Today's Gospel is a part of the history of Jesus' ministry that we really can't understand until we learn a little bit about the culture of that time. I remember hearing this story as a child and envisioning Jesus sitting at a table on chairs with a bunch of other people. I thought this woman with the perfume could crawl underneath the table and hide while she was doing all these things with Jesus' feet. I thought she was trying to be secret, but the big, bad Pharisee caught her. I had no idea how public her action really was.
You see, people in Jesus' culture did not sit in chairs around a table when they ate. Instead, they reclined at table. Imagine a low table with couches around it. Several people would then recline on each couch and rest on their left elbows, feet extended away from the table. They would use their right hand to eat. It is easy to understand that this is a much more intimate eating arrangement then just sitting around a table on chairs. You can understand why eating with someone had much more meaning back then than it does now.
Pharisees often invited a variety of people for meals in order to stimulate interesting conversation and debate. There weren't T.V. talk shows back then so people sometimes went to see who the rich people had invited to dinner. If the guests were especially interesting, the number of uninvited visitors might be quite large. So, there was a public viewing gallery in addition to the guests.
This situation meant that it would be no big deal for a woman to get into the house. It also meant that as soon as this woman approached Jesus and stood at His feet and then kneeled and kissed them, it was a very public act.
So, consider Jesus reclining at table with the guests of Simon the Pharisee. Add in the public viewing gallery. Then, add in this woman shedding tears on Jesus' feet, wiping them with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with perfume. Then, think about where Jesus' feet had been and how this woman was getting her hair full of the grimy sweat and other stuff that might be on Jesus' feet. This woman's actions are especially scandalous when we learn that it was indecent for a woman to unbind her hair in public before strangers. This is the scene in today's Gospel.
As the guests began to register their disgust with this woman's blatant emotional display, Simon the Pharisee made a quick mental note. He said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." Simon only saw two possibilities; Either Jesus didn't have a clue about the nature of this woman and was therefore not a prophet; or Jesus knew about this woman and accepted this service from her in which case he does not have the holiness of a prophet. Either way, Jesus is not a prophet. Simon's cold heart did not allow for the possibility that this woman could believe, repent, and receive the forgiveness of sins. He could not see this outpouring of selfless love as a symptom of the salvation that was hers through faith in her savior Jesus Christ.
Today's gospel draws a tremendous contrast between Simon and this woman. Simon was a Pharisee, a pillar of the community. This woman was a sinner - someone who at one time had broken some law that labeled her for life. People went to Simon for advice and guidance, they respected him. People avoided this woman and despised her. Simon was upwardly mobile. This woman was stuck at the bottom. In spite of all this, at the end of the day, Simon remained in his sins and the woman was free of hers.
Jesus Himself explained the reason for the difference with a quick parable and a simple question. "A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?" Even people who don't know what denarii are can answer this one. The one who owed ten times the debt would love the creditor more. Jesus then applied this parable to Simon and the woman.
Simon didn't think he had any sin. He thought he kept the laws of Moses to the letter. He was prosperous. He had a loving wife and family. He was well liked in the community, respected. Surely, God would not give all these blessings to him if he was a sinner like this woman. Because he didn't see his own sin, he thought of Jesus as just this loony rabbi who would draw a nice crowd to his dinner.
Simon felt superior to Jesus and offered Him none of the common courtesies. He did not have a servant bring water to wash His feet. He did not greet Him with a welcoming kiss. Simon was really rather rude to someone he had invited to dinner.
On the other hand, this woman had a sense of her sin. Although no one can completely sense the depth of their depravity, this woman knew her sin made her unclean in God's eyes and His enemy. She had some sense of the punishment that sin brings. She had personally experienced the persecution of a world that labeled her as a sinner. She knew that the next world could only be worse. This woman knew she needed a savior and by the power of the Holy Spirit she knew that Jesus is that savior.
Because she knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and her savior, she could not do enough for Him. Did her hair get dirty as she washed His feet? That was nothing compared to the filth of sin that He had removed from her soul. Did the odor of the road enter her nostrils as she kissed His feet? That was nothing compared to the stench of sin that He had cleansed from her heart. She knew that she was once a dreadful sinner and now she was clean. She had been dead to God and now she was alive in Christ.
The contrast between this woman and Simon the Pharisee is the contrast between the way of life and the way of death.
We still have people like Simon today - people who think their sin is not so bad - people who want to know the minimum requirement for entry into heaven so they don't do any more than what is necessary to get there - people who actually think they are doing God a favor when they show up for church - people who think maybe God should be kissing their feet, they are so good.
Today, people like Simon don't think much about Jesus' death on the cross. When they do, it is just a sad historical event, a death without meaning. Even though Jesus Christ earned forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation for them on the cross, they reject these gifts. They live in denial of their sin and lose out on the eternal gifts of God.
The truth of the matter is that we are all Simons when we come into this world. At birth, we all believe the world revolves around us. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. It is not until we begin to have an appreciation for the depth of our sins that we begin to understand and believe what the woman, in today's Gospel, understood and believed.
The terror of our sin makes us aware of our true standing before God. As we become aware of our sin, we become aware of our need for a savior. Then, as the Holy Spirit puts faith in us, we receive the gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation that Jesus Christ earned for us on the cross. Jesus Christ and the sacrifice that He made on the cross becomes our central focus. His resurrection and ascension become the promise that we too will one day rise and live in heaven forever. For those with faith in Jesus Christ, His sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate expression of the true essence of God.
Today's gospel contrasts a Pharisee named Simon with a sinful woman. Both of them had debts of sin that they could never repay. Simon didn't acknowledge his debt, the woman did. Simon rejected forgiveness, the woman received forgiveness. Simon had no appreciation for the gifts of God or who dined at his table that day. The woman had nothing but appreciation for Jesus and all He had done for her. The sinful woman knew her sin was great, but, thanks to the Holy Spirit, she knew her savior was even greater. Amen.
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