Have you ever bathed someones feet with your tears, wiped them with your hair, and anointed them with expensive perfume?
I think the world of my husband, so much so that I brought him with me today (he may consider it a punishment) but it has never occurred to me to rub his feet with my Channel perfume…
Perhaps the closest any of us have ever been to taking part in an act even remotely like this one is at a Maundy Thursday foot-washing service … we have had few at Altofts Church but even that experience can make most people feel very uncomfortable .
It is not something we are used to doing in this day and age and even two millennia ago when foot washing was a common Near East custom the womans actions from the reading of Luke were still considered risky, radical, even offensive.
This centuries old gospel scene is so far removed from our own cultural experience and practice that in discerning this story we need to ask: what is the cultural meaning of the womans actions? How does this story apply to our own lives? How does it relate to Prison Sunday and how can we make the story come alive in our worshiping communities?
…The woman is presented as a sinner.
Her status as a sinner, an outcast , highlights to us the modern readers Christ universal mission as the Savoir and Liberator of all people. This most touching passage from Jesus early ministry is representative of Gods mission to save ALL rather than only the righteous such as the inattentive host Simon the Pharisee…
But what were Simons motives of inviting Jesus to his home? Was he a tenacious seeker of the truth, did he mean to trap Jesus or did Simon simply invite him because he liked the company of the famed?…
Well he quickly reveals his estimation of Jesus by ignoring simple acts of hospitality as part of the covenant commandment to love your neighbour- for example a kiss on the cheek – the symbol of affection, providing water for washing the guest feet , anointing the guest with oil were also common customs in the time ….
neglecting all these signs of hospitality implied that the guest was one of very low rank.
In response, the sinful woman, filling the hospitality gap left by the ignorant host, completes Simons duties as a host by anointing his guest in an intimate yet very public encounter that crosses all sorts of proper boundaries and divisions .
She uses her tears instead of water, her hair instead of a towel and a costly perfume to anoint Jesus feet …perhaps referring to an ancient custom of anointing the feet of a noblemen in the house of kings. Unfitting to kiss his hand, she tenderly kisses Jesus feet.. Of course this is all too much for the judgmental Pharisee who cannot help but doubt Jesus credibility as a Prophet surely a true Prophet would not allow an unclean sinner near him.
Jesus on the other hand is not solely a prophet/ teacher, he is a observer of the thoughts of the human heart and he answers the Pharisees thoughts as if he had spoken. Jesus asks him for a moral assessment of the hearts of two debtors . The answer appeared too obvious for the smart Pharisee. However, Jesus skilfully uses Simons own judgement to declare the woman innocent and pierce through the Pharisees flawed evaluation of his own debt to God.
Simon toils so hard to obey the law that he cannot see himself as a sinner. He can see the deep gulf that separates him from the woman, but he cannot envisage the greater gulf that separates him from God .
Along with his distorted judgment of the situation and his viewpoint of moral supremacy, Jesus also points out his lack of a?ection. Simons lack of even simple giving is compared to the extravagant giving of the woman.
But of course, the Pharisees real deficiency is not his negligence as a host but Simons spiritual pride. He does not sense the magnitude and intimacy of Jesus holiness. The sinful woman does. Her reaction is to weep in awe of Gods forgiveness and welcoming acceptance of her lavish and extravagant love. The womans gesture flowed from the forgiveness received – it could flow only from a heart truly liberated and set free!
It is the overwhelming forgiveness of God which initiates the tender-hearted love of the woman. Love fuelled by the flames of an authentic and humble faith…..faith which ultimately sets her free from the condemnation of sin .
The roles are reversed ! The low are exalted, the high brought low; the sinners are forgiven , the righteous condemned. The sinful woman has shifted to the abundantly forgiven new disciple, the eager Pharisee to the cold suppressing judge, and The Teacher to the Forgiver of Sins
We must truly grasp the shift in order to see Jesus Christ and understand our own need of a Saviour. Jesus radically reverses all assumptions about himself, highlights true repentance and forgiveness and provokes us to contemplate on the boldness of his ministry.
Christ is the Savoir of ALL people and the Divine Deliverer of the burdened sinners who calls us ALL to repentance and faith.
The Gospel story reveals the true nature of Christ. It magnifies Him as more than a Teacher but the Divine Forgiver of Sins.
For The Good News of the Kingdom of God is just this: Your sins are forgiven
This is the message we need to proclaim on Prison Sunday , this is the message my uncle was yearning to hear:
Christ frees us from the whole universe of condemnation and shame, in order to introduce us to a new world of grace and from our part it simply requires a step of faith into this lavish ,astonishing world where grace does not follow reparation but precedes it.*