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 waiflike. So after gazing at the mural a bit longer, 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 curious.
Jesus was coming out of the Tomb having the arms and chest of a 6-year-old. A man’s head with no mature or developed body – as if the painter were embarrassed that Jesus was, well, a fully-grown man.
Taylor says, as Christians, we find ourselves in the curious position of being followers of the Word Made Flesh and yet we treat bodies with embarrassment and shame. Being followers of the Word Made Flesh, we bristle when sensuality and sexuality make themselves known. [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. [iii]
And it’s curious.
Here we find a renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea. Jesus has 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 paralytics.
Curious. And 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 now it gets more curious: A VIP 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.
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, as you dig into your Falafel, than to surround him with dozens of eyes and ears. Such a nice, pleasant meal.
Except it isn’t. Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is not polite fellowship over a four-star leg of lamb. Simon has skipped some pretty basic social graces: no water for feet; no welcoming handshake, no hospitable kiss; no oil to tidy up the hair.
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 reminiscent of a Tony Soprano smirking and saying, “Fuggeddaboutit Jesus … Come on in.”
And then the most curious of all: A Woman. A Woman with an uncovered head. A Woman with long hair. A Woman with an uncovered head and long hair carrying a jar of ointment. A weeping Woman with an uncovered head and long hair carrying a jar of ointment.
What I want to know is how on earth did she manage to get into the house of a Pharisee? How exactly does she crash the dinner party? Somehow, she manages to get in the door, approach the table, and kneel quietly behind Jesus.
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 kissing his soles, his toes, and his ankles, and finally breaks open her alabaster jar to anoint his salty skin with perfume.
Try to fully imagine this. The uninvited Woman enters the dining room. Around the table, conversation falters, then comes to an uncomfortable end. She begins to cry. The temperature inside that room rises. Every man simultaneously reaches for his wine glass.
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 New Testament, each Gospel tells about the Woman at the dinner party, and each time two things happen: 1) she anoints Jesus’s feet, and 2) someone is there to reprimand her.
Each and every time there’s the account of a dubious who dares to love Jesus in the flesh — to love his spirit and his body with her own. Each writer might frame the story differently, but each telling remains the most sensual, most scandalous in the New Testament.
You know historically, this woman who anoints Jesus is known as a prostitute. Also translated as temptress and siren.
Don’t get me started. Nowhere in scripture does it say she’s a prostitute. Nowhere. But I’m embarrassed to tell you our own Presbyterian Worship Planner subtitles this section of Luke, quote: “Responses of a Pharisee and a Harlot.” I kid you not. Really? Truly? Is the “sin” of a woman perpetually carnal and eternally sexual?
Here’s what we do 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 urbanite. Therefore she must stand on the corner, whistle for customers, manage a transaction, and get to business. Really? Truly? Curious.
What we DO know is she says nothing and does plenty.
Unlike the other Gospels, we find here, her act of anointing does not point to Jesus’ future or foreshadow his death. Instead, in Luke, anointing is seen as an act of sheer hospitality, utter generosity, and total praise. What we do know is she is a generous person, kind, thoughtful, and in need of mercy.
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 in any way recognize his need for mercy, so his welcome to Jesus is miserly.
The Woman, in contrast, knows full well the extent of her brokenness and her hope in 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 our shame and regret, our sorrow and remorse, our guilt and our yearning. To have Jesus receive us with gratitude and tenderness.
And that’s where our Lord gets us. He understands us.
He asks us,
“Do you see this Woman? Do you witness her?
Are you looking at her?”
It’s a lacerating question, because NO, we don’t see her. It would be too personal. Too sensual. We can’t imagine ourselves publicly kneeling before our Savior; sobbing, bathing him with our tears, cleansing him, offering him comfort. We don’t ever know her name.
But here she is in all her glory. Today, she’s our Rabbi. She sets herself as an offering before her Lord. Full of sin, she lays before him her gifts of vulnerability, generosity, and a 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-sacrificing servant in need care,
- 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 to her, like the fresh breeze of a Benediction,
“Your sins are forgiven.”
“Your faith has saved you.”
“Go in Peace.”
And to all of us, as we kneel before him, a Benediction:
“Your sins are forgiven.”
“Your faith has saved you.”
“Go in Peace.”
[i] Luke 7: 36-50 NRSV: One of the Pharisees, named Simon asked Jesus to eat with him, and Jesus 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 Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind Jesus 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 Jesus, saw it, and 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 the Pharisee, “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, the creditor canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love the creditor more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled 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 Jesus 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 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
[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.