“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 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 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.””
There’s nothing I enjoy more than watching a good stoush (I‘m talking ‘boxing’ here) except perhaps participating in a good stoush. I know that some of you here share my love of the pugilistic arts. I’m also conscious of the fact though that a goodly number of you people, for reasons that I can’t fully understand, not only don’t relish the thought of being in a good fight, but can’t even stand to watch one.
Why is that? Is it simply that we all have different tastes? I think there’s more to it than that. I think we actually see different things. When I watch a good boxing bout, I see people bobbing, moving, slipping and rolling, reading their opponent, pacing themselves, conserving their energy, sucking in the pain, listening, learning, focusing and strategising. Other people just see two thugs trying to thump each other.
Similarly, my wife has a love of classical music. She listens to an orchestra playing Bach and she perceives not only rhythm and melody, but vision, life and passion. All I hear is boring, boring, boring! We see and hear different things!
And I recognise that there’s more to classical music than I’m able to pick up at this stage, and I do hope that one day I will be able to perceive more, just as I trust that those who find themselves unable to relish the joys of pugilism are likewise committed to making an effort to grow in their appreciation of a good slug-fest.
Now, you might be wondering what all this talk of boxing (let alone classical music) could have to do with a sermon on today’s Gospel reading? Well, all will become clear in a moment, as we reflect on Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee, and focus on the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, and especially on the question Jesus asked his host, Simon – one of the most pointed questions we hear Jesus ask anyone in the New Testament – “Simon, do you see this woman?”
The scene begins respectably enough. Jesus has been invited for a meal at the home of a local cleric by the name of Simon, though it is not entirely clear why the invitation was issued.
Scholars have suggested that it may have been a Sabbath meal, following the morning synagogue service, at which Jesus may well have been guest preacher. This would make sense, as it is indeed common practice that when you are guest preacher somewhere, the local priest does usually invite you back to lunch at his or her place afterwards.
Perhaps that is exactly how it happened, or perhaps Rabbi Simon was just keen to entertain a man he considered a local celebrity? Either way, what is reasonably clear is that Simon hadn’t invited Jesus because the two of them were great mates. Indeed, you get the impression that Simon didn’t really like Jesus very much at all, for it seems he omitted to show Jesus the customary gestures of hospitality. He didn’t offer Jesus any water or oil to freshen up with when He arrived, and he didn’t greet Jesus with the customary welcoming kiss!
We don’t know for sure how Jesus came to be in the house of Simon the Pharisee that day, though I suppose it doesn’t matter much. The more intriguing question for me though is how the notorious woman came to be in his house at the same time!
Now, we know even less about this woman than we do about Simon. She’s referred to as a ‘well known sinner’ (literally, a woman ‘who was in the town a sinner’). And this description, and Simon’s comment, that “if this man were really a prophet, he would know who this is and what sort of a woman is touching him”, both lend credence to the traditional assumption made of this woman, that she was indeed a local sex-worker.
Simon alludes to that. The text (rather tastefully) suggests it. Jesus though doesn’t seem to pick it up at all, or if He does, He evidently doesn’t care too much about it, for even when she starts kissing Him and massaging Him, Jesus doesn’t recoil in any way, but instead seems to appreciate it!
It is a weird scene. One suspects that the dinner guests were engaging in polite conversation about the weather or local sporting events when this highly emotional woman suddenly appeared behind Jesus and started weeping and wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet!
Now, we’re told that the dinner guests were ‘reclining at table’, as was the custom in Palestine at the time at civilised dinner parties, so we must imagine the woman, not on the floor under Jesus’ chair, but kneeling at the foot of the couch upon which Jesus would have been lying on his side, propped up on one elbow.
And we’re told quite explicitly that the woman wasn’t simply massaging Jesus’ feet but was weeping, and I think that detail was included to make it clear that she was not trying to ply her trade in any way, but rather, that this was a genuine outpouring of emotion and love for Jesus, perhaps shown in the only way she could think of.
Even so, to those at table with Jesus, it must have all looked rather outrageous! Certainly the host was appalled. “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.”
Stuffy old Simon, we say to ourselves, scoldingly. But in truth, I can’t really imagine that our reaction would have been any different.
I don’t expect that anything like this is likely to happen at the church BBQ this afternoon but imagine if it did – if one of the younger girls felt a sudden impulse to start kissing my feet, or even just giving my shoulders a good massage? I, of course, would try to follow the example of Jesus and just grin and bear it, but I can’t imagine that everyone else would be equally accommodating!
And in all seriousness, to those at table with Jesus (though we don’t know exactly how many there were there who knew this woman’s reputation) the whole scene must have come across as being somewhat distasteful, to say the least!
There were more culturally appropriate ways of showing your gratitude to someone. A nice bottle of wine with a card attached would probably have worked just fine! Or perhaps she could have baked a cake for him or something equally tasteful.
The path of action she chose was extreme! It was entirely open to misinterpretation. Did she really think this plan through for any length of time? Did it occur to her that this ‘act of love’ might well do more harm for Jesus than good? Did she really think about it at all, or did she just get carried away with the emotion of the moment and let the whole thing happen quite spontaneously?
I suppose we shouldn’t expect too much from this woman in terms of rational behaviour, for I guess she was damaged goods.
In those days (even more so than now) very few girls got into the sex industry because they saw it as a positive career path. Most likely this woman had herself been a victim of abuse from an early age. Of course her tears of repentance suggest that she might well have done her own good share of abusing too, but however we add it up, she was no doubt a deeply scarred soul – sinned against as well as sinning, and living with the disdain of all those around her, who identified her solely in terms of the ‘service’ she offered to those who were willing to pay for it.
Which leads me to wonder again what she was doing in Simon’s house. Some suggest that she was in the house already before Simon arrived, and if that’s the case, we can’t imagine that she was there to help out with the catering!
My guess (and I admit that it is only a guess) is that Simon knew this woman and her reputation so well because he himself had been her client on occasion! That would also explain how it was that she could get in and out of the house so easily!
Either way, Simon knew who she was, most of the other guests at the table no doubt knew who she was, because everybody in town knew who she was, but in truth, they didn’t really knowher at all
“Do you see this woman?”, Jesus challenges Simon! “Do you see this woman?” For in truth, I don’t think, up to this stage, that Simon had ever seen this person as a woman at all!
It’s curious, isn’t it, how some things we do label us for life.
A person who murders another person will always be known as a ‘murderer’, whereas someone who evades paying his fare on the bus isn’t similarly labelled as a ‘fare-evader’ in the same unforgiving way.
A sex-worker though is another one who carries the label for all of his or her life. This woman was not simply a person who sold her body at some stage, but she was and she is and she always will be a prostitute, a pro, a hooker, a whore, a slut.
“Do you see this woman”, Jesus asks Simon. In truth, he’d never seen the woman, had he? He’s seen the prostitute. He’d seen a bit of flesh, there for the taking. He’d seen a quick conquest, a fun five minutes. He’d seen fifty bucks down the drain. He’d seen someone he didn’t want to be recognised with, and when she’d turned up at the house when Jesus was at table, he must have seen some potential embarrassment!
“Do you see this woman?”, Jesus asks. In truth, no one else there saw her. But Jesus saw her. He didn’t see the sex-worker, the whore, the uninvited guest or the potential embarrassment. He saw the woman, and he saw a woman of substance!
He saw a woman who loved much, and who was unashamed of her love for him. Moreover, as the parable of the two debtors makes clear, Jesus saw in this woman someone who had engaged with her creator – a woman who had sought and found forgiveness and spiritual healing in her life!
Jesus didn’t see the whore, He didn’t listen to the whispers, He didn’t notice the stares and He didn’t worry about the potentia scandal. He saw a child of God, a sister in the faith, a woman who had been touched by the Spirit of God and was full of Divine love, and He showed His appreciation for her act of self-giving.
“Do you see this woman?” Well, as is the case with boxing and with classical music, the truth is that we all see different things.
“Did you see what happened in Gaza this week?”. Oh, you probably saw facts and figures, about the mounting number of dead, the sick and dying children, the shortage of food and medical supplies, etc., but did you really see what happened? In truth, if you didn’t weep, you obviously didn’t see it.
“Have you seen the struggles of the indigenous people of this land?” Did you hear what they were saying at that ‘Sorry Day’ service? Did you perceive the damage that has been done? If you’re not involved in trying to do something about it, then I guess you must have missed it.
“Do you see this woman?” Did you see her when she came to your door, asking for food, or when you caught her shooting up in your backyard, or when she offered you a good time for $50? Did you see her? Or did you see a problem, a bludger, a junkie, a whore?
“Your sins are forgiven”, says Jesus, who sees this woman for who she is. “Go in peace, sister! Your faith has made you well!”
Lord, give us the eyes of Jesus. So that we might see our sisters and brothers as you see them. Give us your heart, give us your healing words, and give us your eyes, so that we might love each other as you have loved us. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.