36 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. 37And 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. 38She 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. 39Now 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.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
We have seen that Jesus dined often with the sinners and tax collectors, and have talked about the importance of table fellowship in Jewish culture at the time. In today’s scripture one of the Pharisees, a man named Simon (not Simon Peter), asks Jesus to dinner, and Jesus accepts and takes his place at the table – as a visiting rabbi, his would have been a place of honor at the table. Now, in order to understand this passage, you need to picture how people sat at table in that day – they did not sit in a chair, facing the table, but reclined on something like a lounge chair without a back, or even on pillows on the floor, around a low table, with their feet out behind them. (Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is not representative of the way they would have sat.) So, Jesus is facing the table, engaging in conversation with the Pharisee, Simon, when a strange woman comes in. Luke says she is a “woman of the city”, a sinner, and that she is carrying an alabaster jar of expensive ointment. She stands at Jesus’ feet and begins to weep. And she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair; and then she anoints them with the ointment.
Who is this woman? Whose little girl was she? What happened in her life to take her down this road? Why is she weeping? Has she seen Jesus before, heard him teaching, been drawn to bring her life to him, to literally lay it at his feet? Luke does not answer any of our questions – but notes the questions Simon has – notice, Simon’s questions have nothing to do with who she once was, or why she is weeping – to Simon, she is wearing a great big label, “SINNER”, and he is thinking “how dare she come into my house!” and “If this man were truly a prophet he would know who this woman is, and would not allow her to touch him.” It is sad that Simon can see only through his own arrogance.
Jesus, of course, knows what Simon is thinking, and challenges him with a parable. If a creditor forgave two people their debts, one who owed a great deal and another who owed a little, which would be more grateful? Simon, of course, knows the answer to this one – the one who owed much. Jesus says, yes, you answered correctly. But then he goes on – Simon had not offered what was in the day the minimal hospitality of having a servant wash his feet, or even of providing water for him to wash his own feet. Yet, the woman has washed his feet with her tears. Simon did not give him a kiss or anoint his head when he entered (we would find it a bit awkward if someone poured oil on our head when we came for dinner, but apparently that was the custom then), yet she had kissed his feet and anointed them with oil.
Then Jesus says, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, and she has shown great love.” And he says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” This raises that issue of authority again – as the people sitting at dinner say among themselves, how can he forgive sins? Who is this? And Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”