All four Gospels have a story about a woman with ointment. However, as Luke tells the story of the woman, it is told with a totally different twist, and it is told early in the ministry of Jesus. Whereas the other three gospel accounts focus on the anointing of Jesus by a woman, this account in Luke focuses on the relationship between love and forgiveness as played out in the life and actions of a woman.
The setting for all four accounts is a meal. In the account in Luke, Jesus stands center stage between two contrasting characters, the host and the uninvited guest. I say uninvited guest, because Simon would not dare the risk of ritual impurity by inviting this woman to his home. He knows what’s proper, she knows what is improper. He knows his goodness, she knows her sin. He is trapped in his apparent righteousness, she is free in her apparent unrighteousness.
Her actions of love contrast with the host’s neglect of the basic conventions of hospitality. He takes on the role of judge. His verdict: this woman is a sinner and not to be touched, Jesus is no prophet if he allows this woman to touch him. Jesus also makes a judgment. This woman knows love and the gift of forgiveness, something that is lacking in the host.
She may be deemed a sinner, but she knows how to love because she knows the power of forgiveness. Scholars have pondered the order of events. Did she love because she was forgiven, or was she forgiven because she loved? This is only a human effort to put logical order on the cyclical work of God. Love and forgiveness go hand in hand. The greater the forgiveness, the greater the love. The greater the love, the greater the forgiveness.
The woman knew she was a sinner. Everyone knew it, and it became her reputation. So she was open to the lavishness of forgiveness and the lavishness of love. Simon did not see himself as a sinner. He had built up a different reputation. His narrow view of himself created a narrow door in his heart through which forgiveness and love might occasionally drip.
The woman understood what Jesus was talking about, that love and forgiveness are inseparable partners. She did not have any theological understanding of this. She had lived knowledge. She had had no formal confessing of sins or ritual cleansing. Her forgiveness was from the heart of God who knew and loved her.
This story is set early in Jesus’ mission, so that we might understand his teaching on forgiveness. It is not a private ritual. It is a divine waltz or tango of life where its dancing partner is love. If we had really focused on this teaching about forgiveness from the time of Jesus, rather than privatizing the gift, our world would dance with a communal understanding of the double gift we have in love/forgiveness, forgiveness/love. It is never too late to let the music begin.
And when by some chance we fall out of the dance and feel a compulsion to judge, let it be with the judgment of Jesus.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP