This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on June 12, 2016.
On first read, we might be tempted to conflate Luke’s version of the anointing of Jesus with all the other versions we know, much as we tend to do with the story of the so-called “rich young ruler.” Each Gospel tells a story of a woman with an alabaster jar, who anoints Jesus while he sits at table. Among the four stories, Luke’s is distinct, with very different emphases than in the other Gospel accounts.
Matthew and Mark tell the story in nearly the same way (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9); John’s version (John 12:1-8) differs in certain details but not in substance. All three writers see the scene similarly – the expressed concern of the others at the table is over the squandering of a precious resource. In contrast, Jesus affirms the lavish offering as a beautiful gift and a preparation for his burial.
Luke’s story is strikingly different. Twice as long as the other three versions, the setting, timing, characters, and core issues all vary dramatically from the other Gospel accounts. Set in the home of a Pharisee, presumably in Galilee, early in Jesus’ ministry, it contains similarities to the other versions – the woman, the alabaster jar of ointment, the anointing, the complaint, Jesus’ response – but it is otherwise wholly different in tone and focus. Those very differences, the particular concerns of Luke, make for rich preaching possibilities.
In Luke’s account, the woman is noted as a sinner. What is her sin? Many commentaries will be very quick to tell you: she is a prostitute. Where in the text does it say so? There is no reason for the preacher to make the woman’s sin more particular than Luke does (and if the preacher wants to make the case that she is a prostitute, then a case – not an assumption – should be made). Luke, naming neither the woman nor her sin, makes it possible for anyone to identify with her.
What we do know – and so does the Pharisee – is that the woman is a sinner. What she knows is what has been announced right before this story – Jesus is a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). She knows his reputation; perhaps she has even heard him teach. Her response? Tears, kisses, anointing. It is a vivid and arresting scene.
It is also a scandal. The intimacy and physicality of her gestures – the letting down of her hair, the continual kissing of a man’s feet – is itself a shock. What’s more, the Pharisee surmises that if Jesus were truly a prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is – that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) Jesus does know; he also knows who and what kind of man this is. “Simon,” he says – the first time anyone has spoken, the first time the Pharisee has been named – and he tells a brief parable (the first parable Luke records) about debt and forgiveness. The point of the parable is clear to both Simon and the reader – a debtor who has had a great debt cancelled will be more grateful to the creditor than one who had a lesser debt cancelled. The forgiveness Jesus has come proclaiming is radical, extreme, and total; it turns out that appropriate response to such forgiveness is also radical, extreme, and total.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks Simon (Luke 7:44). This question provides deep preaching possibilities. When Simon saw the woman, he saw a sinner (Luke 7:39). When Jesus looked at the woman, he saw great love (Luke 7:47). In what ways do our assumptions get in the way of our seeing who someone really is? How do we look at people through the narrow, rigid lenses of shame and judgment, rather than through the broad, beautiful lenses of love and mercy?
The difference in how Jesus sees and receives the woman and how the Pharisee sees and receives her is stark. But Jesus’ words highlight an equally glaring contrast: the difference in how the woman and the Pharisee see and receive Jesus. The Pharisee eyes Jesus suspiciously, leading him to doubt Jesus is who he claims to be (Luke 7:39); the woman’s perception of Jesus leads her to extend to Jesus a generous hospitality that the actual host has not. In doing so, she has shown that an accurate perception of who Jesus is and what he offers results in great love that shows itself in gratitude and generosity. The men at the table ask, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49) But the woman already knows. It is Jesus, who has cancelled her debt, who has told her to go in peace.
Where she will go from here is unclear – there will always be people like the Pharisee who, despite Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness, see only her past sin. Such people, focusing on the sin of others, often fail to see their own need for mercy, and therefore fail to see Jesus accurately and receive him with gratitude. Luke shows what people who have been touched by the good news of Jesus do: they follow. Luke highlights that, in addition to the twelve male disciples, some women who had been cured by the good news of the kingdom of God are traveling now with Jesus, and providing for him out of their resources. Is the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet one of them? Luke tells us no more about her. But her story does prompt our preaching to ask: what do we do in response to such forgiveness and love?
Stacey Simpson Duke
First Baptist Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tags: forgiveness, women, gratitude