Jesus had a marvelous way of confronting people who held worldly beliefs, by turning their views upside down, shaking them out, so his listeners could understand the deeper realities of God. He was a genius at bringing his message down to a common-sense level – often by telling stories, sharply driving home a point leading to the unmistakable values of God.
In today’s gospel account, we see an excellent example of this aspect of his ministry. A social event, at which Jesus was invited as the rabbi, allowed him to provide a powerful lesson. He turned around the circumstances of the moment by telling a story as an example. Then he issued a judgment that brought the meaning of the story back to present reality and further challenged conventional wisdom that flew in the face of Godly truth.
It is Luke’s unique version of a famous, popular story – the sinful woman with the alabaster jar who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.
Perhaps a retelling of this first-century illustration in a modern setting, bringing the message a little closer to home, will make it as clear to us as it was to the original followers of Jesus.
Imagine your congregation holding a major celebration, perhaps a stewardship banquet, with Jesus as the main speaker. He sits at the center of the head table with the priest and wardens surrounding him. Into the midst of the parish hall, adorned with the best accouterments the church has, enters a scraggly looking woman. Everyone recognizes her as a notorious sinner who has made no secret of her indiscretions. She is clearly very upset, and to the horror of the church members, walks toward the head table, slowly and with her head bowed low, almost crawling, until she reaches Jesus.
Obviously, she is ruining everything – all the best-laid plans – and she destroys the joy of the moment. Crying at Jesus’ feet, she offers to minister to him in her humble way. To make matters worse, Jesus does not turn her away, but allows her to continue interrupting the proceedings.
Angry and embarrassed, the priest tries to save face by telling the congregation that they made a mistake in asking Jesus to join them, because his unwillingness to reject the woman makes it clear that he is a fraud.
Now Jesus turns the tables on the priest and wardens and all who think like them. He asks, “There were two men, financially broke. One was three months behind on his mortgage, but the other faced immediate foreclosure. When the bank forgave both debts, which one appreciated it the most?” The priest replied, “I guess the one about to be foreclosed on.”
Then Jesus turned to the woman, and looking at her lovingly, said to the priest, “I am sure you and your congregation agree. So, look again at this woman and compare her actions to yours. You have been polite to me, but you haven’t really rejoiced overwhelmingly that I have come to be with you. You seem to want only to bask in the honor of my presence. You want me to say what you expect to hear. Before dinner, you sang ‘Amazing grace,’ but none of you looked particularly amazed. You think I have threatened the security of your community by accepting someone you consider an outcast.”
In contrast, he lauded the woman. “What love she has! You have done nothing of note for me, but she came with her heart in her hand and offered me all she had. She humbled herself and wept because of her sin. That is why her sins are forgiven.” To her he said, “Your faith has saved you. Go in Peace.”
In his teaching moment, Jesus used the classic method of contrasting two behaviors in order for his audience to understand the competing value of the one against the other, and thereby helped them discover the truth of God. He compared the actions of the Pharisee with those of the sinful woman.
The woman was a known sinner, not an insider, not a member of the synagogue. She was not among those whom any generation would likely consider as doing God’s will.
The Pharisee stood among those who were traditionally good and generally kind. By reputation, they clearly committed themselves to God as they understood him. The Pharisee was a leader among his community. However, he lacked genuine humility, considering himself a superior person – a wonderful example of a God-fearing believer. He seemed unaware of his own failing, his own sin, his own need for anything beyond himself.
The woman, due to the keen awareness of her sin, felt a clear sense of her failings. She did not consider herself better than others, and could only turn to Jesus, weeping, in an act of kindness and begging for mercy.
The Pharisee expressed himself mostly in terms of judgment. He set himself apart from the woman, self-righteously considering himself better than the outcast who disturbed his great moment. He expected Jesus to express the same opinion. He also thought he had all the answers, and so had no reason to be open minded. Being part of the “in group,” who were in the right, he didn’t need to learn anything more about life, because he thought God was perfectly satisfied with who and what he was.
The woman, in contrast, came to Jesus with a deep sense of humility. She was not concerned about how others acted, only about her need to change and her need for forgiveness. She had almost no resources and knew she didn’t have all the answers – maybe no answers at all, except to rely on Jesus.
The Pharisee expressed only insensitivity and lack of awareness about the least of society and his excluding approach to woman contrasts with the inclusive, loving, accepting actions of Jesus.
Obviously the Pharisee’s lack of awareness, exclusivity, self-righteousness and judgment do not measure up against the simple actions of the humble woman who was aware of her sin, knew her need for God, and was ready to serve others. The characters are there for us to choose from, and the choice is easy.
But perhaps it isn’t that simple.
Maybe the more important takeaway from this teaching comes from realizing that we human beings tend to share the characteristics of both the Pharisee and the woman. Most of us find ourselves able to identify with both characters, and we can learn from both ends of Jesus’ story and his assertion.
So, imagine the story further. Imagine seeing the woman and the Pharisee (or the priest in the modern version) meeting on the street the day after the big event. Imagine her, filled with a refreshing awareness of God’s forgiving love, now able to look at herself with confidence. She knows that she has power to change her way of living, put her sin behind her, and stand with the Pharisee as an equal in God’s view.
Imagine further, the Pharisee after a hard night of soul-searching, having seen the light Jesus cast over the shadowy nature of his beliefs. Imagine him now able to see his own sin and greet the woman no longer as an outcast but as a sister in Christ.
Wherever we find ourselves today, Jesus’ teaching through this gospel story helps us along the journey of faith – helps us know that God loves us as we are, with freely offered grace, and enables us to renew ourselves and better take part in today’s version of the Good News of God in Christ.