One Weird Washing by Lauren Neal

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took foot washinghis place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

—Luke 7:36-50

So Jesus goes to dinner, and a woman wanders in and begins to wash his feet with her tears and her hair.  This passage is particularly strange to our modern minds.  Our conceptions of propriety and personal space are offended by the thought of a person coming to a dinner table and washing another’s feet with their tears and hair.  But, this is exactly what happens in this passage from Luke’s Gospel.  And, you know what?  This passage was likely just as offensive to the original audience, not to mention the Pharisee in whose home and at whose table the event occurs.  For a strange woman to barge into the house of a Pharisee, for her to interrupt his dinner by engaging in peculiar and intimate actions would have seemed inappropriate even then.

We don’t know anything about the woman, other than the fact that she was of some ill-repute.  The Pharisee challenges Jesus by saying that if he were really a prophet he would know what sort of woman she was, implying that if he knew how much of a sinner she was, he would never let her near him.  We, of course, know something that the Pharisee didn’t know: we know that Jesus was more than a prophet; he was and is the Son of God.  We also know without a doubt that he knew what kind of woman she was and that this is precisely what draws her to Jesus.

Jesus then turns the table and says to the Pharisee: “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (v 45).  Next he connects her actions to her love, saying that her great love grants her great forgiveness, “but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v 47).  Now Jesus is the one doing the implying. He looks at the woman and tells her that her sins are forgiven, and notice that he doesn’t say anything of the sort to the Pharisee.

This passage is weird and even a little off-putting.  You can imagine a person barging in on a private dinner only to cry over someone’s feet and wipe them with her hair, and if that happened, the host, like the Pharisee, would probably be offended.  But Jesus takes no offense to her.  Even in her sinful state, Jesus welcomes her humility and her act of service; he does not send her away.  Isn’t that beautiful?  The only person in the story in any position to judge the woman is Jesus.  The Pharisee judged her, but he had no right to. Jesus is God and had every right to judge her, but just as he chooses to die for all of our sins, Jesus also chooses to love us in spite of those sins.  In the woman we see the perfect example of how to respond to that love…to love in return.  To love Jesus, and to respond to him in service even to the point of seeming a bit weird!

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