, Mary kissed him and anointed his feet with the ointment in the alabaster bottle, pouring it and herself out before Jesus in the offering. (Luke 7:38)
It happened so quickly; it was so wholly unimaginable, that people were stunned to silence. Conversation trailed off in mid air. The soft caresses of her immediate devotion, the rising and falling of the passion in her breast and the utter abandonment of Mary to the man who would call himself “I Am” were palpable in that quiet moment when time stood still.
A lesser man would have shriveled or swelled with supreme self-consciousness, but Jesus looked into the mind of his host, Simon, and read his thoughts: “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.” (Luke 7:39)
Jesus saw this moment from the beginning of the heavens and the earth, a moment that hangs still in place, captured forever by the writer of the Gospel of Luke. With a gentle, commanding voice, Jesus responded to Simon’s unspoken thoughts: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Caught completely off guard, Simon could only invite Jesus to continue. (Luke 7:40)
Jesus has that way of catching us in the moment of our thoughts, intruding gently into our mind’s eye. If we are not ready for his visitation, we might miss the opportunity. Jesus responded in that moment with a short parable and a question:
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7:41-42)
The moment still pregnant, and the answer being obvious, Simon said, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” Affirming Simon, Jesus continued:
“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.” (Luke 7:44-47)
I imagine Simon to be a self-made man, flamboyant in his outward generosity, showing off his good fortune. He was probably a “good guy” as people go. People didn’t mind the ostentation for the chance to participate in his generosity.
I imagine that Simon hadn’t lived the reckless, decadent life of his uninvited guest. He did the right things. He had the right education. He took the right risks. He was not a saint, but he certainly wasn’t as bad as many that he knew, and he was convinced he was better than most.
I imagine it was hard for Simon to understand, when it comes right down to it. Why would God reward that behavior? Surely, Simon wasn’t like her. Why would she waste all that precious ointment pouring it out all over his floor. A little bit of a good thing is enough. Too much would reek for months.
Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, had no pretenses. She was an open book, and she knew well what people thought of her. She lived her life, really, for one thing only, and it had escaped her completely, though not through want of trying. Though she might not have been able to put it into words. She knew what she sought when she first saw and heard Jesus.
There is less difference in the quality of the character of Mary and Simon then we know, and more difference in their relation to God than we might suspect. In regard to sin, they surely stand as equal before God who is so wholly perfect none of us compare. Mary knew well the depth of her incompleteness and need for the forgiveness of God; while Simon had only the faintest idea of it.
Simon, the Pharisee, lived in a world of comparisons in which he measured up favorably in his own eyes and, surely, in the eyes of those who knew him. He and his crowd reveled in their common ascent to respectable society, doling out polite compliments to each other with miserly tokens of appreciation, generous only in the price they paid for the station they enjoyed in this life.
Mary wasn’t like them at all. She gave everything to everyone and took little if nothing in return. She had precious little to show for her life of pouring herself out, most of it utterly wasted on people and things that deserved little of what she gave.
On that day when she poured out the only and remaining treasure she had in that sacrificial offering to Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s extravagant gift was only surpassed by the love with which she gave it.
And this is love: not that we have loved, but that God loved us and sent His only son to sacrifice Himself for us. (1 John 4:10). No greater love has one person for another, but that he lays down his life for another.
Many years after these events and all the many things that were recorded about Jesus, including his death, appearance and resurrection, John, the disciple that Jesus loved, wrote these words:
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)