What was it that prompted the unnamed woman to break social convention and approach Jesus, doing something as intimate as washing his feet (with her tears and hair, no less), kissing them, and anointing them with expensive ointment? (cf. Luke 7:36-8:3) Had she heard him preaching? Was she one of those who had witnessed his wonders? Saint Luke, who makes those on the fringes of society a special focus of his gospel, doesn’t give the woman a name, although her identity is clear: “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” For Simon “the Pharisee” and the other guests at that dinner so long ago, who the woman was mattered nothing compared to what she was—a sinner. Her act not only brought on the derision of the dinner guests—“Who is this woman who would dare touch this man?”—but also placed Jesus in the position of having to defend her and his own willingness to receive and forgive her: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him.”
|Detail from a window|
in Chartres Cathedral
Jesus’ response to Simon’s indictment of the woman is important. First, it reminds us that the scope of God’s mercy transcends any sort of restrictions we might place upon our own willingness to forgive. Second, it places before us our tendency to become anxious, nervous, worrying people who are, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “caught in the questions of survival: our own survival, the survival of our church, our country, and our world. Once these fearful survival questions become the guiding questions of our lives, we tend to dismiss words spoken from the house of love as unrealistic, romantic, sentimental, pious, or just useless” (from Jesus:A Gospel). Undoubtedly Simon, Jesus’ host that night, and many others present had heard Jesus preach love and forgiveness. The presence and actions of that woman, in that moment, seem to have undone whatever expansion and openness that might have taken place in the Pharisee’s heart.
Psalm 32 declares, “Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered… to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no guile” (vv. 1-2). Even beyond this, Sirach reminds us that “to the penitent [God] provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope!” (17:19). These are truths that the woman in this Gospel passage understood, and Jesus doesn’t deny that she is a sinner. However, he doesn’t reduce her to her sin or seek to label her. Because, for love, she acted as she did, she found what she was seeking—a love that would allow her to love even more.
The labels that we have for others—labels that are based on difference, fear, anxiety, and our own desire for constancy and security—all too often deny the basic goodness and humanity in the one we are making an “other.” And we, as Church people, are often among the first to use labels, particularly for those whose theological/ecclesiological/philosophical/political outlook differs from ours. But, as an ancient Syrian preacher observed, “A sinful woman has proclaimed to us that God’s love has gone forth in search of sinners.” This is the Good News to which we are dedicated: mercy and grace which are God’s prerogative without strings attached.
Too often, like Simon, we waste so many wonderful opportunities by expending our energy trying to protect something we rightly love (our selves, our families, our church, our homeland) from those we believe are a threat to our comfort and security. But, Simon’s great fault was the he forgot that he, too, was in need of forgiveness and that it is Jesus who forgives sins. Where Simon’s perspective failed him, we are given an opportunity to live in humility: yes, the woman was a sinner, but so are we all. Just as God knew her for who she was—by name and as His wondrous creation—God sees us in the same way and offers us the same mercy, grace, and love.