The woman--I like to call her the Avon Lady, because she arrives with perfume samples--behaves in a shocking and scandalous way toward Jesus, but Jesus accepts and defends her. Simon silently wonders how Jesus could allow her to have such intimate and inappropriate contact with him. Jesus takes this opportunity to tell a parable about faith, and to clearly claim divine authority to forgive sin.
The story is filled with irony, and as the vast readership of The Green Room knows, I heart irony.
Who is Simon?
Simon the Pharisee was a religious, temple-going guy. Maybe his dad was a Pharisee also, and his parents brought him up strictly, going to temple on Saturdays and Wednesday nights, and going on Pharisee youth group outings when he was in high school. They observed the feasts, fasts, and sacrifices; they tithed their dill and shekels precisely; they counted their steps on the Sabbath so as not to break the fourth commandment.
Simon's identity was wrapped up in his religious faith, and he took it very seriously. Maybe he invited Jesus to dinner so he could get to know him better, and decide for himself whether this controversial troublemaker was a real prophet, or a fraud. Either way, Simon would be the go-to guy with 411 on this crazy Jesus character.
Simon reminds me of me sometimes.
Who is the Avon Lady?
What about the woman who had lived a sinful life? Somewhere she had heard Jesus teaching about God's mercy and forgiveness. Maybe she followed him around for a few days or weeks, so she could hear more about God's willingness to forgive any who would come to him. She had never heard anything like this before, and only knew that everywhere she went, people knew her reputation.
I can imagine that she began to weep, standing on the edge of the crowd, hearing the parable of the prodigal son, and feeling forgiveness and acceptance for the first time.
When she heard where Jesus would be dining, she sought him out. The text doesn't indicate that anyone expressed surprise that the woman entered the Pharisee's house uninvited. The shocking scandal is that she goes right up to Jesus, and he allows it--in direct, ironic contradiction to the separation enjoined by Simon the Pharisee.
The Avon Lady anoints Jesus' dusty feet with her tears. She kisses them, pours perfume on them, and wipes his feet dry with her own hair. She is expressing a shockingly inappropriate intimacy, and the dinner guests were horrified. This woman was oblivious to what others thought, or else she didn't care. She had forgotten everyone except Jesus, and she was boldly compelled to show her love and gratitude to Jesus in the most lavish way she knew how.
Why? How did she reach this point of such deep love for and gratitude to Jesus?
Who is Jesus?
Simon doubts that Jesus is a prophet when he doesn't send the woman away. Ironically, Jesus reads his mind, and tells him a parable in response to his unspoken criticism. The parable is simple:
Two men owe a debt to a moneylender. One man owes about two months' income, the other owes ten times more. Repayment was possible, eventually, for the lesser debtor; but the second man knew he'd never be able to pay his debt. The moneylender freely forgives, or cancels, both debts.
Which debtor, Jesus asks Simon, will love the moneylender more?
Simon, who had been reluctant to give Jesus even the smallest and most common courtesies normally shown to a visitor, was also reluctant to believe that Jesus was a prophet. Now he's reluctant to give Jesus the correct and obvious answer to the question raised by the parable, and does so with indifference: "I suppose the one who was forgiven more."
He's also reluctant to acknowledge the depth of his own sin. He had shown very little love to Jesus, in comparison to the woman, who had shown great love--because he did not grasp the nature of his own debt, or the depth of his own sin.
It is a mistake to think that in telling this parable, Jesus was suggesting that the sinful woman was more sinful than Simon the Pharisee. It's a mistake to think that the sinful woman was sinning worse sins than Simon.
The point that Jesus wants Simon, and us, to understand, is that the woman showed
extravagant love to Jesus because she understood the depth of her own sin.
Jesus makes an astonishing statement to the woman: "Your sins are forgiven." Simon did not even believe that Jesus could possibly be a prophet--but now he's hearing that Jesus is claiming to be much more than just a prophet.
Don't let anyone tell you that Jesus never made a claim to be divine. By accepting worship and
reverence from his followers, and by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins, he was announcing his
own divinity. You may choose to believe that Jesus was not God, but don't kid yourself that he didn't claim to BE God, as some false teachers will have you believe.
Do you see this woman?
This is what Jesus says to Simon. He wants Simon to take a closer look at this woman he had judged so harshly. When Simon looked at her, he saw a woman who was not only not as righteous as he, but who was much more of a sinner than most.
But what did Jesus see? He saw a sinner, for sure; he said, "...her sins, which are many..." He knew that her sins had separated her from God.
But he also saw a contrite heart, a forgiven woman whose freedom from guilt and shame compelled her to love lavishly. The irony is that Simon saw a sinful woman, but he himself was the one who still remained in his sin, unforgiven; and he loved little.
Her sins, which are many
I want to be known, like this woman, as a sinful woman. I want people to know that when I walk into a room, sin has entered that room--and not just a little bit of sin, but a great big steaming pile of sin.
And guess what? I don't have to be an embezzler, a prostitute, a child molester, a murderer, or even a Republican! I can just be me, with a deep and realistic understanding of my own capacity for idolatry, anger, selfishness, laziness, gluttony, and pride.
I don't need to go out and find new ways to be a sinner, because sin always finds me. But I want to be like this woman, who poured expensive ointment from an alabaster jar because she knew the depth of her own sin so intimately that she gained a deeper appreciation for forgiveness and an
unselfconscious, extravagant love for Jesus.
Believers--maybe we need to be more transparent about our dirty little secrets, because that's the basis for the Good News in our lives. God didn't choose us because we were already great
people. Rather, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
What a debt we owe! What a vast forgiveness we've been given! And what a price was paid. Where is our extravagant, unselfconscious love?
The Avon Lady is my hero.