Tears of Thankfulness
Every subculture has rules that govern how it honors people. For children, it may be a shy question: Can you come out and play? For junior high school boys, in a kind of reverse sociological experiment, the language of affection generally involves hitting, wrestling, and the search for the ultimate insult. As we grow older, the modes of expression get a little more sophisticated, but the dynamic stays the same. Every society adopts ways to welcome, honor and value people whom we treasure. But every society also adopts ways to ignore and hurt those we choose to demean.
The ability to assign value is one of the most precious gifts in the world. People who live deeply in community learn to discern and express the value of other human beings. They are masters of expressing love in words and gestures. They assign high worth, value, and importance to others by viewing them as priceless gifts.
In Jesus' day, the rules of etiquette were a bit different that they are today, but the dynamics were the same. One day Jesus arrives at the home of a religious leader for dinner. Luke makes a point of telling us that Jesus had been invited, because as a visiting rabbi He would be regarded as a guest of honor. Certain rules of etiquette would be taken for granted.
The customary greeting was a kiss. This was not necessarily an expression of affection; it was simply a polite acknowledgment of the guest's arrival. The kiss could take different forms, depending on the status of the parties involved. If the guest were a person of equal social rank, the host would kiss him on the cheek. If a child were greeting a parent or a student his rabbi, a kiss on the hand was in order.
To neglect this ritual was equivalent to ignoring someone. Today it would be like arriving at the home of someone who invited you for dinner. The door is open, so you assume they intend for you to come in, but the family members are busy watching television and never get out of the La-Z-Boy, look you in the eye, or say hello. To do this to a casual guest is rude; to do it to a guest of honor is a deliberate insult.
The washing of feet was mandatory before a meal. If the guest was of high status, the host would perform this duty himself. If not, he might have a servant do it. A particularly lazy or arrogant host might simply give the guests some water and expect them to bathe their own feet, but this would be borderline offensive, a little like telling your guests they will have to wash their own dishes after dinner.
A thoughtful host would give his guests some olive oil for anointing, in a world that had a surplus of heat and a lack of deodorant, such a gesture was particularly refreshing.
In this story, Jesus arrives at the home and receives nothing. He is no longer an obscure carpenter. He has become a renowned teacher, attracting multitudes of people not only from His own country but all the way from places like Tyre and Sidon. He has an international following. Yet, at the home of Simon, He is given no greeting, no water for His feet, and no anointing for His head.
These are not subtle omissions, easily overlooked. This is a deliberate slap in the face. Everybody present knows it. The insult to Jesus has to be intentional. War has been declared and everyone waits to see Jesus' response. The tension in the room is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
Banquets like this one are public affairs. In the courtyard of the well to do, anybody could walk up and watch and listen. One of those who has gathered to watch is a well known prostitute in the village. She had heard Jesus teaching, maybe earlier that day. Something about Him struck very deep in her heart. She began to wonder, perhaps, How in the world did I come to this? No one grows up thinking they will become a prostitute.
Once this woman had been someone's little baby, the object of a mother's hopes and dreams. Maybe her husband had rejected her, and this was the only way she could survive economically. Maybe her heart had hardened, and this was simply the easiest way she could get the most money. One thing is certain: This woman knows what it means to be despised, unwelcome. She carries in her heart the enormous wound of rejection, perhaps even rejection at the hands of her parents. She certainly knows rejection as an adult. No decent person will speak to her, welcome her, or acknowledge her. Doors open for her only at night, in secret and in shame.
When the woman hears Jesus teach, the thought occurs to her that, overwhelmed by the sin in her life her life, is still loved by God. He thinks of her and loves her like she was His own daughter. She is valued. It's not too late, even for her. She hears Jesus will be attending this dinner. Of course, she would not be invited in a million years. She gathers all her courage and comes into the courtyard. She is overwhelmed by the idea of God's love.
She sees how Jesus is treated by Simon. She watches as the one who has given her new life is ignored and insulted. The watching crowd waits for Jesus to make a few strained remarks about being unwelcome and then leave in a huff. But that’s not our Savior, He accepts the humiliation without protest. No one comes to His side; no one stands up for Him. The woman can't stand it. Her love and devotion and anger all well up to the surface, what can she do? She can't be the one to give Jesus a kiss of greeting. It would be scandalous. Think of how those around the table would interpret that. Then she has an impulse: She could kiss Jesus' feet. To wash someone's feet was an act of service; to kiss them would be an act of utter humility. She decides to act quickly before losing her nerve.
Imagine the drama. Jesus reclines on a cushion, with His feet facing away from the table. Suddenly a woman who had been watching from the courtyard, who clearly was not invited, stands at His feet. Everyone is watching as she kneels down to kiss His feet so that ate least someone might give Him honor. She crouches there for a moment and then in a moment of desperate courage, dares to look up at His face. She stopped looking into peoples' eyes many years ago, for all she ever saw was either lust or condemnation. But she looks into Jesus' face. And instead of judgment or ridicule or embarrassment, she sees love. She has not seen that look in a man's eyes in a long time. If ever. Here she sees it in the eyes of the best man she has ever known. He loves her. Not as an object, but as a daughter. Not as a commodity, but as a friend. Not in the shadows, but in the light.
Tears come to her eyes, a few at first, then more. Then they are pouring down her face. Tears of sadness for what she has done. Tears of gratitude because Jesus offers forgiveness. Tears of joy because now a whole new life lies in front of her. Jesus' eyes become a kind of mirror in which she sees the possibility of becoming a new woman. She could get a do over.
Jesus' feet, unwashed by Simon, are wet from her tears. She has no way to dry them, there is no towel and Simon would never give her one. On impulse she lets down her hair. This is another shocking breach of etiquette. A woman always wears her hair up in public. She never allows it to hang lose in mixed company. Everyone watching knows her profession. The woman has let down her hair many times before, with many men. But now she is doing it one final time. This time she is getting it right. With her hair she wipes Jesus' feet.
She has an alabaster jar of ointment-most likely a flask worn around the neck as a kind of perfume. Again, because of her profession, this flask is quite important. In an era not known for its hygiene; the use of perfume helped make her work less unpleasant for her. But now she empties the flask. This is an act of great significance. She will not need it any more. She is pouring out her old way of life. She knows she cannot anoint Jesus' head because she is a sinful woman and He is a holy man. So she pours it on Jesus' feet. She kisses them over and over. She has been so consumed by His sheer goodness that it is as if she has forgotten who she is and where she is, and she unashamedly pours herself out in adoration and gratitude.
Simon is watching. This dinner is not turning out at all the way he planned. Interestingly, Luke does not tell us why Simon treats Jesus with scorn. Maybe Simon had planned to snub Him all along. Maybe he really wanted Jesus to come to his home, but with all those people present cannot bring himself to publicly align himself with the rabbi. Perhaps he is afraid his reputation might take a hit.
Whatever the reason, he is distancing himself from this rabbi. What is striking is the difference between Simon's and the woman's responses to Jesus' situation. As Simon watches the drama with the woman, he says to himself, Jesus must not be "it" after all. If He were a prophet, He would know who this woman is. He wouldn't let her touch Him with a ten-foot pole.
But Jesus knows who the woman is and who Simon is. Jesus wonders if there is any way to get Simon to see the value of the apparently worthless object on his floor. So He tells Simon a little story about two debts. Big Debt and Little debt. Then Jesus asks Simon, which one will be filled with relief and gratitude and joy for one who would graciously set him free?
Simon begins his answer: I suppose .... The answer is obvious, but Simon doesn't want to admit it, so he pretends that it's a tough call. I suppose it would be big debt. Jesus says with some humor, You have judged rightly. It sounds so cut and dry but we struggle with this as well. We think people who have mostly gotten life right, emotionally healthy people with high self-esteem and low regret factors can love the most. But Jesus says the great lovers are those who have come face to face with their own great brokenness and have been undone by great grace.
Then comes one of the greatest conversations in Scripture. The text says that Jesus turns toward the woman, but continues to speak to Simon. The dynamic of this encounter depends on visualizing the scene that Luke has painted, so let's take a moment to get a clear picture of what Jesus is doing. Up to now, the conversation has been between Jesus and Simon. Now Jesus keeps speaking to Simon, but His eyes are locked on the woman, and her eyes are fixed on Him.
Usually, in conversation you face the person you're speaking to. It is an irresistible impulse to gaze at what somebody speaking to you is gazing at. By facing one person while addressing another, Jesus is compelling Simon to look where He looks, see what He sees. He is inviting Simon to see that lying there on his floor is a prized possession of God whose value is beyond all calculation. By turning toward the woman, Jesus is also sending a message to her. He is telling her, in effect, that though His words are addressed to Simon, they are intended for her as well. She becomes a third member of the conversation. She has boldly loved Jesus; now he boldly loves her.
Imagine her: Beaming under Jesus' gaze, her tears flowing, her heart pounding because it is filled with shyness and fear and shame and hope and unspeakable love. Everyone in the courtyard turns to look at her. Jesus is now not just her forgiver. He has become her protector and advocate and friend. She was going to be His champion; now He is hers. Do you see this woman?
Simon doesn't. He sees a theological object lesson. He sees someone who is discarded trash. He doesn't see what Jesus sees at all. Then Jesus says You did not give me any water for my feet. Jesus is humble and restrained, He does not point out that since he's a rabbi, Simon should have personally washed His feet. He doesn't point out that He wasn't treated as an honored guest. He just observes that Simon should have at least provided water, which would have been done for the lowest status guest. She wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. She transformed a common courtesy into an expression of the heart.
You did not give me a kiss. Again, Jesus' modesty is striking. He does not say, "You didn't kiss my hand," which is the gesture of honor a disciple would pay to a teacher. Someone who considered himself Jesus' equal would have kissed His cheek. Jesus merely notes that the kiss was omitted altogether.
This woman ... has not stopped kissing my feet. In that dusty, un-swept, unwashed, world, feet were considered the nastiest part of the body. The ultimate insult in defeat is to make the enemy a footstool for the feet of the victor. To have one's nose in their general vicinity; to kiss them is unthinkable.
You did not put oil on my head, Jesus notes, but she has poured perfume on my feet. She didn't use a cheap substance, but poured out the best she had. It has cost her everything, her money and her way of making a living. It is the promise of new life.
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven. Can you imagine how the woman's heart explodes as Jesus looks her in the eye and pronounces her forgiveness infant of this crowd: Your many sins are forgiven! That is why the woman loves so lavishly. The one who is forgiven much loves much. The one who is forgiven little loves little.
It is worth noting what Jesus is not saying in this parable. He is not saying, Simon, you are a righteous man. You have hardly sinned at all. You don't need much grace. The difficulty is, Simon perceives himself to have little sin. That is what makes it so hard for him to be overwhelmed by grace. He really does think God is getting a pretty good deal in him. He thinks he is a small debtor. He looks at large debt people and wonders why they can't be more righteous, like him.
The question Jesus asks is, who is really the big debtor? There is a great sin defiling this room. But it is not the sin Simon thinks. It is the sin of Lips that won't kiss, Knees that won't bend, Eyes that will not weep, Hands that will not serve, Perfume that will never leave the jar. It is the sin of a heart that will not break, a life that will not change, a soul that will not love.
The greatest command is the command to love. The greatest sin is refusal to obey the greatest command. Jesus says, in effect, Simon, don't you see? You have the biggest debt of all.
If only Simon could see it! If only he would fall to the ground beside this sinful woman. If only he could see and feel pain over his sin as she does over hers. If only he could be overwhelmed by the realization that Jesus loves him anyway in the midst of his lovelessness. If only his tears would begin to flow and mingle with this woman's, and they would bathe the feet of Jesus together. Then Simon would realize that he and this prostitute are both members of the family of forgiven debtors.
She needs grace for a heart that is broken. He needs grace for a heart that is hard. We complicate our faith and lives in many ways, but at the core, our purpose is simple: We are called to love. A woman comes before Jesus whose whole life is warped by sin. She kneels before him and offers a contrite heart. But this time it is Jesus, the offended party, the blameless one, who stretches out His hands and says, I love you this much.
Jesus says it to crooked tax collectors, unfaithful friends, prodigal sons, and a thief on a cross. He'd say it to Simon, if only Simon would let him. He'll say it to you right now.