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.” Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 7:36-8:3 – NRSV)
This event is unique to Luke – like the event of the resuscitation of the only son of the widow of Nain. However there are some similarities to Mark 14:3-9 (see also Matt 26:6–13; John 12:1–8). Fitzmyer writes: “For my part, it is hardly likely that the Lucan story is a deliberate reworking of the Marcan by Luke or some tradition before him. Rather, the story of an anointing of Jesus by a woman intruder into a dinner-scene assumed in the stage of oral tradition various forms, recorded in the Marcan, Lucan, and Johannine traditions. The anointing of the feet would have been the more primitive, since it is easier to explain the tradition shifting from the anointing of the feet to the head than vice versa. A theological reason for the shift can be found in the OT references to the anointing of the head (see 2 Kgs 9:3, the kingly anointing of Jehu; 1 Sam 10:1, Samuel’s anointing of Saul; Ps 133:2).” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 686.)
This story of the woman and the forgiveness of her many sins continues his Little Interpolation (6:20-8:3).
The story picks up two crucial themes in Luke. The first is Jesus’ deliberate association with “sinners” and the second is his conflict with the religious authorities. We note in this instance that Luke’s description of the Pharisee’s behaviour is strange – inviting Jesus to dinner and not showing him the customary hospitality – and his description of Jesus’ response to the Pharisee is likewise strange. Perhaps he is emphasizing the contrasts here to make the point more strongly?
Is the woman forgiven because she loves much or does she love much because she is forgiven? Scholars are divided on this. Fitzmyer suggests that “the sinful woman comes to Jesus as one already forgiven by God and seeking to pour out signs of love and gratitude (tears, kisses, perfume); in this understanding, the love of v. 47b is the consequence of her forgiveness, and v. 47c integrates the parable with the narrative.” (Op cit, 687.)
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”: Luke here states two ways in which he sees the Christ Event being played out – salvation and peace. Fitzmyer writes: “‘Salvation’ denotes the deliverance of human beings from evil, physical, moral, political, or cataclysmic. It connotes a victory, a rescue of them from a state of negation and a restoration to wholeness or integrity.” (Op cit, 222.)
And of peace, Fitzmyer writes: “Another effect brought about by the Christ-event, as viewed by Luke, is ‘peace’ (eirēnē). Once again it is not easy to say whether the proper background of this image is the pervasive pax Augusta in the contemporary Roman world …. or the OT understanding of šālôm. It may be that both are at work. Certainly Luke’s dating of the birth of Jesus to a census taken during the reign of the emperor Augustus implies an association, if not a contrast, with the peace of that long reign. On the other hand, the connotations of the Hebrew root šlm, “be whole, complete,” seem to be implied in the Lucan use of the term ‘peace’. In the OT, šālôm expresses not merely an absence of war or hostilities, but much more the state of bounty or well-being that comes from God and includes concord, harmony, order, security, and prosperity. See Isa 48:18; 54:10; Ezek 34:25–29; Pss 29:11; 85:8–10; Jer 16:5; Num 6:24–26. In time ‘peace’ became the mark of the awaited messianic kingdom, derived from Isa 52:7 (the heralds of peace). In Acts 10:36 Luke reflects this notion: ‘the word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (he is the Lord of all!)’.
“In a few of the sayings of Jesus the term ‘peace’ has the meaning of the absence of war (Luke 11:21; 14:32). More often it is a figure for the bounty that he and his ministry bring to human beings. Peace is proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds at the announcement of his birth: ‘Peace on earth for the people whom he favors’ (2:14). For he now brings God’s peace in a new way. It is a quality characteristic of heaven itself: ‘Peace in heaven’ (19:38). But it is also that which Jerusalem has unfortunately failed to comprehend: ‘If you yourself only knew what would make for your peace’ (19:42).
“On the lips of Jesus it is sometimes associated with salvation (7:50; 8:48). When Jesus sends out disciples during his ministry to precede him to the various towns to which he is to come, he instructs them that their announcement is to be ‘Peace be to this house’ (10:5). Even though this echoes a common enough OT greeting, šālôm lĕkā, ‘Peace be to you!’ (Judg 6:23; 19:20; cf. Gen 43:23), the fact that they are to say this ‘first’ betokens the effect that he and his message are to have on the ‘peaceful people’ who dwell there (10:6). Finally, that greeting appears again on his own lips, as he appears in his risen state to the Eleven and others on Easter Sunday evening in 24:36.
“Paradoxically, Jesus denies that he has come to bring peace in a passage preserved from ‘Q’. There the Lucan Jesus is presented asking, ‘Do you think that I have come to put peace on earth? No, I tell you, rather discord’ (12:51). This note of discord or division, however, belongs to another theme in the Lucan Gospel, foreshadowed already in the infancy narrative, when Simeon says of the child that he holds that he is set for the fall and the rise of many in Israel (2:34). Jesus denies that his coming brings peace because he realizes that human beings will have to make a decision about him, either for or against him. But, in the long run, those who accept him as an influence in their lives will experience that comprehensive peace which is the effect of the Christ-event itself.
“Finally, at one point in Acts an idyllic description of the early community shows the church at peace in a political sense (9:31). This figure is not as important for Luke as either of the two preceding ones; but it does convey an aspect of the Christ-event that he presents.” (Op cit, 224-225.)
“If this man were a prophet ….”: Luke contrasts the attitude of the religious authorities with his own belief that Jesus is a prophet. As if to drive home the point, we hear the Pharisee remark that this “sinner” is “touching” him – a cultural taboo. We know that Jesus allows people – yes even “sinners” – to touch him and that e also touches people – yes even the sick. (See for example Luke 5:13 – Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper; 6:19 – people were trying to touch him; 7:14 – he touched the bier carrying the widow’s son; 8:42-48 – the woman with the haemorrhage touched him; 18:15- people were bring infants to him that he might touch them; 22:51 – Jesus touches the slave and heals him after his ear had been severed; 24:39 – Jesus invites the incredulous disciples to touch him to verify that he has actually risen from the dead.)
In the Gospel of last Sunday – the raising of the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-37) – Luke reminded us of the connection between seeing and caring. Jesus sees the widow of Nain and is moved to compassion, just as the father sees the returning prodigal son and is moved to compassion. The very opposite occurs in the story of the Good Samaritan: The priest and the Levite see and pass by on the other side. This is sadly closer to our common experience. The connection between seeing and caring is often broken. Might it be true to say that our primary task in life is enabling grace to work through us to heal the broken connections, nurture the weak connections and facilitate the emergence new connections?
Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical, Laudato Si’: “All creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” (#42)
In today’s Gospel, we have another case of broken connection. The Pharisee sees the woman and is moved to judgement rather than compassion: “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.” If the Pharisees was truly human he would have recognized in this woman a fellow pilgrim.
The sixth century bishop, Dorotheos of Gaza says, suppose we took a compass, put the point in the ground and drew a circle: “Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of people. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and their neighbour. The closer they are to God the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.” (Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, trans Eric P Wheeler, Cistercian Publications, 1977, 138-139.)
The great spiritual guides of the world religions are typically distinguished by a lived and living awareness of this unity in existence. But Luke’s story of the Pharisee is a salutary reminder of the terrible irony possible in religion, that it can obfuscate and even deny the unity in God’s creation, breaking the God-given connections between people. We could do worse than believing – and acting on the belief – that our primary task in life is, by the grace of God, to uncover, nurture and facilitate the God-given unity of all creation.