Tears for Jesus’ Feet

The readings for Sunday, June 12, 2016, Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C,
are 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; and Luke 7:36—8:3.

Even though the Pharisees get bad press in our four Gospels, Jesus had friends among them and table fellowship with them. It is unfortunate that the heated struggle between the leaders of Judaism (the “Pharisees”) and Christian scribes in the last third of the first century resulted in the negative depiction of these good pious men in the Gospels. No doubt there were shysters among them, but to demonize a group because of some unsavory adherents of that group is an injustice. St. Paul, who proudly calls himself “a Pharisee of Pharisees” would agree. The Pharisee in this Sunday’s Gospel was named Simon.

As Simon and his major guest were at table, (the Greek expression means “reclined”), a woman known as a “sinner” in that city heard that Jesus was dining with Simon. The tone of the story indicates that she was a prostitute. The point of the story is not her sinfulness, but her repentance. This woman brought with her an alabaster flask of ointment. Luke’s Greek refers to the contents as muron (myrrh).

The woman was weeping copious tears that fell on Jesus’ feet, “bathing them.” She wiped his tear-bedewed feet with her hair”, which must have been long for such a function. (No Sinead O’Connor hairstyle!) Then she anointed Jesus’ feet with the muron of the alabaster flask.
Simon sees all these unusual procedures. He muses to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him, a sinner woman yet!” Simon does not know that Jesus could read the thoughts of others, or at least Jesus read the expression on the face of Simon and other guests — perhaps a slight snicker was heard here and there. As was his custom, Jesus tells a parable. The purpose of a parable is to get the addressee to identify with a major character in the story. In this story there were two debtors. One owed a huge amount, the other a small amount. Both were unable to repay, so the creditor forgave both. Question: Who loved the forgiver most? Simon answers, “The one whose larger debt was forgiven.” Simon got that one right. Jesus next unravels the parable.

He points out how Simon, the host of the dinner, did not treat him with the usual hospitality given to dinner guests, such as providing water to wash dusty sandaled feet, or himself bathe the feet of a guest. Nor did Jesus receive the customary kiss of welcome from his host, nor the customary anointing of a guest’s head with olive oil. The woman supplied everything that Simon should have supplied. The great love for Jesus which she so openly and humbly displayed before all was a sign that much had been forgiven. Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” The symbolic dagger that had been prodding Simon up to now is pushed a little deeper, when Jesus says to Simon, “The one to whom little is forgiven loves little.” The story is one example among many in Luke’s gospel proclaiming a major theme of his catechetical instruction, repentance and forgiveness. Luke wants to make one more point. The guests ask, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Every Jew and every Christian knew the Old Testament answer, “Only God can forgive sins.” Through their words Luke proclaims Jesus as God.

This story would have been quite sufficient for one Sunday Gospel, but another theme was attached by the arrangers of liturgies after Vatican II. Jesus hits the road again, from town to town proclaiming his “kingdom.” Luke lists his fellow-travelers: the Twelve, and some women, (no doubt Galileans as Jesus was), from whom Jesus had cast out demons and cured diseases. He notes that there were many, but lists three by name: Susanna, of whom we know nothing but must have been prominent among Jesus’ women disciples; Joanna, wife of Herod Antipas’ “prime minister,” thus a connection to wealth and high places; Mary of Magdala, “out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons.” Church Fathers, especially Gregory the Great, died 604, without evidence connected Mary of Magdala with the sinner woman of the previous story. What was a celibate monk-pope to think when he sees Luke’s reference to seven demons having gone out of her? She had to be a repentant prostitute. So thought Gregory, but ‘twas not necessarily so.