He Was Anointed by a Sinner

Pope Gregory, in the late 6th Century, told this story of Jesus in a sermon in a way that combined the ways that the four Gospels tell about Jesus being anointed by a woman while he was eating and in his telling, Pope Gregory combined Luke’s sinful woman, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and labeled her a prostitute. And ever since then, we have gotten their stories confused. So, today, we return to Luke’s s. So, today, we return to Luke’s story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus.

Jesus has been invited by Simon to his home. This invitation is interesting because Simon is a Pharisee. We tend to think of Pharisees questioning Jesus and ultimately calling for his crucifixion. But, Luke tells us that this particular this is early in Jesus’ ministry. The story that precedes this dinner party is John the Baptist, upon hearing about all the things Jesus is doing and sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Maybe Jesus was invited because the Pharisee wanted to hear what Jesus had to say, maybe he hoped that Jesus was the awaited Messiah. Or maybe Jesus was a curiosity to him, a guest that would entertain his friends.

When Jesus arrives, he is not greeted in the way a good host would welcome their guests. Etiquette of the day dictated that when a guest arrived, you greeted them with a hand on their shoulder and a kiss as a sign of respect. Then, “cool water was poured over the guest’s feet to cleanse and comfort them.” After walking on dusty dirt roads in shoes that were just a sole strapped on by a leather cord, your feet were gritty and hot, and pouring water over the shoes wouldn’t hurt them. And then the host welcomed the guest by anointing him with perfumed oil. Simon doesn’t do any of these things when Jesus arrives, though.

Scholar and author Tim Chester describes the setting, “The diners” took their shoes off and “reclined around three sides of a central table on couches, leaving the fourth side open to allow servants access to the table. Bread and wine would be on the table, along with a main dish into which you dipped your bread. Diners lay” on their left elbow, reclined, with their legs behind them, and used their right hand to eat. “Homes in the time of Jesus – especially large homes – had semi-public areas. Some rooms opened onto a courtyard, usually with a garden and a fountain, that outsiders could enter. Visitors could see what was happening and even” participate in the conversation. “People could readily come in off the streets to pay their respects to the householder or to transact business. The poor, too, might hang around hoping for leftovers. With this in mind, it’s easier to picture how this story unfolded. The woman is probably loitering in the public area, then slips” closer behind Jesus.

Perhaps she had met him earlier in the day and he had forgiven her sins. Perhaps she had heard him preaching. Or maybe, as she listened to the conversation, she was drawn to Jesus. It wouldn’t be extraordinary except that this is the home of a Pharisee and she has a reputation for being a sinful woman. To a Pharisee, she is to be avoided like a mobile, infectious plague. And Jesus accepts her. We don’t know what her sin is. Like I said earlier, traditionally the sin ascribed to her has been prostitution because she lets down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet, and it was only acceptable for women to let their hair down in their bedrooms with their husbands. She could have been known as a liar or a cheater, a thief, or a prostitute, or she could have been the wife of a man who was a sinner, she could even have been married to a tax collector. All that Luke makes clear to us is that everyone there knew she was a sinner, except Jesus didn’t seem to realize it.

As she knelt at his feet, the tears flowed, making a muddy mess of his dusty feet. So, she let down her hair and wiped them clean. Then she took the alabaster from around her neck, all Jewish women wore these little containers of concentrated perfume, and poured fragrant ointment on his feet. It was as though there was no one else in the room. Her full attention was focused solely on Jesus.

Simon thought to himself, “If he were really a prophet, he would know what kind of woman she is.” And Jesus looked right at him and answered him with a parable that revealed that Jesus not only knew what kind of woman she was, but he also knew what Simon was thinking.

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed a year and a half’s salary – so much that he had probably already sold any land he owned and anything else that was marketable and was in danger of him and his family becoming debt slaves, the other owed two months’ salary. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”

Jesus makes clear that while this woman is a sinner, so is Simon the Pharisee. Then Jesus compares their hospitality toward him. This woman, who isn’t even a guest, has been more of a host than you, Simon, says Jesus. You didn’t offer me water to wash my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Simon, you didn’t greet me with a kiss of respect, but she kissed my feet. You didn’t anoint my head with perfumed oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. She had much to forgive, and she knew it, and she is filled with love. The one who is forgiven little, loves little.

Then Jesus blesses her and reminds her that her sins have been forgiven. “Go in peace,” he says, “Your faith has saved you.”

She wasn’t saved by her good deeds or her adherence to the law. Her faith has saved her. So what does Jesus mean by faith? Jesus doesn’t mean that her beliefs have saved her. She is not saved by her loyalty to Jesus. So what is this faith that saves her? I’m going to share three scholars’ answers to this question because I think the answer is like light from a prism…it dances, and you see it, but you can’t quite catch it, and it is best to look from different angles.

Dr. Sharon Ringe writes she is saved by her “participation in the rhythms of receiving release or forgiveness in Jesus’ presence and responding with equally lavish and uncalculating love.”

William Barclay writes, “a sense of need will open the door to the forgiveness of God, because God is love, and love’s greatest glory is to be needed.”

And N.T. Wright concludes, “For Luke, true faith is what happens when someone looks at Jesus and discovers God’s forgiveness; and the sign and proof of his faith is love.”

Two debtors were in debt to a creditor: Simon, who was confident as a good man in the sight of God. He felt no need for forgiveness. And his actions toward Jesus reveal his attitude. And a woman who knew she was a sinner. She knew her life was a mess. And when Jesus accepts her anyway, her response flows from her. In gratitude, she is overwhelmed by love.

May we all realize the magnitude of our debt. Amen.