A problem for us hearing the story of the woman anointing Christ is that all four Gospels contain a story of a woman anointing Christ, yet the stories do not all appear to be the same story.
The evangelists Matthew and Mark have very similar stories that took place shortly before Christ’s Passion. The setting is Bethany, in the house of a person called Simon the leper. They tell of a nameless woman who poured expensive ointment from an alabaster flask on the head of Christ. The disciples grumbled about the waste of money that could have been used for the poor. But Christ defended her because she was preparing His Body for burial.
Saint John has a similar account, also shortly before the Passion. At Bethany, in the house of Lazarus, Mary took costly ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. Judas Iscariot complained that the ointment should have been sold to feed the poor, although John notes that Judas only said that because he used to steal out of the money box. Christ said to leave Mary alone, and that she should keep the ointment for His burial, rather than sell it.
So Matthew and Mark are very similar to Luke. Maybe, if Simon the leper is actually Lazarus, and the unnamed woman in Matthew and Mark is actually Mary, then they might actually be the same story. But this is by no means certain.
Our current reading from Luke seven is even more different. A pharisee invites Christ to his house to eat. We later find out that the pharisee’s name is Simon, but there is no indication that this is a leper. It seems very unlikely, especially because most of the rest of the details of the story do not match up with the details in the other Gospels. The woman comes to anoint Christ from an alabaster flask of ointment, but this time she is behind Christ, at His feet, weeping and wetting His feet with her tears. She also wiped the feet with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the anointment.
The discussion that follows centers around Simon the Pharisee’s objections, which are not about money. Instead, he objects on the grounds that “If [Christ] were a prophet, He would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”
Although the pharisee was speaking to himself, Christ the Son of God knew what he was thinking. He answers his thoughts by pointing out that the woman’s actions are because she feels so much love for Christ.
Christ does not respond as we might. The answer we might expect would go something like this: Simon questions how Christ could be a prophet, so Christ says, “I am too a prophet!” But of course, Christ is not like this.
But if we listen to Christ carefully, we may realize that He actually is showing how He is a prophet. Indeed, He is THE Prophet because He forgives sins. Forgiving sins is exactly what the promised Messiah, the great Prophet, does. His whole mission is to establish the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection, and then to put the word of forgiveness in the mouth of every believer.
What a wonderful thing, and what a lesson to us. We sometimes tend to be like Simon the pharisee. Our response to Christ is often lackluster. Christ criticized him for failing to show basic hospitality to Christ. He did not give any water for His feet, no welcoming kiss, nor oil for His head.
But the woman goes above and beyond normal signs of hospitality, even though she is not even the host. She kissed Christ’s feet, puts ointment on them, and washes His feet with her tears and hair.
She goes to such extravagant lengths because she knows the depths of sin which Christ forgives in her. She is a sinner, which means that she was known as a notorious sinful woman in the community. We are not told what public sins had permanently stained her reputation. Whatever they were, she felt how immense the love of Christ for her was, because He gave forgiveness for those sins.
Probably, she had heard Him preach before, or knew of His teaching from others. She knew that He promised forgiveness to all. In Him, she knew that even a horrible sinner such as herself could find remission of sins.
So when we find our responses to God to be lacking, or when our love for others grows tired, maybe it is because we have forgotten what the woman knew very well. We are horrible sinners. Christ has forgiven a tremendous debt. Ours is not a few bucks kind of debt, but a national debt kind of debt.
Simon the pharisee did not know this. Perhaps he knew once and forgot. In any case, his love for Christ was pathetic. Even basic hospitality for a stranger was lacking in his actions. To make matters worse, here was the Son of God in human flesh! To whom more than Him were actions of devotion appropriate?
You and I do not have Christ in the flesh before us. But we still have a way to show Him devotion. He has declared that He accepts love shown to the least of these His brothers as love shown to Him. We are able to do as the woman did, although I would suggest you do not literally follow her actions. That may be misunderstood in today’s culture. But there are many ways to anoint the feet of strangers, if not literally. There are ample opportunities to kiss their feet, if only figuratively.
So focus upon the forgiveness of Christ, and it will drive your works of love to greater heights. Feel true and deep sorrow for your sin. Do not simply feel a brief flicker of emotion, as if to say, “Oh, yeah, I guess I’m sorry.” No, try to feel as deeply as the woman. She is no more a sinner than you. If you realize the immense weight of your sins and find tears in your eyes, that is not a bad thing.
Then let those tears turn to joy as you remember that Christ has wiped away those sins with His Blood. He has covered the stink of your uncleanness with the sweet-smelling aroma of His sacrifice. He wept in Gethsemane as He contemplated the pain He would endure so that you need not weep in despair. We may feel some despair in this life because our faith is not as strong as it ought to be. But whatever despair our weakness allows must ultimately fade and flee because Christ has released us from the debt of our sin.
So cling in faith to these precious words of Christ: Your sins are forgiven. Hold onto them tightly, and let the life-giving power of this Gospel fill your life with peace and love. Amen.
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