Before we delve into our Gospel reading, let’s clear something up. The title given to this reading in most bibles “A sinful woman is forgiven” leads to all kinds of assumptions. The “sinful woman” in this reading is not necessarily Mary Magdalene and is not necessarily a prostitute. Mary has been tarred with that brush for far too long. Jeanine K. Brown writes, “Luke does not specify the sin of Peter or the other sinners with whom Jesus eats. Yet in this passage of the woman who anoints Jesus, it is commonplace for commentators to assume that she is a prostitute, as if the only sin a Jewish woman of the first century could commit would be sexual sin. Given that Luke can specify that particular sin (see 15:30), his less explicit reference here to this woman “who was a sinner” should not be pressed further but should be heard in concert with the other references to sinners in Luke as recipients of Jesus’ kingdom ministry.” www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1680 A better title would be Jesus’ abundant mercy.
With that cleared up – the story. Simon, a Pharisee is hosting a dinner for the famous teacher/preacher/prophet at his home. The guests at the table are Simon’s friends and prominent members of the community who are there to discuss important topics of faith. The smell of food is wafting through the air, the table is set and everyone is just about to eat when a women barges into the house. She heads strait for Jesus. As she weeps she bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she continues to kiss is feet as she anoints them with oil. Most of the people avert their eyes, it is too embarrassing to watch such a display of affection.
Simon looks for a minute then looks away. He can hardly believe what is happening in his own home. No matter how you slice it, this is a huge interruption in Simon’s dinner plans and he’s probably more than a bit annoyed. He mutters under his breath, “humph, what is Jesus doing letting that woman touch him. She’s no good.” Simon puffs up his chest believing that he is better than “that woman.”
Jesus tells Simon a simple parable about a creditor with two debtors. One owned 500 hundred denarii which is a yearly salary and the other owned 50 denarii. When they could not pay the debt, the creditor cancelled both of their debts. (Luke 7:42 – 43) Jesus then asks Simon which one will love him more, and Simon says, “I suppose the one for whom the he cancelled the great debtor.” (Luke 7:43) The answer is obvious but he supposes the one with the great debt will love more. Really?
But what comes next is what is really amazing. Jesus turns toward the woman and says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my fee 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.” (Luke 7:44 – 47)
Amazing. Simon stood in judgement of the “that woman,” he rolled his eyes at her display and judged her as somehow less than. Simon probably wasn’t alone. From the moment the woman walked into the room she is labelled, “sinner” and “that woman.” But Jesus turns the situation on its head and points out that the real sin lies with Simon. Simon believes that because he follows the law, does what is right that he is somehow better than the woman – he is righteous and she is not. Jeannine K. Brown reminds us that “[i]n a Jewish context, the descriptor “sinner” would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law -- a transgressor of the Torah. (www.workingpreacher.org) Which means that that she probably broke one of the then ten commandments. Which one? We don’t know. Does it matter? Not really because who among us hasn’t fallen short and broken one these commandments at some point in our lives.
That’s the bad news for all of really. No matter how good we are we will never get all completely right. We are human and not one of is perfect. We all at some point in our lives will fall short, will do things that harm others, and be tempted to believe that we are better than another. Then we will be like Simon – judging others to be less than ourselves. I’ve done it and I’ll probably do it again. It is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment to be ruled by emotions and make judgements about another’s worth. Can’t we hear ourselves, “I deserve that promotion more than he does because I worked harder or because I’m better than he is.” “What is she doing here, doesn’t she know that she is not welcome?” “Look at him, doesn’t he know he’s not good enough to be here with us?”
Now the good news – God’s forgiveness is waiting for us. It is ours we just need to claim. There are no conditions attached. Jesus does not says, “You are forgiven but you need to do xy and z.” Jesus says you are forgiven – nothing further required. It is a gift of grace and mercy. The only thing we can do when such a beautiful gift is given is to give thanks. The woman in our story today wasn’t cleaning Jesus feet with her hair because she’d come to repent, but because she needed to show her gratitude. Forgiveness was hers already and it was glorious. She found new life. So she knelt at Jesus feet in a lavish, almost embarrassing display of gratitude.
We have a choice between two paths. We can follow Simon and believe that we are righteous and better than others or we can follow the path of the woman who knows that she has made mistakes and needs to hear the words of forgiveness. Dr. David Loose writes, “This story, then, tells both halves of the truth: the joyful truth that those who recognize their need receive their heart’s desire and live out of gratitude and love, and the tragic truth that those who believe themselves righteous or sufficient on their own never know the joy of receiving and so pursue truncated lives absent genuine gratitude or love.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2601
There is nothing worse than living holding onto our sins, those moments that we regret, those offences that weigh on our souls. Forgiveness sets us free to live more fully as the people God intends us to be. Forgiveness is a burden lifted and new life. God’s grace, God’s forgiving love is waiting for you and for me with no strings attached. So be kind to yourself and to others. Let go of judgement and live each day giving thanks for the grace Jesus gives us and most importantly live in gratitude for the One who gives us new life. Amen.