In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus was invited to one of those religious societies that were very popular in the Holy Land in the first century. A visiting rabbi would be welcomed to give a talk at their evening meal on some aspect of the scriptures to stimulate discussion among the all-male group well into the night, while ‘rent-a-crowd’ of village peasants were permitted to listen from the courtyard.
Jesus contributed three vital gifts, even in the home of this very ill-mannered host – teaching, correcting, and blessing.
‘Simon’, a ‘Pharisee’, probably reclining mid-table opposite Jesus, was horrified to see ‘a woman of the city’ emerge from the courtyard mob carrying her trademark ‘alabaster flask of ointment’ – used for the masking of body odours in one-on-one intimacy, including bad breath – who then ‘began to wet his feet with her tears’. She’d come intending to anoint his feet (hence her perfumed ointment), but not to wash them (as she had brought no towel). Then (horror of horrors!) she loosened her hair in this male setting – culturally strictly forbidden – ‘and wiped …, kissed and anointed them with ointment’.
Luke, in precise Greek, translated Simon’s Aramaic thoughts: ‘If this [not ‘this rabbi or ‘this man’] were the Prophet [verse 6; promised by Moses, Deuteronomy 18:15], he would have known … what sort of woman this is who is touching him [as in marital intimacy, 1 Corinthians 7:1], for she is a sinner.’ Well, he is ‘the Prophet’ who, without a backward glance, does know. Looking at Simon he asks permission to speak. He teaches him that there are degrees of gratitude in people’s worship – using a parable of a creditor who forgave one small debt and one extremely large one. We should realise this whenever we gather to praise, give thanks and break bread.
‘Simon,’ he says, ‘you gave me no water for [me to wash] my [own] feet,…no kiss [on the hand; and] did not anoint my head with oil.’ But, facing the woman, he continues to address his host ‘out of the back of his head’: ‘Do you see this woman?’ Simon now had to raise his eyes and learn that he had misjudged her, based only on her past life. She had already repented, no longer needed her ‘tools of the trade’, and was glad to pour out its valuable contents in outrageous worship! ‘Her sins, which are many, are [already] forgiven [by God].’ Anyone who is prophetic can perceive this by her ‘fruits of repentance’.
Finally, he addresses words of absolution and benediction to this repentant soul: ‘Your sins are forgiven … Go in peace … your faith [not your good works, which are the evidence of your genuine faith] has saved you.’
The story ends abruptly, as do many of our Lord’s stories. Did Simon repent of his self-righteous, judgemental attitude and resolve to be more rigorous in self-examination in future? We need no answer to that. Rather, as Paul exhorted us, ‘Let a person examine himself … and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Corinthians 11:28).