A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. He entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at the table. 37 And behold, a woman who was a sinner in the city, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 Standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head. She also kissed his feet and anointed them with the perfumed oil. 39 Now, when the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have perceived who is touching him and what kind of woman this is, that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
He replied, “Speak, teacher.”
41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Then, which of them will love him the most?”
43 Simon answered, “The one to whom he forgave the most I suppose.”
Jesus said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and 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 since the time I came in, she has not ceased kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven because she has loved much. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.” 48 Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 Those who sat at the table with him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
This passage reveals much about who Jesus was, what he did, and who we should be. But it cannot be stressed enough that this passage must not be read and understood as a theological treatise, as an abstract teaching that has little real relevance to us today. Far from it, this passage is a real-life story. It relates something real, something that is played out everyday across this world. The meaning and importance, the truth, that is portrayed in this passage is not abstract, no it is something that is only truly grasped in realisation and application. Unless we see, unless we live this passage as we go about our day, it is but a hollow story. The passage reveals to us the truth that our sins are forgiven, and asks us this question: in light of our redemption, how should we live? It is the answer to this question that I wish to seek, to understand, and to live.
The passage is short, simple, and powerful. It relates the story often titled ‘A sinful woman is forgiven.’ Though it would be better to title it ‘A forgiven daughter of God gives thanks.’ We read that after preaching and teaching to a crowd, Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus is the guest of honour at an occasion that would have attracted the crowds, crowds who would have sat at the edges of the room as the meal was eaten; hoping for leftover food and to listen to the debates and words of those present.
But Simon offers Jesus none of even the most basic hospitalities. Simon gives him no kiss, no water for his feet, no oil for his head. In middle-eastern society it is difficult to ignore the utter dishonour, the sheer rebuttal and contempt shown to Jesus by failing to offer Him such services. Instead a woman, regarded as wholly unclean, whose very presence was considered by the Pharisees to be corrupting and tainting, out of love and thanksgiving, being overpowered by her emotions, began kissing the feet of Jesus, wetting them with her tears, drying them with her hair, and anointing them with the most expensive oils.
The horror and judgement of the Pharisees at these actions, and especially at the lack of reaction by Jesus, brings Jesus to make clear that the woman is redeemed, and that it is the Pharisees who have failed to love, who have failed to understand, and are just as sinful, rotten, and corrupted, as the woman. But as Jesus makes clear, unlike the woman, the Pharisees are so blind that they fail to ask for forgiveness, fail to realise the forgiveness that is offered them, and instead of living a life in the presence of God, they live one dominated by discriminating, demeaning and unholy preconceptions.
“A certain lender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Then, which of them will love him the most?”
The parable spoken by Jesus is deceptively simple; it cuts to the very heart of the matter, shows the purpose of the life of Jesus, and reveals the nature of God. There are two debtors. And by debtors the passage refers to sinners, just as in Matthew the Lord’s Prayer speaks of debt, in Luke it speaks of sin. Two sinners, one who sinned much, who offended God, rejected God, time and time again. And one who sinned little, though still considerably. But God out of love, mercy and righteousness, forgives them their debts, their sins.
If the bank were to call you and say that you no longer had to pay your mortgage debt, you would think it must be a prank. If the bank told you it was forgetting your loans and borrowings, you would think there was some small print, some trap. But God does not deceive, he does not pull pranks, God loves. He forgives freely out of his ineffable compassion and his transcendent mercy.
What we must realise, what we must live and breathe, is the knowledge that Christ, God, came to earth, to this tiny, seemingly insignificant, space-rock, and died for you, for me, for all, that our debt may be redeemed. It seems illogical, it seems absurd that God would do such a thing, but love is illogical, love is absurd, love is beautiful. In this passage the Pharisees despise and judge the woman, they see only her ‘sin’ and taint. But Jesus defends her, he refutes the Pharisees. By the time the meal is over, it is Jesus who is the focus, Jesus who is reviled and despised by the Pharisees. The sinless Son of God takes upon himself the mantle of derision, and praises the woman who once wore it.
What love, what grace! That Jesus takes upon himself all of our disgrace and takes it with Him to perish on the cross, to drown in his wounds. This is fact. Jesus came, Jesus died, Jesus rose again, to save us, to pay our ransom, to redeem us. Fact. But this is not an abstract fact, it is a way of life. To know and believe in theory that Jesus died for you and you are forgiven, but not realise it, is to only know a shadow. Do we truly, honestly, realise the passion in our lives, do we live in and dwell in the indescribable love of God? Has the acceptance that God loves us, and forgives us, gone beyond good theology, beyond biblical exegesis and interpretation and actually transfigured us?
The forgiven woman had realised this, and because of this she acted out of love. She cared not for the social conventions, she did not care that she would be scorned and despised, perhaps even thrown out, she only cared about loving God. Are we willing to live a life where we take up our cross, where we are ridiculed and despised, oppressed and ignored? Are we willing to say ‘No’ to injustice, to show our love for God to all at all times, to live by the example of Christ and ignore what society says is how we should live. To live by the values of the Gospel, and not by the values of a broken society?
We have been forgiven; we have been ransomed and redeemed. But what does this mean in practise? Haiti has had its national debt wiped clean, it has been given a clean slate that it might use the money that was put aside for the payment of debts, to rebuild and heal itself. How are we going to use our life now it has been redeemed and our debt has been cancelled? The woman was forgiven, and she reacted to this with love, joy, worship, and thanks to the God who forgave her. And we must do the same. If we truly realise the forgiveness we are given, are transfigured by grace – we will act like the woman, spontaneously praising and thanking God. A truly realised thanks moves beyond words, it is manifested in actions – actions speak a thousand words, and no human words can describe the ineffable inexplicable grace and mercy of God.
But Christ is risen, Christ has ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. He is not here for us to weep over and anoint with expensive oil. So how are we to show our thanks and joy? How are we to live a life that’s very existence is defined by praise of God? The answer may be found in the teaching of Jesus related to us in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew where it is written:
“Then, the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of my Father! Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world! For I was hungry and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will answer them, ‘Amen, I tell you: as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
To live a life of praise and thanksgiving is to live a life that emulates that of Jesus. But it is more than this, to live a life that has been transfigured by the full realisation of the incarnation and passion, is to live a life where when we act it is, as Saint Paul writes: “not I but Christ in me.” Where the Pharisees saw a problem, Jesus saw a person. Are we like the Pharisees? Do we ever think and see people, people who are made in the image of God, in terms of how worthy they are, how important they are, how much of our time they will consume, how much of our attention they might take?
Are we willing, like Jesus, to live real love and compassion? Are we willing to see people and not problems? To be beside people in their distress and troubles? To accept the cost of loving, be it social, cultural, emotional, or physical – are we willing to live as St. Paul teaches, to live “in humility [and] count others more significant than yourself.”? Are we willing to love people out of compassion and grace, and ignore merit, for all are loved by God?
“Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in Peace.”
Our faith, through God’s good grace, has saved us. That is a fact. But what we do with this fact is up to us. My prayer is that we all, myself included, may fully realise and be transfigured by this fact, that we become, as Saint Peter writes “partakers of the divine nature” – that we might live to the Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. I pray that our prayer may not be a chore, our worship not simply an act, our mission not blind, and our joy not a misunderstood façade. I pray we may live a life that is in the image of Jesus. I pray that having been saved, we may dwell in the peace of God, and spread this peace like seeds across this world.