This blog provides a meditation on the reformed Church daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Sectarian ( Sunni/ Shi’ite ) killings add to Syrian slaughter
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
36-39 Then one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to a meal with him. When Jesus came into the house, he took his place at the table and a woman, known in the town as a bad woman, found out that Jesus was there and brought an alabaster flask of perfume and stood behind him crying, letting her tears fall on his feet and then drying them with her hair. Then she kissed them and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were really a prophet, he would know who this woman is and what sort of a person is touching him. He would have realised that she is a bad woman.”
40 Then Jesus spoke to him, “Simon, there is something I want to say to you.” “Very well, Master,” he returned, “say it.”
41-42 “Once upon a time, there were two men in debt to the same money-lender. One owed him fifty pounds and the other five. And since they were unable to pay, he generously cancelled both of their debts. Now, which one of them do you suppose will love him more?”
43 “Well,” returned Simon, “I suppose it will be the one who has been more generously treated,”
44-47 “Exactly,” replied Jesus, and then turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “You can see this woman? I came into your house but you provided no water to wash my feet. But she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. There was no warmth in your greeting, but she, from the moment I came in, has not stopped covering my feet with kisses. You gave me no oil for my head, but she has put perfume on my feet. That is why I tell you, Simon, that her sins, many as they are, are forgiven; for she has shown me so much love. But the man who has little to be forgiven has only a little love to give.”
48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 And the men at table with him began to say to themselves, “And who is this man, who even forgives sins?”
50 But Jesus said to the woman, “It is your faith that has saved you. Go in peace.”
The logic of this story is that the woman already believes that through Jesus her sins are forgiven. This may have happened in a direct encounter with Jesus or in listening to his message. She comes into the pharisee’s house to express her gratitude to Jesus.
Much modern theology is a bit uneasy with sin and tends to say that the woman was an outcast, a victim of lustful men, a commercially exploited member of the underclass. All these things may be true, but this sort of analysis ignores Luke’s story which tells us that she is a forgiven sinner. He does not even call her a prostitute. In the eyes of the pharisee of course a sinner might well have been anyone who ignored the strict observance of the Torah in their daily life. But here it’s evident that the woman acknowledges her sin and feels ashamed. It’ s precisely this burden of shame that Jesus has removed from her life: she has done wrong, gone wrong, but she trusts the word of Jesus that her sin is forgiven and she is free to change her life.
Luke does portray the disparity of power between the pharisee and the woman. The “righteousness” of the pharisee counts as wealth and power in the Jewish community depicted by Luke. That’s why he can play host to Jesus in his house whereas the sinful woman has to break into the house to bring her thanks to Jesus. Of course in doing so, she merely confirms her “poverty” in the host’s eyes by breaking however many rules of etiquette and ritual cleanliness. In particular her passionate touching of a man is utterly reprehensible.
Jesus’ parable assumes that the woman’s sins are real; they are seen as debts she has incurred. Jesus makes a comparison between large and small debts. Who calculates the size of a debt to God? Surely each sinner does so. The woman accuses herself of a big sins, the pharisee thinks his are small. Naturally the message that sins are cancelled evokes a more profound response from the woman. Luke reports Jesus as describing her response as “much love” and the pharisee’s as “little love.”
Not only does Jesus recognise her gift as love, he dignifies her by characterising each item of her scandalous behaviour as beautiful acts of courtesy in contrast to the “little love” offered by his host. Step by step Jesus overturns the social hierarchy until it’s clear that in God’s kingdom, the woman stands above the pharisee. The story could be used as an illustration of the Song that Luke gives Mary, Jesus mother: “he has put down the mighty from their seats, and has exalted the humble and meek.”
For Christian believers this narrative is not simply a piece of tradition; it is a pointer to the marvelous delicacy of God’s spirit in dealing with the believer’s own sin; first of all, there is a declaration of forgiveness; then, a welcome to the sinner; finally a recognition that the courtesies of love are sign and seal of new life.
Perhaps I should add that the “pharisee” is not always separate from the “sinner”; and that contradicting our inner pharisee, both with regard to our own sins and the sins of others, is a necessary task of faith.
Nicolas Poussin’s masterpiece, “The Sacrament of Penitence” which depicts this incident, is one of the glories of The National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh