[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on August 22, 2021, based on Luke 7:36-50. It can also be seen on the Perinton Facebook page.]
It was a hot August day in the stifling heat and humidity of Washington, D. C. The line of people outside the front door of the White House, waiting for a chance to visit the president, was already long. It was once the custom that people could get in line in the morning and have a chance of greeting the president in person. One man stood out because he was so well dressed—and he was Black. It was 1863; the Civil War was still raging. He had run away from slavery and established himself as an American citizen of note, living for a time in Rochester, though he was not yet allowed even to vote. He had been recruiting freed Black men and runaway slaves to serve in the Union armies. He didn’t think the president was doing enough for the cause.
Security officers were suspicious because he was Black and well dressed. But someone on the president’s staff caught a glimpse of him, the great Frederick Douglass. He sent word to the president and the president ordered that Douglass be taken out of the line and brought immediately into the president’s office. That president was Abraham Lincoln.
A friendship began that day, between a runaway slave and the president. They are the two most photographed Americans of the 19th century. I suppose it wasn’t fair that Douglass was pulled from the long line and ushered into the president’s presence. I expect that the white people in front of Douglass were not happy about this. Maybe some of them didn’t get to see President Lincoln that day because of the time Lincoln freely gave to Douglass. When you want to get in, it helps to be known by someone.
Who knows this unnamed sinner woman? How does she get in to this dinner at a Pharisee’s house? Who let her in? Sometimes a home in that time would have two entrances: the front door, the proper entrance, and a back door, which servants or women might use. She could have snuck in the back door without being noticed. Or she could have simply crashed the front door. What did she have to lose? Security wasn’t that tight. While we don’t know exactly how she gets in, once she is in, there is no mistaking her presence. She is a woman of the city, a sinner. And our minds go in different directions—or maybe in the same direction. She is not Mary Magdalene. Luke introduces her in the next chapter. She is forever that sinful woman who anoints Jesus in extravagant fashion.
We have a triangle in this passage, three key players: Simon the Pharisee, a sinful woman, and Jesus. Luke sets up a contrast between the Pharisee and the woman. At the surface level, the contrast is obvious: one is a man and one is a woman. In that time and culture, there was a wide divide between women and men. We see it all through the Bible, Old and New Testaments, where patriarchy was the norm. And we see all through the Bible, Old and New Testaments, God using women in God’s work. Particularly in the ministry of Jesus, we see women being honored in radical ways. Jesus listens to women. He accepts financial support from women. He welcomes women as disciples and followers. He ministers to them on the streets. He enters their homes.
At the next level, the Pharisee was well to do and the woman likely wasn’t. He owned a house that could welcome guests to dinners. She was simply called a woman of the city. At the third level, he was a Pharisee and she was a sinner. A Pharisee was a super-religious man. Pharisees memorized the laws of the Old Testament and kept them fastidiously. We know he was a sinner, but he probably didn’t think that of himself. Pharisees used God’s written law to draw lines, making clear which people were inside the circle of acceptance and which were outside the circle. They used these religious lines to separate themselves from sinners, like this woman of the city, this sinner.
She is named as a sinner, and our minds wander about what that means. And our wandering minds are probably right. She is a woman of the city, a sinner. She does make some money, evidenced by the alabaster jar of perfume she brings to the party. We can guess how she made money and how perfume was used in her work. And Jesus completes the triangle, having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a sinful woman breaks in, uninvited, and extravagantly honors him by washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing his feet, and then anointing them with her costly perfume.
At this point not one of the three has said a word. The woman ministers to Jesus, Jesus receives her ministry, and the Pharisee is watching. We are accustomed to seeing Jesus minister to others, giving and giving, healing the sick, breaking bread, feeding multitudes, teaching with memorable words. But here he is doing nothing but receiving her offering. In fact, Jesus is receiving one kind of hospitality from the Pharisee and another kind from the woman. I find it refreshing that Jesus, who gives so much, is also able to receive. Do you notice that when people receive an unexpected gift or kind word, they often have a hard time accepting it? We say words like, “Oh, you didn’t have to do that.” We can be so good at giving and not at receiving. Or so good at receiving and not at giving. Jesus both gives and receives. We do well to learn from him, and be gracious givers and grateful receivers.
Finally the Pharisee speaks, questioning how Jesus could possibly be a prophet of God when he allows this woman, this sinful woman, to touch him. Can we hear the contempt in his voice? His religious world has been rocked. “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.” His self-righteousness is dripping off his fine clothing.
Jesus speaks. What an opening: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Fasten your seatbelts, Simon, and everyone listening, including us. Jesus tells a simple story about two people in debt to a third person—do you see another triangle? One owes a small amount and one a large amount. Both debts are forgiven. “Which one will have the greater love for the one that forgives their debts; the one owing a little or the one owing a lot?” Have you locked in your answer? The Pharisee answers honestly, not realizing the trap he has fallen into.
Then Jesus drills it home: “Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’” The truth is, Simon sees this sinful woman, but he doesn’t see a person. He only sees a category: sinful woman. Jesus isn’t so much judging Simon the Pharisee, but trying to get him to see realities his religious lenses hide from him, like persons that don’t fit into his tight religious circle. “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.”
Let me make it simpler. “Simon, you didn’t, but she did. Simon, you didn’t, but she did. Simon, you didn’t but she did.” Last week, Pastor Laura used the word abundance. Today I am using a companion word, extravagance. This woman, whose sin was abundant, comes to Jesus with extravagant offerings. And the forgiveness she receives is equally extravagant.
This leads to some questions about our responses to Jesus.
- Are we responding to Jesus like Simon the Pharisee or the sinful woman?
- Are our gifts meager and measured or magnanimous?
- Are our responses to Jesus merely religious or extravagant?
- Is our giving underwhelming or overflowing?
Aren’t you glad a woman of the city, a sinner, got into the house of Simon the Pharisee where Jesus the savior was having dinner one evening? Her extravagant gifts are still speaking.