Who am I to receive a gift of such beauty? The answer: I am loved by God. Jesus doesn’t discard people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. He doesn’t write people off. And neither should we.
Here in Nova Scotia, winter is heading toward spring. The vernal equinox is only eleven sleeps away, and the past few days have brought sunshine on snow, brilliant blue sky with puffy white clouds, and brisk breezes carrying the enticing scent of spring. This morning I needed some fresh air after writing, so walked our long access road through hemlock forest and then strode along country roads in my neighbourhood, basking in golden sunshine and dreaming of crocuses in bloom and new greens in my garden.
A few weeks ago I was in the throes of revising a book and also needed some fresh air, so I went for a walk down our access road and then began to retrace my steps. All the while, my thoughts were focused on my work. I was in another world. And then, as though a blindfold were suddenly removed from my eyes, I became aware of my surroundings. Sunlight played over white snow beneath towering hemlock trees, their boughs arching over my head like the ceiling of a cathedral. Snow lined every branch and twig, and the world stood still around me, completely motionless, as if the earth were holding its breath. My heart leapt with joy, and my soul cried out, “What have I ever done…who am I to receive a gift of such beauty?” I stood in that spot for a long time and then walked home in a completely different frame of mind.
Now, the following is true for me, and it might be true for you, too. I’m sometimes in the throes of revising my life, with my thoughts completely focused on me. I’m in a world that I’ve created. And then, as though a blindfold were suddenly removed from my eyes—through something I’ve read or observed or through words spoken to me—I become aware in a whole new way of the magnificence of Jesus Christ’s loving sacrifice to free me from sin. Then my heart leaps within me, and my soul cries out, “What have I ever done…who am I to receive a gift of such beauty?” The answer is simply that I am loved by God.
My post today is all about this beautiful gift of God’s love, grace, and mercy, as recounted in the gospel of Luke and the story of the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume.
First, let me first set the scene. Having withstood Satan’s temptations in the desert, Jesus is now fully immersed in bringing his ministry to the Jewish people. He’s driven out a demon and healed many sufferers, including a man with leprosy, a paralyzed man, and a centurion’s servant. He’s even raised a widow’s son from death. He’s called his disciples to follow him, and he preaches—both in synagogues and to multitudes gathered in the countryside—a new message that was long foretold. (Luke, Chapters 4-7)
These are not inconspicuous actions. They speak boldly of Jesus’ compassion for the human condition. And the word is out about him. Everyone is talking about his authority, his wisdom, his power, the miracles he has performed. People flock to hear him speak or to be healed by him. Strangers invite him into their homes to dine.
Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow him, and not only does Levi leave his tax booth to follow Jesus, he throws a huge banquet in Jesus’ honour and invites a large crowd of tax collectors and others to dine. When the Pharisees learn of this, they complain to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5: 27-31)
Jesus is not an elitist.
With his actions and his words, Jesus makes it clear that, first of all, he’s not an elitist—he associates with everyone, including the lowest of the low by Jewish standards—and, secondly, his priority is salvation, not his reputation.
So now, let’s focus on Luke 7:36-50.
At the opening of this passage, a Pharisee (we find out later that his name is Simon) invites Jesus to dine at his home. This is an invitation that carries a certain prestige with it, since the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the time, meticulously following the letter of the law. We don’t know Simon’s motive for inviting Jesus to his home. Perhaps he’s as intrigued by Jesus’s teachings and miraculous healing power as other people are. Perhaps he wants to check Jesus out more closely, hoping to find weaknesses or faults. Or, perhaps like Nicodemus, he’s seeking the Messiah and is excited to have Jesus as his guest, believing that he might truly be the Messiah. At any rate, Jesus accepts Simon’s invitation.
A new life, a new purpose, a new hope
Now, if this were a movie, we’d have a scene change right here, to take us from Simon’s home to the dwelling place of a woman who, as the scriptures tell us, has lived a sinful life. We’re not given details about what exactly that sinful life is, but perhaps she’s a prostitute. Somehow, maybe through the grapevine—remember, Jesus is a very public figure—this woman learns that Jesus is dining at the home of Simon, the Pharisee.
How does she react to this news? Does she cringe away from it, hiding herself in shame? No, she does the opposite. Perhaps, when she first hears that Jesus is at Simon’s house, her heart leaps within her, and her soul cries out, seeking forgiveness, recognizing that if Jesus is willing, he can save her, he can give her a new life, a new purpose, a new hope. Undoubtedly, she knows what other people think of her and that her life isn’t what it should be, and she’s heard about Jesus, about his kindness, his compassion, his willingness to heal. So, she takes an alabaster perfume bottle, likely on a long necklace, and walks to the home of Simon the Pharisee, a man who wouldn’t want to be associated with her in any way. The woman’s courage is the courage of someone whose life is completely broken, someone who has nothing to lose. Jesus is her last chance. Jesus is her only chance.
When she arrives at Simon’s house, how is she greeted? How is she treated? We don’t know. We do know that she’s allowed to enter and to approach Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ words to Simon, “You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet,” indicate that she is already in the dining room when Jesus enters it. (Luke 7:45)
Undoubtedly the woman’s presence comes as a shock to Simon and many of the guests, but in this time period, it’s acceptable for people from off the street to come into a private home to listen to a teacher. So, the woman is allowed to stay.
Through eyes of judgment
Simon and his guests recline on cushions beside a low table, propping themselves on one elbow, with their knees bent so their feet are behind them, out of the way. The woman stands behind Jesus, in the position of a servant. Weeping, she washes his dusty feet with her tears, dries them with her hair (a seemingly scandalous act, since women didn’t let their hair down in public), and kisses Jesus’ feet before anointing them with perfume. Her every action is one of humility and love, but this is not what Simon sees.
Although he says nothing aloud, Simon tells himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) In his silent, disdainful statement, he passes judgment on Jesus and essentially discards the woman. In his mind, she is of no worth, and Jesus, who allows her to touch his feet, is deemed unworthy or less worthy of Simon’s respect.
Simon was a Pharisee. In our time, that word is often equated with being a hypocrite. Yet, how often do we, as followers of Christ, place ourselves above others—even other Christians—in our community? How often do we judge people based on our standard of what it means to be a Christian, on our standard of what it means to live a life of following Jesus? I know I’ve done that. Fortunately, on some of those occasions, I’ve had my knuckles rapped and my eyes opened by the Holy Spirit, for which I’m thankful (see my post, How a Holy Spirit “Mirror Moment” Changed My Life).
A teaching moment
Jesus reads Simon’s mind and chooses to use the Pharisee’s self-righteous internal statement as a teaching moment, as a way to point out Simon’s mistaken judgments and bring him face to face with the fact that he’s not as righteous as he thinks he is. It’s also a way for Jesus to defend the woman, who in the eyes of Simon and the other guests, is humiliating herself and treating Jesus in a most inappropriate way. “Simon,” Jesus says, “I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher.” “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and he other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” (Luke 7: 40-42)
Parables were a common method of teaching, and no doubt Simon would have picked up on this one’s story-behind-the-story, that he and the woman ministering to Jesus were the people in the parable, that she was the greater sinner, the person whose large debt was forgiven and who loved more, while he was the lesser sinner, the person whose small debt was forgiven and who loved less. And so Simon replies, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus says. (Luke 7:43)
Then Jesus goes a step further. He rebukes Simon by turning his back on him, instead facing the woman as he compare’s Simon’s actions with hers. He tells Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown; But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7: 44-47)
In this comparison, it’s Simon—the well-educated Pharisee, the religious leader—and not the woman he despises, who comes up short. Jesus points out how Simon’s greeting to him lacked the courtesy normally shown to an honored guest, whereas the woman showered him with respect and love. Not only that, he tells Simon that the woman’s sins are forgiven—that she is clean—and then he adds, “But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Again, Jesus is telling Simon that he comes up short, that in fact, the woman Simon so disdains shows more love for God than he does.
The scriptures don’t tell us how Simon reacted to Jesus’ remarks, but it was likely a big shock for him to be rebuked and snubbed in his own home while in the company of other guests. He was probably angry and indignant. I like to think that, in the days to come, he mulled over Jesus’ words and began to see himself and others in a different light, but we have no indication of that. In fact, we don’t see Simon’s reaction at all.
Through eyes of love
In this story, Simon knew and followed all the Jewish religious rules, but he was completely blind to the woman’s outpouring of love for Jesus because he saw her only through eyes of judgment. Jesus saw her through eyes of love. He accepted her tears, the touch of her hair, her kisses, and the perfume she poured on his feet. All these told him how much she trusted in his love. Who was she to receive a gift of such beauty? The answer is simply that she was loved by God.
We are not to judge. We are only to love.
Here’s the first lesson for us from this passage: There is no sin, no past life so terrible that Jesus will not forgive it if there is repentance. There is no sinner whom Jesus will not embrace if that sinner seeks him with all his or her heart, like the woman with the alabaster bottle of perfume did. We are not to judge. We are only to love.
Jesus goes on to tell the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And the other guests are saying to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7: 48-50) Jesus is turning their world upside down. That room is filled with wildly conflicting emotions—the woman’s joy and gratitude, Simon’s anger and indignation, the other guests’ disbelief or puzzlement or embarrassment, and overriding everything, Jesus’ compassion for the woman.
Jesus doesn’t discard people
Here’s the second lesson for us: Jesus doesn’t discard people, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. He doesn’t write people off. And neither should we.
Recently I came across a powerful video about Father Gregory Boyle and his work with former gang members at Homeboy Industries in California. This video is the perfect way to end my post, so please take a few minutes to watch it. I guarantee that you will be moved, challenged, and inspired by it, and that Father Boyle’s statement “…only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has any hope of changing the world” will resonate with you long after the video ends. Click here to view it.