The Lord asks, “Do you see this woman?” Is he speaking only to Simon the Pharisee? Or to us as well? In considering Luke 7:36-50, may we ask if this is an illustration of a sinner who comes to Jesus as an act of metanoia and of love? Or is this a prick of our consciences not to be like the Pharisee? Or is this a theological lesson how God forgives us, and what that mercy might look like in real life?
One thing is certain: this is a rich reading that operates on many levels for the participants as well as us modern readers. Luke is a master dramatist, and no passage in his Gospel surpasses this for his skill as a storyteller:
A certain Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee’s house
and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table
in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
We should be accustomed to the power of Jesus and his message that people, just on hearsay, are prepared to do highly unusual things to get to him. A woman invades someone else’s home and performs hospitality rituals with two very intimate parts of her body: her tears and her hair. Without any words being spoken, we already know something is afoot (so to speak).
My sense is that the believer often approaches Christ with great openness and expressions of intimacy. Sometimes that occurs in the Sacrament of Penance. But sometimes, the inner voice of reason overtakes us. And we have good cause, so we think, to clamp down on what is heartfelt, and keep things in the mind, what is in-the-know:
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this
he said to himself,
“If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman this is
who is touching him,
that she is a sinner.”
I have always found it deeply amusing that Jesus doesn’t reveal if he knows about this woman, but he has certainly discerned what a person has said to himself:
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred days’ wages
and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt,
he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?”
A brief but powerful parable. What does it mean for today? For example: do remarried Roman Catholics reconciled with the church love Jesus more? Do returning sinners have a leg up on those who have always been faithful? Does that seem unfair in some way, offensive to our elder sister and brother sensibility?
Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose,
whose larger debt was forgiven.”
He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
We are capable of having our eyes opened, and of making good judgments. But sometimes we need a nudge.
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
“Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house,
you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet
since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you,
her many sins have been forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The others at table said to themselves,
“Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman,
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Jesus gives two assurances and a mandate to the woman. If the Pharisee is bothersome to think about, let’s keep it simple and “see” the woman, as Jesus also recommends. The Lord tells her two things: sins are forgiven and faith saves. Traditionally, Catholics see faith as a gift from God. We might strive for it, and have some imperfect outline that is like it. But it seems that when we are willing to meet God part way, God willingly fills in the gap. But sometimes, we might do outlandish things like breaking open a roof or crashing a Pharisee’s party. I hope God looks on such acts with great affection.
If we are tempted to look back on our sins, let’s remember the Lord’s mandate here: go in peace. That is how we are supposed to go.