The stark contrasts of this story stand out to me.
On the one hand we have the good, Bible-believing religious folk who host this meal Jesus is at. They not only try to do good deeds and be honest people, but also to avoid every appearance of evil. They keep the standards of propriety that are prevalent in their day.
Then Jesus, who too says he is one who honors the Bible and its God. Yet at their meal he allows every rule of propriety to be broken. The woman whom all around him claim they know is a woman of ill repute. She lays down before Jesus, using oil and her own tears, to wash his feet. Washing feet is an odd ceremony. On the one hand, it is the hospitality usually afforded by a host to his or her guest in the ancient world. As such it can be a standard hospitality – but usually extended by host to guest, not by random stranger barging into the meal (again breaking propriety) to guest.
Yet the way it is done has a sensual quality we overlook. That she uses her hair, and tears would have drawn connotations for the crowd. In Jesus’ day washing feet can also, in another context, be a euphemism. This is why my many scholars think when Ruth greets Boaz in secret and uncovers his feet it is a description of a sexual encounter. This is not a sexual encounter between Jesus and this woman whose reputation proceeded her, but with that reputation this scene would have had all those connotations to the audience. How obscene it looked to them!
Yet Jesus is far less concerned about the outward appearance of the situation. Jesus can see into the hearts of those gathered. He knows this woman who is throwing herself at his feet is not making a sexual advance, as these good Bible-believing religious folks jump to the conclusion of assuming. He sees her heartbreak, and longing for forgiveness. Probably, yes, from God but also to be able to forgive herself and let go the guilt and shame she carries not just in the community’s eyes but in her own.
And so Jesus breaks with another religious convention – and both corrects his hosts (How rude! Doesn’t he know they are footing the bill!) and proclaims the woman forgiven. This proclamation of forgiveness is his most shocking act of all. After all, we read this text and immediately see Jesus as the Christ, who in our belief as Christians is God-as-man-with-men-and-women-dwell. To the crowd, he is a good Bible preacher. A man like you or me, whom they are still evaluating.
Who does he think he is to proclaim this woman forgiven? Surely, if she went to the temple and made the appropriate sacrifices, perhaps than a priest could proclaim her penalty paid. But without having paid any penalty to the religious authorities, this preacher man can have the presumption to claim to speak for God.
I think the Gospel of Luke wants us to walk away with the message that Jesus is God in the flesh, Savior of the world, and most Christians believe this, and for us this explains Jesus’ actions. However I think there is something to be learned if we keep entertain the lesson Jesus’ interactions would teach us if we act as if that knowledge was not yet known, since Jesus’ Divine identity & mission are not fully revealed during his ministry according to all the Synoptic Gospels. In fact, Jesus is described in the Synoptic Gospels as repeatedly squashing proclamation of him as Savior, Son of God, through most of his ministry. So I think there is a way to understand Jesus’ boundary-breaking proclamation to her that she is forgiven in a way that goes in line with him as a human, which we can imitate
You see Jesus knows and proclaims the mind of God. The Gospel message is that God through Christ is forgiving the whole world. The reason God comes as flesh and blood, as a human being like you or me, is to reveal that God is busy with the business of extending forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and liberation to all people.
Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that God is not holding our sins against us, like some great burden from above about to fall upon us. No, God is waiting ready to forgive. Already before Jesus came with the Gospel message, the prophet Isaiah promised that if people come truly broken-hearted for their sins, committed to changing the pattern of their lives, and cry out to God, God will wash away the filth of their sins so they may have cloth as clean as white linen sheets.
So if Jesus sees the woman truly penitent he can proclaim, as a man, “you are forgiven”, based on the sure and certain promises of God. And so can we. When we are broken hearted over sin, crying out for forgiveness, truly desiring change, we can know in that moment God forgives us. When we see others do the same, we can remind them – you are forgiven. For God promises. And you don’t have to go to the temple first, or the church, and make some offering to make it happen. It is already there, free and available to you by faith. Any amends you make is to live out the change occurring in your heart, not to earn what God gives as a free gift.
To me this challenges our need to keep up the appearance of religiosity and acceptability. The religious folks who host Jesus’ dinner have that, and it covers up their own areas they are holding back from God. After all, how do they know this woman is of ill repute? Unless they have had inappropriate relations with her themselves, a sin, or engaged in gossip, yet another sin. They are not as bad as some commentators make them out to be, but they are certainly not as sinless as they would like Jesus to think. Their propriety keeps them from seeing their own need like this woman to cry out for forgiveness and seek change in areas of their lives it easy to deceive themselves and others into thinking aren’t so bad.
And what’s more, they fail to be able to exercise the compassion Jesus does – to see this woman not as some label of sinner, woman of ill repute, bad person but instead God’s child, their sister, one like them who is imperfect and in need of mercy but who can also be a person of great blessing and potential.
Jesus sees this and extends mercy – both to her, by accepting her cry for forgiveness and reminding her of the promise that it is given as soon as she asks; and to them, by calling them out of their propriety into true relationship with God and others.
This I think is the challenging thing that God is calling you and me toward. May we embrace this day and all our days.