Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In last Sunday’s gospel text, from Luke 5, Jesus had dinner at the home of Levi the tax collector. The Pharisees were horrified. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews in those days, since they were agents of the oppressive Roman government, often known to be lining their pockets at the expense of their own people. How dare Jesus eat at the home of a traitorous tax collector?
Interestingly, here in today’s text, Jesus’ dinner companions are some of the Pharisees themselves. According to Fred Craddock, “that a Pharisee asked Jesus to dinner should be met with neither suspicion or surprise: not suspicion, because there is no evidence a trap was being set; nor surprise, because Jesus had much in common with these lovers of the law of Moses and leaders of the synagogue. … For Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners and refuse table fellowship with Pharisees would have made him … guilty of reverse prejudice.” Jesus, it turns out, is as comfortable dining with the religious leaders themselves as he is with those at whose dinner tables the religious leaders would never be seen.
At any rate, it is here at the home of Simon the Pharisee that a most spectacular disruption takes place during dinnertime. Into a situation of what we might imagine to be educated conversation about important matters of Jewish law and leadership, a situation of polite discussion and carefully observed rules of etiquette, in comes this “sinful woman.” And not only does she burst onto the scene, she immediately starts weeping at Jesus’ feet, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, and anointing his feet with perfume. Imagine the reactions on the faces of our host and his other guests at this point. Talk about a dinner party not exactly going according to plan!
Now it’s important that we proceed carefully here, so that we can understand which aspects of this story are in fact scandalous, and which are not. First, Jeannine Brown cautions us against rushing to specify the nature of this woman’s sins. “In a Jewish context, the descriptor ‘sinner’ would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law -- a transgressor of the Torah. Luke does not specify the sin of … other sinners with whom Jesus eats. Yet in this passage of the woman who anoints Jesus, … commentators [often] assume that she is a prostitute, as if the only sin a Jewish woman of the first century could commit would be sexual sin. Given that Luke can specify that particular sin (see 15:30), his less explicit reference here to this woman “who was a sinner” should not be pressed further but should be heard in concert with the other references to sinners in Luke as recipients of Jesus’ kingdom ministry.” Maybe she is a prostitute, and maybe she isn’t. At the very least, that’s not the point of this story.
Secondly, when we think of sitting at our own dinner tables, the only way someone could reach our feet would be to crawl around under the table. But that wouldn’t have been the case here, where the custom was to recline at a low table, with one’s legs extended. So the scandal is not that everyone else is sitting in chairs and she’s down on the floor.
That said, there is plenty to be shocked about in the woman’s behavior. The bit about weeping at his feet, washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair is as shocking as it sounds. Shockingly dramatic. Shockingly intimate. Shockingly inappropriate for a dinner party. And notice the imperfect verbs – she keeps on doing these things. It’s not that she comes in, does this for a few seconds, and leaves. She’s apparently still going as Jesus and his host then have this conversation about her.
Simon feels Jesus ought to have known this woman had a reputation as a sinner (of whatever kind). If Jesus really were the prophet he claims to be, shouldn’t he know have known enough to send her away? Simon wonders this to himself, rather than saying it aloud, making it all the more interesting that Jesus responds to Simon’s unspoken question. I wonder if Simon catches the irony – if Jesus knows what he (Simon) is thinking, doesn’t that offer exactly the kind of proof Simon was looking for, that Jesus is a prophet?
And of course the further twist is that Jesus not only defends the woman’s audacious actions, but he puts down his host in the process.
Fred Craddock observes: “The reader is inclined to see in the story one sharp contrast, that which is so evident between Simon and Jesus. Here are two religious leaders suddenly in the presence of a sinful woman. One has an understanding of righteousness that causes him to distance himself from her; the other understands righteousness to mean moving toward her with forgiveness and a blessing of peace. However, … the contrast Luke has in mind is [actually] between Simon and the woman in response to Jesus…The irony here is that even though Jesus is a guest in Simon’s home, it is a sinner who extends hospitality.” You gave me no water to wash my feet, Simon, and no kiss of welcome. And here she is doing all of this and far more.
One aspect of this story that has always intrigued me is how unsurprised Jesus appears to be, at this woman’s behavior. Everyone around him is shocked, while he seems to take it all in stride. Simple omniscience as the Son of God would cover it I suppose. I mean, if he’s divine, he knows what’s coming. But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. In verse 47 Jesus seems to refer to the forgiveness of the woman’s sins in the past tense: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” In other words, there seems to be prequel to this story. At some point, in an episode Luke doesn’t record for us, Jesus and this woman have met. He already knows her story, and he has already forgiven her. Admittedly, the fact that she is known as a sinner by Simon and his dinner guests reminds us that our sins can have serious and lasting consequences. Here she is, apparently forgiven and restored by Jesus, and her story continues to follow her. Still, she bursts into the dinner party here in this extravagant show of love and devotion because of the difference Jesus has made in her life. She knows she has been given a tremendous, undeserved gift and she responds with a lavish, extravagant show of gratitude in return.
There are any number of ways to read ourselves into this story as individuals. For instance, let any who feel they haven’t much need for forgiveness from Jesus hear that “the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.” Let any who are quick to judge others by their pasts remember that there could be more to their stories with Jesus than we know. Let any who feel their own sins are too many or too great to forgive hear a reminder of God’s amazing grace and mercy. Let any whose hearts are overflowing with gratitude for God’s grace hear an invitation to give back to God lavishly, extravagantly in return.
There can be a message here for church communities too. After all, “the price of [this] woman’s way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her... What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners.” Craddock challenges us to see that this “story screams the need for a church, [and] not just any church, but one that says, ‘You are welcome here.’”
Let’s be that kind of people. Let’s be that kind of church. People who know no gift is too good for the One who has given us everything. A church that makes clear everyone is welcome at the dinner table, when Jesus is our guest.
 Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation Commentary, p. 104.
 Jeannine K. Brown, Commentary on Luke 7:36-50 from www.workingpreacher.org, June 16, 2013.
 Craddock, 105-106.
 Craddock, 106.