If for some reason you’d ever like to start a fight amongst seminary-educated folks, just ask them which version of this story is the right one. Does Luke tell us the actual event? Or is it John, who notes the woman in question is Mary of Bethany?
They have different details, after all. Luke calls the woman a “sinner,” while Mary of Bethany probably does what she does out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. Jesus teaches different things each time.
I personally don’t have a problem seeing two similar yet separate events, but there’s plenty of people who disagree. I usually let them.
What I do know is that Luke tells the story the way he does so he can teach his friend Theophilus about Jesus. Let’s see if we can learn a lesson ourselves.
Jesus dines at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. In formal dinner settings, people reclined on the floor, at a low table. Usually they leaned on their left arm and used their right hand to eat. Their feet were out away from the table.
While dining, a woman of the town comes close to Jesus and while there, weeps. Her tears fall on his feet and she immediately uses her hair to dry them off.
Simon, a devout follower of the law, questions claims he has heard about the great prophet Jesus. A great prophet could have discerned the sin of the woman and drawn back from her so she wouldn’t touch him and make him unclean. To make matters worse, the woman’s actions were, in her society, the kind of things decent people didn’t do at the table. A woman touched a man’s feet as a sexual gesture, and she uncovered her hair for the same reason. Some prophet.
Jesus, of course, can see Simon’s questions as clearly as if he asked them aloud. So he poses a riddle. In this culture, people often did this as a sort of dinner conversation and entertainment, because they didn’t have Paris Hilton to talk about yet.
Who is more grateful, Jesus asks. One forgiven a small debt or one forgiven a large one? The riddle’s answer seems pretty plain, and Simon answers warily to avoid getting stuck by some clever twist.
No twist, though, according to Jesus. At least, not in the answer. The lesson, on the other hand, is a different animal. Jesus reminds Simon that he didn’t offer him the chance to wash his feet or any other hospitable gestures to freshen up before the meal. The woman, on the other hand, has not stopped tending to Jesus since she walked up to him.
We don’t need any hours of biblical studies courses to understand Jesus wants us to see one thing very clearly. A woman touched him. He knew very well what kind of woman she was and what kind of life she had led, and he didn’t care.
Oh, he cared that she had sinned. He cared that she fell away from what God wanted for her and from her. But those things were past, and he cared infinitely more that she came back than he did about any of those other things. After all, falling away from God takes no special talent. Remember what Paul says in Romans? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Falling off a log would take an advanced degree in comparison.
But not all come back. This woman, obviously in some incident that Luke doesn’t record, has had her “come to Jesus” moment. Literally, I imagine.
Why is she here at this dinner now? I’d have to guess it’s to make some show of praise and thanksgiving for what Jesus has done for her. She has the “alabaster jar of perfume/ointment,” after all, and she didn’t bring it for looks.
Simon the Pharisee thinks he sees something Jesus doesn’t see. He knows her reputation and her history and believes them hidden from Jesus, which means Jesus isn’t much as a prophet. But he’s fooled, because Jesus does know what he knows. In fact, it’s Jesus who knows something hidden from Simon.
Jesus knows very well who this woman was, but he also knows who she is. She was a sinner, but now she is a repentant sinner. Remember, his riddle is about someone already forgiven a debt, not someone who asks to be forgiven one.
The people are astounded – they already knew Jesus was a mighty prophet. He spoke powerful words and performed miracles like no one since Elijah. But now? He forgives sins, which is something only God can do. They – along with Luke’s readers and later, us – now know that Jesus represents God in a way no one else has ever done. The next verses tell us who started to follow Jesus now – it’s a long list.
But there’s always room for more.