Luke 7:36-50 (i)
Lauren J. McFeaters
June 12, 2016
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about visiting a beautiful old church in Alabama. Having arrived for the service too early, she stands in front of the chancel, taking in a mural of Jesus emerging from his tomb. Though the painting was impressive, Taylor felt that something was off; Jesus looked strange; too waif-like. So after gazing at the mural for several seconds, she realized what was missing: Jesus the man, had no body hair. He was portrayed with the head of a man, but with the body of a boy.
It was peculiar.
Without thinking, she turned and shared her realization with the nearest church member. “This is a young boy coming out of the Tomb. Look, he has the arms of a six-year-old,” Taylor says. “And his chest is as smooth as a peach.”
The church member’s smile froze, and stared at Taylor in abject repulsion. “I can’t believe you’re saying this to me,” they wailed. “Why would you say this to me? I just can’t believe you’re saying this to me.”
As Christians, Taylor says, we often find ourselves “in the peculiar position of being followers of the Word Made Flesh, but neglect our own flesh, or worse — who treat our bodies with shame and scorn.” Or “Here we sit, with our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage, mostly insensible to the ways in which every spiritual practice begins with the body.” (ii)
Debie Thomas puts it this way: No matter how hard we try to theologize or intellectualize it away, this story from Luke is naked-making. It exposes. It confronts. It directs our gaze. It’s a story about the body. What the body is. What the body knows.
Feet. Tears. Salt. Perfume. Hair. Neck. Skin. Face. All four Gospels tell it, the scandalous story of a Woman who dared to love Jesus in the flesh — to love his spirit and his body with her own. Each writer frames the story differently, but each story at its core remains the most sensual, most shocking one in the New Testament.
If it doesn’t embarrass us, we’re not paying attention. (iii)
And it’s peculiar.
Here we find a renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea.
He says he’s been sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He’s been casting out unclean spirits; curing people of diseases; healing on the Sabbath; walking beside a paralytic who he told to stand up and walk. He’s been forgiving and curing and restoring and perhaps most startling – he’s brought a man, a widow’s son, back from the dead.
And it’s really peculiar. He’s picked up some followers – some ragtag vagabonds, some smelly fisherman, and some hated guys from the IRS. Women too. And he drinks and he eats with offenders; roves around like an itinerant schoolmaster, and insists on people’s devotion to a Loving God.
And it’s truly peculiar: A Super Important Religious Leader, invites the dusty Jesus to dinner. What better way to scope out this nomadic Jew, the One setting people’s teeth on edge; the One undertaking new-fangled and treacherous things.
What better way to scope out the new guy in town than to watch him over the rim of your wine glass. What better way to pin him down than to surround him with dozens of eyes and ears as you dig into your Falafel. Such a nice, pleasant meal.
Except it isn’t. Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is no polite parlay over a four-star leg of lamb. Simon has skipped some pretty basic social graces: no water for Jesus’ feet; no welcoming handshake or hospitable kiss; no oil to tidy up his head.
It’s as if Pharisee Simon is leaning against the doorway, his lip curling, and saying sarcastically “Jesus of Nazareth, it’s so nice to see you.” (iv) “Welcome!” It’s like a smirking Tony Soprano saying, “I’ve been waiting for you…Fuggeddaboutit Jesus…Come on in.”
And then the most peculiar of all: A Woman. A Woman with long hair. A Woman carrying a jar of ointment. A Woman weeping. How on earth did she manage to get into the house of a Pharisee? How exactly does she crash the party? Somehow she manages to get in the door, approach the table, kneel quietly behind Jesus, and let down her hair.
Can you imagine the reaction of the dinner guests as this Woman bends over Jesus and begins to sob, then soaks his feet with her tears, caresses them dry with her hair, repeatedly kisses his soles, his toes, and his ankles, and finally breaks open her alabaster jar to anoint his salty skin with perfume.
Jesus doesn’t say a word. Neither does the Woman. But they communicate volumes.
Please try to fully imagine this. Around the table, the conversation falters, then comes to an end. As the Woman cries the temperature inside that room rises. Every man simultaneously reaches for the wine.
As the Woman wrapped Jesus’s feet in her strands of hair, where did the men around the table look — or didn’t dare to look — And I wonder if Jesus — never one to make things easy — captures Simon’s gaze and holds it, extending the discomfort, forcing his host to imaginatively experience every searing kiss that grazed Jesus’ skin. (v)
When we study the Gospels, each one tells about a Woman who anoints Jesus while he is at table, and in each Gospel someone is there to reprimand her, to scold her.
You know historically, she’s known as a prostitute. Don’t get me started. Nowhere in scripture does it say she’s a prostitute. Nowhere. I’m embarrassed to tell you our own Presbyterian Worship Planner subtitles this section of Luke: Responses of a Pharisee and a Harlot. Ouch. Really? Truly? Is a Woman’s “sin” always sexual?
Here’s what we know:
And a Woman in the city, who was a sinner,
having learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house,
brought an alabaster jar of ointment.
Well that must be it. She’s from the city. She’s an urban-dweller. Therefore she must stand on the corner, whistle for customers, manage a transaction, and get to business. Really? Truly?
What we DO know is she says nothing and she does plenty.
As Luke guides us to this story, we find that unlike the other Gospels, the act of anointing does not foreshadow Jesus’ death or point to his future. Instead, in Luke, anointing is seen as an act of sheer hospitality, utter generosity, and total praise.
In the context of sin and forgiveness, Jesus reveals, “Those who are forgiven little, love little, but those who are forgiven much, love lavishly.” Simon’s love is thin and brittle. He doesn’t recognize his need for mercy. The Woman, in contrast, knows full well the extent of her own sin and the wide embrace of Jesus’ forgiveness, so her love for him is boundless.
Oh to have boundless love for our Lord. Imagine. To reach out to him through sorrow, remorse, and yearning. To have Jesus receive us with gratitude and sensitivity and tenderness.
And that’s where our Lord gets us. He asks us:
“Do you see this Woman? Do you see her?
Are you looking at her?”
It’s a lacerating question.
Because No, we don’t see her. It’s too personal. Too sensual. We can’t imagine ourselves kneeling before our God in public; sobbing before him, bathing him with our tears, cleansing him, and offering him comfort.
She’s our Rabbi today. She sets herself as an offering before God. She lays before him her vulnerability and generosity; her capacity for love. She breaks into a dinner party and lays bare the truth of need:
- the dusty feet in need of cool water,
- the sunbaked skin in need of fragrant ointment,
- the ever-giving man in need of generosity
- the ever-sacrificing One in need affection,
- the ever-healing Lord in need of healing touch.
- It’s a Sacrament of sweat and salt; dust and tears;
A Sacrament signed and sealed,
through perfumed feet and ardent kisses.
And then a Benediction: “Go in Peace.”
“Do you see this Woman?” he asks.
“Yes Lord, we see.
And we give thanks.”
© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.
 Luke 7: 36-50: 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 towards 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.’
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
[iii] Debie Thomas. “What the Body Knows” June 5, 2016, www.journeywithjesus.net.
[iv] Emmy Kegler. “Well, this is awkward: a sermon on the foot washing sinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house.” Sunday, July 28, 2013, Emmykegler.blogspot.com.
[v] Debie Thomas.