In the popular imagination, she is always a leggy bombshell – whose hair spills out in lush, black locks and whose lipstick pops; she is the village vixen come slinking in off the street corner, come with characteristic va-va-voom … Of course, all we know of her for certain is that she was a sinner; that’s all Luke says. A sinner. Like, maybe she was a real rat of a septuagenarian and would steal Sweet-and-Low, or maybe she always cheated at cards. Maybe she was an older woman who had worked hard at an honest but then culturally tabooed trade, maybe as a midwife or maybe in cloth-dyeing. Still, even though that when it comes to being a sinner there’s more than one way to skin a cat, still, in my mind, she is just a sad harlot who goes heavy on the eye-shadow. Probably I’m picturing her all wrong, and feeding stereotypes, and telling tales out of school. And anyway, who she had been, who she had been with – this counts for far less than who now she is in God. Amen? Who she had been – lady of the night or only an un-kosher, not-so-secret sucker for pulled-pork sandwiches – is not for me or for anyone to know.
What we do know is that she flies to Jesus, driven by a deep, deep desperation of soul. And she’s holding something in her hands. And she might as well have been a little girl in an egg-and-spoon race, because she’s rushing, but in slow motion, moving quickly but so carefully with it. And she draws near to Jesus and she drops down, just drops like her heart is too heavy, or too big, within her and like she can’t bear the hugeness of it. She drops down. And she sets her jar to the side. And she unties her headscarf and looses her hair. And she takes Jesus’ feet into her hands. And the woman pours out the vessel over Jesus’ feet, glug after precious glug of sweet, pure spikenard. And she pours out her heartache. She presses in the ointment, caressing, cleaning in between his toes with her tears, bathing him. She bends lower, and gathering her hair now, she rubs the waves of it over his wet skin, wiping away, soaking up what is left. And the oil is slick on her hair and the light falls around her just so and her hair shines. She shines. And she stands up, drenched through and dripping-wet with the strange, new beauty of someone who isn’t scared anymore and who isn’t ashamed anymore and who isn’t all alone anymore.
And there comes a cough, a throat-clearing from the corner – a portly man (again, as I imagine him) gargling out his discomfort in this moment. He’s a Pharisee, one of those nefarious minister-types who serve as Jesus’ stock foils, and so we expect him to be on very bad behavior. We expect him to say something snooty and smug and to turn up his nose to the whole ignoble scene. Only, he doesn’t. He doesn’t really. He stands there, frozen and aloof and awkward, probably. But he says nothing to the woman or to Jesus, says nothing aloud. Luke writes that the Pharisee “says to himself” or “within himself”, that is, the Pharisee thinks, thinks the episode to be a parade of impropriety, but he doesn’t make a show of his opinion, not per se. This would-be bad guy is trying, is trying to keep his self-righteousness somewhat in check. You know, the other Pharisees have already gone rabid plotting after rabbi Jesus, but our Pharisee has him over for dinner. You know, the way Matthew, Mark, and John spice up this story, the woman ends up being bullied and bashed for wasting a water-cooler’s worth of Chanel No. 5, but Luke’s Pharisee, this Pharisee, chews quietly on his opinion. In fact, had not Jesus smelt his moral disapproval stronger than her perfume and said so, perhaps we would have been none the wiser. This Pharisee is trying.
And so when a woman with a past, a woman who is just sheer desperation comes sobbing praise, a woman whose worship is weeping and wailing, whose faith is young, a woman who can’t but pour out joy and remorse and wonder and thank you, thank you, can’t but pour out everything she has all at once, when a woman like that rises, rises, rises – shimmering and resplendent and strong and mercy-soaked and new, what this Pharisee, this old-time saint, what this minister-type wants to do, wishes to do, would to God to do is fall on his knees, and crumple in awe at the feet of Jesus and glory in the good fortune of his being forgiven. What this minister-type wants to do is grovel before God in gratitude, gleaming and awash in grace, in grace. He wants to do that, he would do that, you know, because he’s a good person: who hangs out with Jesus, who takes faith so seriously, who is trying to be better and to do better, who wants – oh, how he wants! – to be tender and caring and kind, because he does believe he is to love his neighbor as himself, because he’s a liberal for heaven’s sake (!), because he will not be just another holier-than-thou, hypocritical hatemonger, because he will keep an open mind and an open heart and lavish upon others all tolerance and acceptance, because he will not be one of those kinds of Christians – I mean, Pharisees.
But sin is no respecter of persons. And the sins of even religious people are no easier to shake than their own shadows. Sin sneaks up on this Pharisee – a mean, cynical thought in a split second is all. Judgementalism creeps up and crawls through him, overtaking his goodwill, turning him into the icy, snobbish, oh-so-perfect-elder-sibling, turning him into the teacher’s-pet he’s prayed, he’s tried not to be. And so he thinks, Who is this woman to put her filthy mitts on the Messiah? And what kind of Messiah is this who would let the louse linger near? … And so it is that no more can this religious person escape his self-righteousness than the sinful woman escape her reputation. No more can the Pharisee slough off his pride than this sinful woman slough off her past. No more can saints be perfect than sinners. No more easily can minister-types come with haste and delight to drink and splash and play in God’s grace and love poured out than any other person at all.
All she wanted was to revel in this fresh start, to bless her lucky stars for this chance, to thank Jesus, to thank God that she gets another go – but here she is, face to face with the same-old gossip, the same-old assumptions, her sins ever before her, playing on repeat. All he wanted was for his life to be a love song for God, to be an ode to the beauty and the adventure of duty and faithfulness, to be a soaring aria that carries to the heavens, carries word of thanks and joy for just how far he has come – but here he is, face to face with the sad fact that he still has so very, very far to go; here he is, his sin ever new, ever before him, playing on repeat. And what they hear spoken out, the words that ring out over them, the two of them there, sinners together, what they hear, hear twice – because, Lord knows, once is not enough – what they hear is Jesus saying, Your sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven.
If you are not a Christian and, oh hear me, you who are: Your sins are forgiven. Hear it again, Your sins are forgiven. Hear it, hear Jesus, Your sins – however big or banal, being tricky with your taxes, being too, too severe with your kids, being temperamental and touchy and short and snapping … listen, no one needs to be prejudiced against other people, or be stone-cold to their spouse, no one needs to be petty and unforgiving and pick at scabs, no one needs to be controlling and bossy and brusque, no one needs to be self-hating, no one needs to live a lie, no one needs to go rounds on the hamster wheel for greed’s sake, no one needs to hang their hope on what they have and how prestigious a college did you send your children to and how much weight did you lose, no one needs to settle for gin bottles and pill bottles and one-off relationships and numbness, no one needs to live like that – hear me, Your sins, my sins are forgiven. We get another shot. We get to go again. We can’t erase our pasts, but we can be forgiven. We can’t be perfect, but we can be forgiven … And trust me, minister-type, Pharisee that I am, there’s no such thing as being forgiven for little. So let us love much. Amen.