I have been thinking much as of late of the woman who wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. This exquisite account is found in the Gospel of Luke:
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment (Luke 7:36-38).
A very pertinent question arises right out of the starting-gate? How did this lady, so characterized as a “sinner,” by which we well understand her to have been a prostitute, find her way into the Pharisee’s house? I have hosted many a dinner and can tell you that uninvited persons don’t just walk into my home to become part of the dinner contingent for the particular evening.
She must have been known – I wonder how? The household staff, or a member thereof, must have known her, as they would be entrusted with work that would no doubt require them to be “out-and-about,” bringing them into contact or awareness of many people.
She must have been known – I wonder why? The Pharisee, as a member of the religious elite, would be well-aware of the state of religious practice and (not always the same; alas!) of spiritual life. The reality of sexual sin had to have been a topic of especial concern to those who were ostensibly the spiritual leaders of the day.
She must have been known – I wonder why? Aware of her as the Pharisee probably was, she still would not have had access to his private home, unless … But; no, that is unthinkable! She couldn’t possibly have shared her favors with him; not a Pharisee as the man who was hosting Jesus at a dinner at his very own table. Impossible! … Hmmm!
Who was she? A prostitute; such is a reasonable inference, and a prostitute who had more-than-likely breached the moral wall of at least one religious elite, though it is fair to say that more probably the Pharisee had done due violence to the lady’s inherent need for survival, let alone dignity & worth, a crime not easily brought to justice, and one to which the lady no doubt acceded if she wished to eat. We can only speculate, but we are not far-fetched in our musings; by no means!
It is important to bear in mind that, if we can so speculate, Jesus could readily and transparently discern what was from what was not. He was well aware of the dynamics playing out before Him as He reclined at table as the Pharisee’s guest. He neither judged nor condemned, at least not here, but the light of His love and truth was both powerfully & beautifully on display. We don’t readily know how the Pharisee reacted, but we are blessed to know how the lady responded.
She entered the house; no doubt, with an admixture of brashness, desperation & humility. She clearly knew where to find the equivalent of our modern-day dining room (perhaps having been wined-and-dined as prelude to a pharisaical seduction?). She came carrying, not gold, frankincense and myrhh but a jar of very expensive ointment (or perfume or nard, depending upon one’s translation), along with her very heart-felt tears & the feminine glory of her hair.
She stood behind Him, suggesting her humility of spirit, comparable to the woman with the long-term hemorrhage, who thought if she could only touch the hem of Christ’s garment then she would be healed – and she was! The sinful woman (remember; please: The kind of sin affixed to her took two to tango – the Pharisee; anyone?) was crying, speaking of her sense of shame, her desperate need of constructive attention and affirmation – her need for a Savior; if you will (a term not as of yet in the public lexicon to describe Jesus). Her tears wetted the feet of Jesus, so she wiped them with her hair and anointed his feet with her ointment.
The hair strikes me. Was it dirty and straggled, being a woman of the night in a very unhygienic culture? Was it long and flowing, elegant and sensuous, as she clearly drew attraction by the more elite members of society? I am wont to envision the film actress Rita Hayworth, a woman of exquisite beauty with long, flowing, exquisite red hair, but who manifested a softness of spirit beneath the veneer of her verve, as well as a vulnerability that was lost on most of her male admirers who happily settled for the image of her as a WW2 pinup. Hayworth was not comfortable with the role as sex symbol, wanting desperately to have a normal family life with husband and children. Hollywood had something different planned for her, and her three husbands proved to be more abusive than nurturing. One strongly suspects that the woman in the Gospel had one idea for her life, while the elites, including the religious ones, had another.
Enter Jesus. There He was, reclining over the table and meal. She must have known who He was; why else would she have sought Him out? Did He know her, at least in the natural sense of being aware of her? I suspect so, even to the point of having had some kind of meaningful interaction at some point. We can only speculate. Regardless; to Him she came – Again; brashly through the door and past the staff, desperately making her way to where He was, humbly holding back behind Him but vigorously tending to His needs in pure love for Him.
Are we so desperate to find and be with Him? One wonders and doubts, but hopes; still. The lady gave Him her expensive ointment; undoubtedly, the best she had. What do we give Him? Do we give Him the cream off the top, or do we give Him our first-fruits? Do we give begrudgingly or wholeheartedly? Is He our first-love?
Let’s put it this way. The translated word can be “jar,” or “bottle,” or “flask,” or the very pedestrian “container.” But the substance used for the encasement of the ointment or nard or perfume is alabaster. The sinful woman, in her love for Jesus, would herself become a temple made of spiritual alabaster, within which Christ’s love would prevail; praise God!
Please do, even if the Pharisee did not. He was not a happy camper. It makes for caustic reading:
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he thought to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’
So much for peace on earth and good will to all men and women! This guy is pure myopia personified. He is either so jaded in his lusts or his self-righteousness that he can’t for the life of him see her pain, let alone the exquisite action she is performing on behalf of Jesus.
We can be so blinded by our flesh. We find ourselves to be tone-deaf to the sufferings or plight of others. We remain rooted in a sense of self-righteousness that lends itself to caricature. Or we are simply denuded of any or all compassion and pity. This Pharisee does not distinguish himself; to put it mildly. He’s no better than a petty, vulgar shill for his own self-varnished veneer of respectability and elitism. The very fact that he could not take a cue from Jesus, notwithstanding the fact that he had extended an invitation to Jesus for dinner, speaks to his moral and perceptive stupor – My opinion, but there it is.
I recall being with a group of people at a banquet at the end of a week during which the daughter of a leading pop-singer committed suicide or died of a drug overdose. It was all so very tragic, but the lack of compassion for the troubled girl, especially on the part of the men, was insufferable. “Ah,” they said, “she brought it on herself!” I trust that they will be comparably spared if the deceased – God forbid! – were ever one of their own family.
I remember when NBA basketball legend Magic Johnson was diagnosed with AIDS. A friend of mine, and an individual who should have known better, declared, “He did it to himself.” Yes; undoubtedly, but there but for God’s grace go I – Right? God has compassion on the sinner, not simply on the cancer patient or the materially poor. Thank God that we can acknowledge this!
And did he really think that Jesus was as obtuse as he was? I have found that we are sometimes wont to think that we are smarter than Jesus but Jesus, being the very Mind of God, was pretty swift; as a matter of fact, He was a perceptive genius!
He knew the hearts of men; that’s for sure. He was quite adept at knowing what and when to speak, as well as when to refrain and remain silent. He took on the Pharisees in debate and handily defeated them in every instance – Pretty talented; eh? Even the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, found himself impressed by this prisoner. But the Pharisee sat back smugly and thought that he was smarter than Jesus! Yeah; right!
But Jesus saw through him, reading him like a book. And Jesus answering said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ And he answered, ‘Say it, Teacher.’
Jesus shared a parable of two men who owed money to a moneylender, one owing more than the other. He asked the Pharisee Simon who would love the moneylender more after the latter forgave their debts, to which Pharisee Simon gave ready acknowledgement that the one who was forgiven more would love more. You have judged rightly.
Then; turning to the woman but still speaking with Simon, He said, Do you see this woman? (Interesting question, given their potential history as, if he had sexually exploited her, he never actually looked at anything other than her body as an object of sexual satisfaction!) I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet (Is Pharisee Simon a slob with low standards of hygiene?), but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair (I can’t help but envision Rita Hayworth, perhaps because of that heretofore mentioned amalgam of exquisite beauty and poignant vulnerability!). You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet (Lack of a kiss on the part of Pharisee Simon suggests that he was not as warmly-disposed to Jesus as he would like Jesus to think, but I speculate!). You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment (A guest would have been given all due honor, but Pharisee Simon thought better of himself or so it seems!). Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little (Obvious to me, so it must have been obvious to Jesus, that Pharisee Simon felt he had no reason to seek forgiveness or, in any event, was refusing to so acknowledge, as pharisaical pride or prestige would be placed on the line; heaven forbid!).
One would hope that Pharisee Simon was beginning to get the point, but we are not told; however, the “sinful lady” got the point, as Jesus graciously said to her, Your sins are forgiven. The fellow guests whispered amongst themselves like something right out of a Manhattan cocktail part, wondering who He was, forgiving sins as He did (not something normally done!) Jesus addressed the woman, Your faith has saved you; go in peace.
Who are you – the sinful lady or the Pharisee? How much does Jesus mean to you? Are you cold and insensate to human suffering if it comes at the expense of your personal comfort & convenience? Are you in desperate need of the ministrations of Jesus? On a scale of 1-10, how ardently do you long for or love Jesus? To what extent is your sense of forgiveness accentuated? How cold are you?
These are questions to be asked in moments of self-transparency, queries that beckon answers. God already knows, and loves us no more or no less. What is at question is the extent to which we love Jesus – How much?
Bradley E. Lacey
First Baptist Church at Conshohocken