Primary Scripture Luke 7:36-50
The story of the woman anointing Jesus is one of the stories that appears in all four gospels… but is told slightly differently by each of the writers.
It might feel a little early for us to approach this text- we most often associate it with Holy Week, and thus speak about the way that the woman was preparing Jesus for burial.Her anointing is a bit of of an ironic coronation for the rightful King of the Jews, even as it echoes Samuel’s anointing of King David.
But Luke’s placement is much earlier. And the setting has other implications.
Luke has Jesus invited to the home of a Pharisee, Simon, to dine. The woman – un-named, but not unknown to those at the table, enters uninvited. Without speaking, she weeps, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears. She wipes them with her hair and kisses them. Then she anoints his feet with perfumed oil.
It would make sense, based on Jesus’ response to Simon, to spend some time contrasting the woman’s lavish act of hospitality with Simon’s lack of hospitality. Perhaps even to heap shame of Simon and his household for lacking this virtue, as well as lacking the faith and faithfulness the woman displays.
We might also talk about how this interaction mimics the Greek or Hellenistic symposium, in which a host invites guests to his home to dialogue about abstract matters like love, friendship or wisdom. Her interruption brings an interesting wrinkle and a depth of reality to an evening that might have been steeped in words and navel-gazing.
Of course, Jesus is never about navel gazing or words just for the sake of words. His ministry happens in the space where words and actions overlap…where words and actions collide.
Which may explain why the juxtaposition of the silent actions of the woman and the silent judgement of Simon moves Jesus to speak.
Did you catch that little detail? It’s easy to miss…Let’s Look again at verse 39…
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.”
“…he said to himself…”
This is not Mark’s gospel, in which the onlookers object among themselves… not directly to Jesus, though probably out loud (14:4). Nor is this like the disciples objecting openly in Matthew (26:28) or even John recalling Judas as the one who spoke his concerns aloud (John 1:4-5).
Here, Luke – and only Luke – uses what is called internal monologue. He narrates for us what Simon is thinking. This is important for a couple of reasons.
First, if we think back to the Holy family’s visit to the temple with the infant Jesus, we recall Simeon’s prophecy: “Because of him (Jesus – the Messiah) the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). Luke uses this interaction with Simon to reinforce the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the messiah.
It’s also important to understand that Luke is using a device that is rare in ancient writings. We see internal monologue all the time in current fiction and even some non-fiction writing. Even in movies as voiceovers take us inside a person’s thoughts and motives.
Ancient writers typically reserved this device for moments of crisis – a time when the protagonist or hero is dealing with intense internal conflict. If we look at works by authors like Homer, Ovid or Virgil, we would find a pattern that looks something like this: first, the inner speech itself, then a time of taking stock of the problem, and then the hero’s chosen solution.
Luke takes a slightly different approach. The examples of interior monologue in his gospel do come at a times of crisis, when the thinker wrestles with a difficult decision. But Luke’s thinkers – they are not the heroes. Or THE hero. We never see Jesus thinking to himself.
Luke uses internal monologue for people who are NOT heroic, NOT noble. In fact, these people embody self-centeredness. You see, in ancient Jewish literature, what one says to oneself indicates wisdom or foolishness. And Simon’s thought was clearly the latter.
Commentator Michal Beth Dinker of Yale Divinity School describes Simon’s moment of decision this way:
Like other ancient thinking characters, Simon faces a choice; he is deciding between two opposing views of Jesus’ identity — either Jesus is a prophet or he isn’t. The question itself demonstrates that Simon lacks love, hospitality, and true discernment. Furthermore, he clearly does not want to dialogue with Jesus; he simply “thinks to himself.”
Now… When Jesus addresses Simon, he proves exactly what Simon was questioning. Of course he knows what kind of person is touching him, honoring him. And of course Jesus knows the kind of person judging the woman,as well as questioning his welcoming of her.
Simon’s unspoken thought reveals foolishness – which is immediately contrasted with the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, his correcting, and his forgiving.
The whole situation was more than a little disconcerting for Simon.
The woman was a sinner and everyone knew it… and they recognized her as she came in the door.
The end of last week’s reading saw Jesus acknowledging what people were saying about him… 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!’
That was part of why Simon invited him over to talk. See, Simon and the Pharisees were more than a little like many of us…They were leaders in the church… not unlike those of us who have said yes to serving as elders or deacons… or leading committees…They cared – as we do – about the life and health of the community of faith
They were looking for signs that Jesus was really who he claimed to be, or signs that he was at least a prophet – if not the messiah. And the best way to do that was to compare his actions and teachings to the best tools they had… the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus looked more than a little like a prophet. He was wise and could heal. He fulfilled many of the older prophets’ sayings about what the messiah would do.
But then there were those people.
The tax collectors and the sinners.
And the fact that he sat at table and shared a meal with any of them.
All of them.
Table fellowship was a big deal. If you offered a place at the table to someone, you were saying they had standing with you. They were worthy of being in your company. And the better the seat (the closer to the host) the more honored the guest.
So, when Jesus filled the seats around a table. Or even sat at a table that included those people….
Well… What did he EXPECT people to think about him?
Only drunkards and sinners hang out with drunkards and sinners.
Since they were at Simon’s table that night. He had placed people just so, based on who they were and their role in the community. Or who HE wanted to honor, or converse with…
And Simon had questions for Jesus.
Theological, ethical…. Mostly in the theoretical realm
So the woman was more than a little disruptive
She was a sinner
There are all kinds of assumptions made about what her sins were. Because she is a woman, and because for generations, the majority of biblical scholars were men, most of those assumptions lean toward sexual sins…
Perhaps she was a “loose” woman.
Perhaps she, like the woman at the well, had many husbands.
Perhaps she was a prostitute.
Luke doesn’t say any of that. He leaves a great gaping hole…
His ambiguity in the midst of all those details may actually help us. Because it means that no matter what her sin was, her faith was more than enough to save her.
It means that no matter what your sin is.
No matter what my sin is.
No matter what sins we are part of together as a body, as a nation.
No matter what mercy we’ve chosen not to offer
No matter what injustices we’ve benefitted from
No matter what oppressive systems we’ve chosen not to be part of changing.
If we humble ourselves,
if we weep for our sins,
If we seek out the one who can and will save us from ourselves…
God’s grace and mercy are more than enough.
But It takes more than a little honesty…
with yourself, your deepest, truest self, to put words to the sins that have weighed you down.
It takes more than a little courage…
to approach yourself, your community, and your God with the truth of who you are and what you need.
And it takes more than a little faith…
not in knowing the law, the rituals, the traditions…but faith in the One who established those laws and traditions.
Because there, in God’s presence, is all the grace you and I and this broken sinful messy world could ever need.
And when we approach confession and repentance with hearts willing to receive forgiveness and compassion, those same hearts are filled to overflowing with love…
Love that must act
Love that expresses deep gratitude.
The sinful woman’s humble act is exactly what that kind of love looks like.
Just as we know that Jesus’ humility and obedience, even to death, even to a criminal’s death on a cross… is what the greatest love looks like….
Her faith has saved her. Even before Jesus goes to the Cross.
In this instance – salvation looks like forgiveness
And forgiveness looks more than a little like healing
Jesus has seen and addressed her deepest need.
48 …he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Luke doesn’t give us any more details about this woman and the rest of her story.
Will she be embraced by the community?
Will she be welcomed as forgiven and given opportunities to start fresh?
Will they see her differently?
I don’t know about you, but the forgiven sinner in me, the one who has worked hard not to wear the labels of my own past, wants desperately for the woman to be known for something different… for her generosity, for her kindness, for her hospitality.
I want her to tell her story of love and forgiveness to all the other women and men in her circles… so that they, too, might have faith, leave behind their burdens and labels and live in loving gratitude.
When I read the next few verses – in Luke 8, I can begin to imagine this is true of her and many others…
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Can you begin to imagine a world – our world –
in which everyone experienced being seen and known and welcomed all the same?
In which everyone experiences forgiveness?
In which everyone has that overwhelming urge to do good for the one who saw and welcomed them?
Can you imagine a world in which love has so great a place?
It would be more than a little wonderful.
Way, way more like the Kingdom of God.
I know I’m not the only one who has dreamed of this world…
It is the hope of all who experience being seen and known and loved.
It is the dream, the vision put into the hearts of all who are forgiven.
And descriptions of that world pop up in all kinds of places… Actor Mahershala Ali, was recently honored by the Screen Actors Guild for his work in ‘Moonlight.”
Listen for that hope in this excerpt from his acceptance speech:
What I’ve learned from working on “Moonlight” is, we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was, playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was O.K. and accept him and, uh — I hope that we do a better job of that.
Like all of us, Ali had experienced the ways that life (and sometimes the people around us) can cause us to fold inward…. to lose sight of how valued and valuable we are.
He had also experienced the life-giving, hope-giving love of a person who saw him, understood him, and lifted him up and out and back into the world. Someone had been love and forgiveness for him.
The beauty of his story is yes – how he carries that love and gratitude into his work as an actor. But even more importantly, and beautiful, is how he has become a person who sees people, speaks hope and offers love to them in his day-to-day life.
Oh that this might be true of each of us today…. and every day