Luke 7v36-50 James May

Jesus anointed by a sinful woman


This afternoon we are continuing our series of sermons on the gospel account of Luke and today we’re looking at this passage about a woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears. The account is very short, almost to the point of being terse, and yet is amazingly rich.


We can explore our pride and our miseries, our hopes and our fears, but Luke has a clear intention in recording this story to make us ask who Jesus really is.


It is difficult with our modern eyes not to read the story with a critical distance which might see problems in the woman being the emotional wreck in the story who seems to feel guilt, and a need for a man to console her whilst the other man is proud and aloof and happy with his lot. Of course that isn't to deny that the woman at least seems to be positively cast as being in touch with her feelings, whilst the proud man is embarrassed for his lack of care. 


We may also think that this belongs to a pre modern world before humankind had come of age and learned to determine our own fates. We used to be fettered by guilt, by a sense of obligation to a deity, but now we have grown up, we have become the free masters of our own destinies, and we no longer need to submit and weep about a failed sense of obligation or guilt. 


This story therefore may interest us as a historical curiosity, or it may touch us with its humanity, but it would alarm us to think that it had anything substantial to say about reality or truth. 


We will look at some of these objections in more detail shortly, but it seems to me that the story is so radical, that it addresses them directly itself. 


We need to get a feel for the historical and social context of the story to fully appreciate what is going on, and we may be surprised how the story has the potential to subvert our assumptions.


It is a remarkable feature of the stories Luke tells that they contain so many elements which seem mundane and earthed descriptions of recognisable life at the time, and yet the stories are so profound that they have an almost mythical quality, that is timeless and infinite and speak directly to our deepest needs.


Why did the Pharisee Simon invite Jesus around for a meal? Was it a genuine desire to spend time with this renowned teacher, or because of a desire to meet the man whom was being talked about across the land for miracles he was apparently performing? Or was it a cynical attempt to show who Jesus really was, a man who taught great things, but kept bad company, and shouldn't really be allowed into respectable society.


We all I guess have had the experience of being embarrassed by our hidden agendas.  One of my daughters walked into my bedroom the other morning, and I said ‘good morning’, and she started complaining about something that was going on that day, to which Karin my wife said, ‘you didn't say good morning to your daddy.’


Perhaps Simon was caught up in the great event he organised, that he forgot basic courtesies. He had probably invited his more highly respected friends from the temple, priests, teachers of the law, officials and the like. When Jesus arrived you can imagine the introductions. ‘Jesus, meet, so and so, a very distinguished academic...’, ‘yes, that's Jesus over there, the one who everyone’s talking about at the moment. It is a good opportunity to see whether he lives up to the hype don't you think. I'm pleased I have arranged this event to check out his credentials, aren't you?’


But there is this detail about Jesus’ feet which seems to have escaped Simon’s attention. In first century towns, the streets were filthy, covered in animal faeces, and were probably dry and dusty. It was normal practice to welcome someone into your house by arranging for a servant to wash your guests feet, particularly I suspect if they were coming round for food. Another tradition which would be a bit like offering a cup of tea, or a light pre dinner refreshment would be to anoint someone's head with oil. Again, the hot and dusty streets, might leave your skin dried and cracked and some oil would serve to freshen you up.


For formal meals people used the Roman model of reclining at the table rather than sitting. That is they would lie down, with their heads at the table end, and their feet pointing away from the table. 


Ancient near Eastern society did not operate with the same rules of privacy at home that we have today, and other people seemed fairly free to pop in and see what was going on. Perhaps for great banquets this was even encouraged as part of the show. Without TV, or Wimbledon or the European championships, and in small villages and towns such events were presumably an important source of entertainment and interest for everyone. 

At any event a woman came in and had with her a small alabaster jar of perfume. This would have been a luxury item, and was clearly brought deliberately, perhaps with the intention of anointing Jesus’s head. But because he was already reclining when she arrived, she firstly wept at his feet so much that she made them wet, and then she dried these smelly, unwashed, dirty feet, with her long hair, and then poured her perfume on them. 


But her presence wasn't welcomed by all, and her attention to Jesus raised eyebrows. Firstly women were regarded as second class citizens at the time, and would not be welcome at the table in such esteemed company, and secondly she was known as someone who was a sinner, someone whose life was a bit of a mess, whose behaviour was publicly known to fall short of accepted standards. Traditionally she has been thought to be a prostitute with herlong hair been drawn attention to in artistic representations. We know that the word sinner was a widely used and generic term for such people, who were also considered second class citizens.


All these details root this story firmly in its 1st century, near eastern context. This unembellished account contains strong evidence that it is an authentic story, describing real events. But the story tells us a lot more about perennial human realities, than these quirky first century historical details. Like wise men and women down the ages when Jesus speaks, he speaks beyond his local context to wider humanity. But perhaps distinctively from most of these other wise people his words seem to be directed very personally at the depths of our individual humanity. And in a way that is clearly distinct from all other teachers who have commanded any sort of respect he has a view of who he is himself which is breathtaking in scope. 


So not only does he address human misery in his comments about the woman, but he turns Simon's criticisms into a very personal observation about Simon himself in a way which can make us all identify with him. But then he puts himself at the centre of the discussion as the one who is able to offer the forgiveness which all people need but which only some admit the need of. We will need to examine the dialogue in detail to appreciate this, but it is for reasons like this that the writer CS Lewis draws this conclusion:


‘I am here trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.’


Now this opinion may seem far fetched, but this passage, which seems so gentle and charming on the surface, does in fact carry the weight of CS Lewis’ argument when looked at closely. But even more than that, there is a profound level that it would be desirable to find that these claims made in this passage are in fact true, even if our initial reaction is to find it detestable. I am not saying that there are not good reasons to disagree with CS Lewis on this, but I would suggest that a mature discussion of this passage would involve addressing Lewis’s challenge.


But first let us step back and consider how this woman's misery speaks more widely of human misery which we all experience. The woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with her tears has no recorded words in this account, but because of this Luke allows us to read in our own stories.


On Friday night Karin and I watched the cellist Sol Gabetta on TV playing Elgar’s cello concerto on the first night of the proms. After the terrible events of the week it felt cathartic to listen to this piece which was written the year after world war 1. Music can sometimes say far more than words which can seem inadequate to express our deepest feelings. 


In our self-driven, success oriented society it is difficult sometimes to admit weakness. We may suppress the desire to cry, we may say, ‘what's the point in crying, what does it achieve?’, but we are emotional beings. We are not unaffected by life's events as if life is a string of dry facts to be understood with our minds, but not felt in our hearts. We may be busy, we may not stop to reflect much, or pause to absorb the full impact of events, but sometimes reality does break through and touch us. The referendum seems to have struck emotional cords that few of us anticipated, whether anger, or joy, or sadness, or guilt, or fear and apprehension. The devastation in Nice is so incomprehensible that words are clearly inadequate and spending time pondering what happened seems so distressing it almost feels inappropriate to try. 


It is however a dangerous thing to see the problems out there without recognising that we all have problems much closer to home, in our own hearts. Our own internal worlds tragically mirror events in the world outside. We often hurt the people closest to us; we act selfishly, or out of misguided ideological thinking, or from jealousy or anger, or fear. We are not the calm, rational, benevolent beings that we like to project to the outside world. If we like to see Jesus as just a good moral teacher, we also like to see ourselves as basically nice people who have the best interests of others at heart. 


But this leaves us with a gap in our explanatory framework. When things go wrong, if we deny that the cause is ever us, then we must attribute blame elsewhere. This is a well recognised psychological phenomenon called ‘confirmation bias’, and if you don't think that it applies to you, well that is exactly what the theory predicts. A failure to acknowledge responsibility when things go wrong, or a tendency to take on the victim role, or to have self-righteous disapproval or anger are not signs of a healthy centred person. Living or working with such people is challenging to say the least, especially if that person is you! We all have the tendency to accuse others before acknowledging our own responsibility, but some find it harder to admit failure than others. 


Whether in the world out there, or deep in our own souls there are plenty or reasons for sorrow, and sadness, and sometimes tears too. 


But crying is not easy. It speaks of unfathomable sorrow which is a very difficult thing for any individual to bear. Our culture does not cry publicly often, unlike some cultures which express grief very loudly in public. 


Yet the solitude of crying in our rooms at night on our own seems desperately lonely and tragic. Sometimes this is needed, but it feels healthier to cry with someone close to us, someone who understands us and what we feel. The word, ‘cry’ has the sense of crying out, of expressing outwardly what is happening inside us. Tears are physical expressions of internal sorrow andthey literally flow out from within us.  If we are fortunate we may have people close to us to share our pains and sorrows with. However, as a GP I know that many people can't or don’t do this. Even if they have close friends or family they feel they do not want to burden them with their sorrows, often saying that their friends have enough troubles of their own, or are simply too busy, or that they don't want to be seen as the party pooper who is always miserable. So in their desire to have a shoulder to cry on people often go to their GP, which I think shows how modern society often lacks appropriate ways of dealing with distress.


Depression and sadness can be very lonely experiences at exactly the time when we most need someone else. Tomorrow, Shacklewell community choir are having their summer concert here, and among other things we’ll be singing Prince’s “when doves cry”, which opens with the lines, ‘how can you just leave me standing, alone in a world that's so cold?’


Freud points out that we often suppress our deepest feelings and they are redirected into pathologies in our souls. We deny pain, and we pretend it is all ok, we subconsciously seek reassurances, or distractions, or project blame elsewhere. We might drink too much, or pursue busyness or entertainment, or take on a victim role to deny the pain we feel. 


In western thought there is a long tradition since the German philosopher Ludwig Feurbach in the early 19th century of seeing religion as a psychological projection. Feurbach influenced in turn Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud who in different ways denied that religion had any element of objective reality or truth, but operated as a kind of pathological psychological crutch, as Marx put it, ‘the opiate of the people’. The same idea exists in Richard Dawkins book, ‘the God Delusion’. Religion is said to believed by the psychologically vulnerable, who can't face the truth about reality, and project a divinity as a way of coping with their problems.


At any rate the tears of this woman did not impress Simon, but rather confirmed in his mind that the people Jesus spent time with were not consistent with the claim made about him, that he was a great teacher, or prophet. He seemed pleased that despite all the fabulous stories about Jesus, he had seen the miserable reality at his banquet. 


Jesus is neither surprised by these mutterings nor remotely disturbed. He informs Simon he has something to tell him, and Simon replies, ‘tell me teacher.’ Perhaps Simon was performing in front of his friends, thinking he had shown up this ‘teacher’ already, and was about to deliver another blow. Luke's sparse account doesn't tell us, but does leave space to consider what we think. Do we assume a default scepticism of religious authorities or indeed any kind of authority figure? 


So Jesus told the Pharisee a story from which Simon would have to draw the obvious conclusion. The man who has been forgiven the bigger debts would be more grateful. But Jesus turns this naïve and simple story into a compassionate but devastating critique with conclusions and consequences which role on and on not just for Simon, but for all humanity.


If I can fill in some unspoken but perhaps implicit comments of verses 44 to 48. ‘Look at this woman, the one you think of as such a sinner. You invited me as a guest of honour to this banquet, and yet you didn't offer me even the basic courtesies which a decent host would offer. Why was that Simon? Is it not the case that you had another agenda to entrap me, and were pretending to be the magnanimous host? Well, be that as it may, this woman is sinful as you say. That is the reason she has washed my feet with her tears, and anointed me. She has been forgiven a bigger debt than you have, and so she is more grateful.’ 


Within a couple of sentences the tables have been turned in the most dramatic of ways. Simon who was seemingly proud of bringing Jesus’ reputation down, is now the one being asked the searching questions. Among those questions, the most searching is the implicit one about who Jesus really is. Simon was keen to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher and prophet, but now finds that the basis he used to undermine Jesus, is used by Jesus to make a far more massive claim about himself. All Jews would know that only God has the power to forgive sins. Jesus points out that the woman is weeping because as a sinner she recognises Jesus has the power to forgive her sins, and so he turns to her in verse 48 and says, ‘your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests clearly understand what is being claimed in verse 49. And Jesus concludes by telling this woman whose life was a mess, who faced the judgement of her society and of God, to go in peace because her belief in him has saved her.


It is difficult to begin to grasp what effect these few sentences would have had. Simon's important guests may well have initially been rather amused by how the tables had been turned on Simon, and how Jesus had the directness to point out his faux pas. The guest of honour didn't even get his feet washed. But beyond this we can only imagine that all who heard what was said would have been left with gaping mouths, completely stunned as the implications of Jesus interpretation of events. You can imagine once they'd recovered their speech some would have wanted to check with the woman whether her tears were indeed tears of gratitude for her forgiveness. Others would have been forced to consider their own status as sinners in need of forgiveness or whether they preferred to identify with Simon and superior religious authorities, despite his public embarrassment. For others their shock and surprise at events would quickly give way to anger and disgust. It would be one thing if people weren't taking Jesus seriously, you could then leave this madman on the sidelines. But the banquet was arranged exactly because he was being taken seriously, and the woman crying at his feet was testimony to this. He could not be ignored, he had deeply offended respectable society, and was making claims that were outrageous. 


Those who have watched the life of Brian might be under the impression that it was common place for wacky people at the time to be going around saying they were the Messiah. But in fact although people in many places in the ancient world talked about messianic claims, there is not evidence that these related to anyone other than Jesus. Certainly the authorities took his claims exceptionally seriously. It was for this reason that they had Jesus executed. The greatest paradox of all is that the followers of Jesus understood his crucifixion to be the reason he had the power to forgive sins, for it was there that he bore the punishment that we deserve. 


So what are we to conclude? CS Lewis would seem to be right. This man was either mad, or evil, but his teaching was surely not compatible with being just a good moral teacher. And yet his teaching does seem to be very good. Social outcasts are forgiven whilst the proud and arrogant are taught humility. 


We might conclude that the story was made up years later by Luke to consolidate the evolving beliefs of so called Christians. But the story doesn't seem made up. It's historical details seem authentic and plausible, and the dialogue would belong to a story teller of unparalleled genius. Luke gave so few sentences to tell this story because he had more stories to tell. He did not sit and glory in his literary achievement, in his radical social critique or his insightful analysis of deepest human needs and longings to be accepted despite our failures. Nor does he spend time pointing out that the anointing can be seen as having the additional purpose of symbolically preparing Jesus future dead, decaying and smelly body for burial.


Within the story it is clear that people came to it from a variety of different positions, with different assumptions about who they were, and of who Jesus was. Today we come with different questions and perspectives, but still we can't help thinking that Jesus really isn't going to live up to the hype. Like Simon we are suspicious to the point of doubting the events described even occurred. So we can stand from the sidelines like Simon, not engaging with who Jesus really is, but pursuing our own hidden agendas. 


Even Christian believers can be tempted to think that Jesus’ teachings are not relevant to our lives today. We all enjoy keeping up the façade of our respectability. We'd probably be delighted to invite Jesus round for a meal to meet our friends. But who of us would humiliate ourselves by walking in off the street to clean his stinking feet with our tears and our hair? And yet, perhaps deep down that is what we want most of all – to stop pretending, to stop suppressing the tears, and our inner doubts and fears, and to be accepted fully for who we really are, rather than who we pretend we are.


We prefer to be the ones on control. We want to be the ones asking the questions, demonstrating that our theories are correct, justifying ourselves. 

We don't want to admit our need of forgiveness, or our dependance on God. 


But it is the wonder of this story, that it turns everything upside down. Just when we think we have Jesus where we want him, he turns the tables, and we find that he has us just where he wants us. He wants us to see our own sin and need for forgiveness. He wants us to see that we cannot keep him in a safe and tidy box. He is not merely the nice guy, or good teacher that we want him to be. The more we insist on being the one to be doing the questioning, the more we find the questions come back to us. 

We may go away still denying that Jesus’ claims are true, but if we have integrity, we cannot do so without recognising that the story makes us look at our deeper motivations, and sense of who we are.


Ultimately Luke records the story because he believes it is good news when often there seems to be unresolvable bad news. In the end Luke has words to say when we are speechless because of our problems we face. The world is filled with tears and pain, but rather than suppressing our tears Jesus offers a way of facing reality directly, and of having hope and peace even through all of life's difficulties. The question ‘who is this who even forgives sins?’ is the question Luke records for all his readers to consider.