The Woman with the Perfume
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
17 June 2001
Luke Chapter 7:3-61
Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to 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. 'Jesus answered him, 'Simon, I have something to tell you. 'Tell me, teacher' he said. 'Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?' Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.' You have judged correctly,' Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to 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--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.'
When being considered for selection for ministerial training you are sent away for a number of days for observation by a team of selectors. I remember one incident on my course which was nearly twenty years ago now very well. We were relaxing with a few after dinner drinks, one of the other candidates was playing the piano and we were singing songs. We started telling jokes in between songs and I was in the middle of a wonderful joke about a bishop. I won't bore you now with the whole joke, suffice to say that I was in full flight and just about to come to the punch line, which concerned why the clergy in one Diocese called their bishop 'thrombosis' when it became apparent that everybody had suddenly lost interest. Turning around I saw one of the selectors, an Archdeacon, who said 'well, go on then.' (Thrombosis being a clot which mucks up the system).
Leaning on a piano with a can of Heineken telling jokes at the expense of bishops was probably not the best of circumstances in which to find oneself on the last night of the selection conference.
I suppose I would have felt in a similar state of compromise if I were at the home of a senior member of the clergy and a prostitute came off the street and began kissing my feet and wiping her emotionally charged tears off my bare feet with her hair. Imagine Jesus lounging out on a couch having his dinner when all of this started. What was he doing, did he know this woman, was there some connection?
We know that washing the feet of another person was identified with slavery. But there is more going on here, this is a violation of social convention in caressing the feet of Jesus and rubbing them with her hair. I think that you and I would have been worried about our reputations, what others would have thought. Jesus recognises that the touch which you and I would perhaps see as a transgression is instead a sign of reverential love. Jesus is able to do this. He is able to go beyond mere appearances, beyond cultural blindness and see things in a completely different way. Once again this story is about Jesus turning everything upside down.
The story is one of contrast, the powerful Simon represents the dominant religious, Jewish elite with all of its power and influence. The woman exists only on the margins, shunned by her own ethnic group. She begins an action which was a cultural gesture of moral depravity. Quite rightly we might say, Simon is scandalised. As a woman, and as a sinner this woman has and can have no value, no voice, in Simon's eyes or in the eyes of his Jewish culture. How can she presume to do this?
Here a powerful man sees Jesus involved in a dubious act with a woman, and we are told he thinks to himself, 'he shouldn't be doing that.' You and I if we were there would probably say exactly the same thing.
Jesus reads his mind and challenges him. Jesus is not apologetic, as we would have been, instead Jesus turns the tables on Simon the Pharisee and tells him that it is the woman who is the example of true religion.
Simon had perhaps not been inhospitable but neither had he gone to the lengths which this woman had gone to—to show real love and gratitude to Jesus. Simon is right about this woman. His original premise was correct: she has committed great sins. But his mistake was in seeing the sin and not the woman, or the forgiveness which she felt.
Jesus reverses everything. If on the religious merit scale Simon scored 10 out of ten, the woman was not even a 1. The woman is no longer a 1, she is a 10. Simon is exposed as a sham, he is a Ford Escort with go-faster stripes and a spoiler, it promises much but hasn't got the goods. The implication of the story, and the explication of it, is that the woman loves or will love Jesus more, since she has a greater debt to be forgiven.
When we look at people we see their faults. When Jesus looks at people he sees only grace and forgiveness.
Jesus tells Simon to look at this woman. She will be as a teacher to him. She can teach him about being forgiven. She can teach him about receiving grace. She can teach him about love and hospitality. She can also teach us of course.
Sometimes all of us show that we have received just enough forgiveness to enable us to be properly judgmental of others. The truth of the story is that we all need to recognise our need of much more forgiveness in order to cause us to be as graceful and forgiving as God has been toward us.
What is our attitude as people and as a church?
When Jesus says go in peace, where is she going to go to? Where could a woman such as this go where she would not be abused and ill treated? What is our message as a church? For many of us we grew up being told 'If you are really, really sorry then God will forgive you'. This message is a statement of human forgiveness at its best. It is an ideal which you and I aspire to, when others say sorry, we must forgive. But we must remember that God's forgiveness is not like ours. The words need to be changed and stated rather as God really, really forgives you, now are you sorry?
In the same way that Simon and the woman find that the divine pecking order is different from the human one, so with Jesus salvation and repentance are in different places than in human order.
Romans Chapter 5:8-10 tells us that God forgave, whilst we were still sinners. This is the point of Jesus' death, he forgives the ones who crucify. The crucial question is how do we respond. In speaking to Simon Jesus plays with words 'he who has been forgiven little, loves little.' Of course we should all know that we have all been forgiven a lot. The question is about stewardship and use of our time and lives how do we respond. Are we a Simon? Are we scared of our reputations? Of what it will cost? Or do we have the generosity of the woman?