36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “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.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 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 wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
There’s a great movie that came out several years ago called “Remember the Titans.” It was a true story about a high school football team in the first year of integration of the school in, as I recall, 1971. The team goes through all the struggles you’d expect from such a sea-change event, and the integration is painfully hard. Through ups and downs the team, and even to some extent the town, become one as they go through the struggles. At one point, after he’s been in a horrifying car accident, one of the players says to another of a different race (who has become his best friend), “I was afraid of you, but now I see that I was just hating my brother.” The main characters had moved from seeing “those people,” to “this person.”
Part of the way we make our way through life—as a species, I suppose—is by generalizing. It’s a survival mechanism, I think. We have experiences or ideas and apply them, generally, to the world around us, and we use those generalizations to keep ourselves safe. I don’t think this is necessary, but it is inevitable. And while it may provide some direction for us, it can also keep us from being what we were created to be: human beings in the image of God living in communion with other human beings.
But God’s grace, and our responding gratitude, will break through these generalizations and teach us, through love, to see the people around us as persons. And that’s a beautiful thing.
In order to understand Jesus’ interaction with Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful” woman, it’s important to have a few historical details in mind. The Pharisees, of course, were highly concerned with “holiness,” but also with “honor.” Honor revealed the blessedness of the holy one. In this understanding, sin—and anything “unclean”—was a communitive thing, and coming into contact with a sinner would lead to the holy becoming defiled. Thus sinners, as a group, were to be avoided if one was going to be truly holy. And anyone who regularly associated with “sinners” couldn’t possibly be a holy man. In addition, the woman in this passage is most likely a very particular kind of “sinner,”—a member of a “profession” which had been condemned in Israel from the beginning.
When we come to this section in Luke, we find that this isn’t Jesus’ first controversial moment. He’s already healed the servant of a *gasp* centurion. And he is known, at the end of the previous section, as a “friend to tax collectors and sinners”. To this point in Luke, Jesus has been establishing his identity as the one announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom—the coming of God’s active presence into the world. And the presence of God’s activity is among the poor, the outcast, the sick, the lame, and the sinners.
And so, with this in mind, we come to the story of Simon and Jesus and the woman. I want to examine this from a series of interactions: those between Jesus and Simon, between Jesus and the Woman, and between Simon and the woman, and I want us to see the ways in which Jesus uses the parable here to break down the dehumanizing system of thought that led Simon to view the woman as an object rather than a person, and how it had led to Simon missing his own unrighteousness.
Jesus and the Pharisee
We begin with an examination of the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisee. Simon’s invitation to Jesus for dinner is not a shock, despite what we might think. Apart from any kind of social graces, this kind of invitation is one way of showing and receiving honor—here is a man considered by many folks to be holy, to be a prophet, and Simon, part of the holy establishment, wants to see for himself. Jesus is popular, and it won’t hurt Simon’s image to be seen as the magnanimous host who invites him to dinner. Simon, then, sets himself up as the gracious host, the one who benevolently invites the popular street preacher in for dinner.
Jesus and the Woman
But a strange thing happens at dinner. A woman—a sinner—approaches Jesus, lets her hair down, and begins to wash his feet with extremely expensive perfume. This is a different kind of interaction completely than that with the Pharisee. It would have been a shocking sight for those present, with very inappropriate overtones (from the letting down of the hair to the use of expensive ointment).
But these actions could also be seen, if one had eyes to see, as religious devotion: a woman would let her hair down to engage in worship, and the expensive perfume, combined with the kissing of Jesus’ feet, bring together the sense of sacrifice to the Lord. As Jesus is reclining at table, with his feet facing outward, she approaches in devotion, letting down her hair, weeping in joyful repentance and letting her tears fall on his feet, then drying them with her hair.
The Pharisee and the Woman
Now this is an interesting interaction, with two “abstractions” present. Simon—the Pharisee—sees on the woman, not a person. Simon immediately places the woman in the category of “sinner.” He “knows” her as well as he’d “know” anyone from that group of people. He is scandalized by her presence, and above all by Jesus’ reception of her.
Note that Simon is trying to figure out what to do with Jesus. To what group does he belong? Is he one of the holy ones, that is, one of us? Or is he one of “them,” the sinners? Note Simon’s phrase: if “this man” were a prophet…” In light of Jesus’ willingness to receive this “sinner,” Simon categorizes him: one of “them.”
Interestingly, there is no evidence that Simon acknowledges the woman’s presence apart from his internal disgust. Likewise, though, there is no acknowledgement of Simon’s presence by the woman in her utter devotion to the one who forgave her.
So, Jesus gives a parable. Two men owe quite a bit, one a year’s salary, and one a month’s. The moneylender releases both from their debt. Who will love him more? The greater debtor, of course, will love the lender more for his grace. And the woman has shown deep, deep love for the one who tells her “your sins have been (perfect tense) forgiven you.” Don’t get caught up in the question of the Reformation here: “which came first, the obedience or the forgiveness?” It’s a foreign question to the text. Devotion and forgiveness are so intertwined in this text as to be inseparable. Is the woman devoted because she’s been forgiven? Yes. Is she forgiven because she is devoted? Yes. The two are inseparable. Love, the love of the one who forgives, is tied to forgiveness. And she has been forgiven.
Let’s consider, for a minute, the heart of the parable, the way the parable speaks to the Pharisee and the woman. Who is the greater debtor of these two?
Here Jesus brings Simon’s attention to what he’s missing. For this first time, the woman is acknowledged out loud to the room. Jesus says, “Simon, do you see this woman?” Not some generic “sinner,” but a person, a person whose life is complex and made up of a myriad of forces and choices and moments that have led her here. Simon is forced, for the first time, to see a prostitute as a person. And this person is utterly devoted and sacrificial in her actions toward the one who brought her forgiveness and freedom.
Simon looks on these acts as scandalous. Jesus reveals them to be sacred, the devotion of a penitent sinner.
In addition, though, Simon has not only classified “this woman” as “sinner,” he has also classified himself as belonging to “the righteous.” He isn’t looking at himself as “this man,” and considering his own brokenness. In actuality, then, though Simon looks on the woman with contempt, as he’s classified her as “sinner,” his immediate judgment of Jesus and “this woman” reveals an unrepentant, unloving, unforgiving heart.
So, who is the greater sinner? The one who doesn’t recognize he is one. And in that self-righteousness, he condemns even those whom have God forgives.
Now, let’s stop preaching and start meddling. The truth is, none of us are that different from the Pharisee, no matter which tribe we belong to. We live in a thoroughly tense age, full of division and instant classification. It’s amazing how quickly we hear certain words or thoughts and, once we find those things out, we can immediately dismiss other people as “them.” But Jesus is speaking to us, to you and to me, today.
Jesus wants us to know that we’re great, great debtors. The word is significant. We owe a great deal, much more than we could ever repay. This is the concept of “sin,” and it’s one reason why the church can’t stop talking about sin. We need to know that we’re not alone in this, that we all are sinners, that we live in debt to the most generous one of all.
There is great grace in this word. We can know that this generous God, the Father of Jesus Christ, stands ready to forgive our debt, no matter how great that debt is.
But there is also judgment in this word. We need to know that we, and not just “they,” are sinners, and that responding to his grace in love and compassion is intricately linked to our own forgiveness. God is gracious, and his grace produces, naturally, gratitude. And that gratitude produces in us God’s own willingness to look beyond classifications, as Jesus does, and see persons rather than peoples.
Jesus wants us to be the kind of person whose first response to someone who’s an outcast is compassion rather than revulsion. He wants us to develop the character of one who sees the other as one of us.
Jesus wants us to be the kind of person who assumes good faith rather than bad. Note here what I’m not saying: Jesus doesn’t want us to say “she’s not a sinner.” He wants us rather to recognize our own need of forgiveness and in doing so to recognize the infinite worth of the other, the one to whom he reached out in compassion. Jesus wants us to be grateful receivers of his forgiveness, and grateful conduits of his grace.
It’s important to note this. It’s important to think through ways we de-humanize people as we classify them. Jesus wants us to respond to his grace by seeing persons—even self-righteous Pharisees—through his eyes.
This week, reach out to someone outside your comfort zone. Get to know them as a person, their story, work to know that person as a person. This habit of joyful, grateful engagement with the other will become transformative for us.