Today's familiar gospel story (Luke 7:36 - 8:3) has historically also been the basis for one of the New Testament’s most famous instances of mistaken identity – identifying this story's sinful woman in the city with Mary Magdalene. The confusion may be largely due to the fact that Mary Magdalene is in fact mentioned at the end of the story - not however as the sinful woman but as one of the presumably wealthy women, whom Jesus had cured of evil spirits & infirmities, who accompanied Jesus and the 12 from one town and village to another, and who used their personal resources to provide for the material needs of Jesus and the 12. If nothing else, the story of those wealthy women serves as an apt reminder that, from the start, the Church’s mission has always depended upon collaborators able & willing to help pay the bills!
Another misunderstanding concerns Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. Pharisees were pious laymen, committed to living as religiously as possible, devoted to observing all the commandments of the Law, but while remaining in society (in other words, not withdrawing into the desert as certain other contemporary Jewish groups apparently did - and certain Christian groups would later do). Pharisees also had certain distinctive beliefs and practices that separated them from the more conservative, priestly aristocracy, known as the Sadducees. Jesus shared many of their beliefs (for example, belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead). After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees emerged as the leaders in post-Temple Judaism, setting the stage for most of the next 2000 years of Jewish life. As such, they were in a sense the rivals of the other group to emerge from 1st-century Judaism, the Christians. Reflecting this family quarrel between the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the majority who did not, the New Testament tends to highlight the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. Even so, stories such as this one, in which a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, remind us that the actual historical relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was not always unequivocally hostile.
Needless to say, this was not coffee at Starbucks that jesus was invited to. It was a real meal in the Pharisee’s home, precisely the kind of social intimacy and religious fellowship one did not normally share with just anyone.
Shortly before this, Jesus had been acclaimed as a great prophet. The gospel says this report about him spread in all the surrounding region. I suspect Simon the Pharisee had also heard this and wanted to see for himself. Prophecy had long ago officially ceased in Israel, and it was not expected to reappear until the coming of the kingdom. Hence, the excitement generated first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus. Was Jesus really a prophet? Was he the prophet whose coming was so eagerly expected? And how would one know for sure?
This accounts for the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ apparent acceptance of the sinful woman’s attention. If Jesus really were a prophet, the Pharisee said to himself, surely he would know who and what sort of woman she was! Probably he wasn’t the only one there thinking such thoughts! Such formal dinners were public events with other observers in attendance. The woman’s presence in the crowd standing behind the guests, watching the festivities, would probably have been unremarkable. But, when she started weeping and began to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment, that was not normally accepted behavior at such an event. Whoever she was, if she hadn’t had a reputation already such unusual behavior would surely have given her one! Hence Simon’s reaction, which he politely kept to himself!
We, however, do know what he was thinking. We also know who Jesus really is! “If only you knew who and what sort of a prophet Jesus is,” we want to say to the Pharisee! Instead, we wait for Jesus to respond. Jesus, of course, does know who and what sort of woman is touching him – better than the Pharisee does. Hence, his little parable about the 2 debtors – intended to suggest to Simon that, if only the Pharisee understood his own need for forgiveness, then he too might respond to Jesus just as the woman did.
The point of course is that we are all in need of forgiveness. Simon the Pharisee had taken an important first step in inviting Jesus to his home, but that was as far as he was willing to go. His failure to appreciate his need for what Jesus had to offer – nothing less than the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God – inhibited him from responding to Jesus as the perhaps more obviously sinful (but also more thoroughly repentant) woman did.
When we hear this story, knowing already all that we know about who Jesus really is, we recognize the insufficiency of the Pharisee’s hospitality. But the challenge of such a story is to see ourselves in the Pharisee's place. From God’s vantage point, everyone is like the debtors in the parable, totally unable to repay. Everyone is in need of forgiveness – from God who is willing to write off our debts, reconciling us to himself through Jesus his Son, who has loved us & given himself up for us (Galatians 2:20). So everyone should also really respond to God’s forgiveness as exuberantly and lavishly as the uninhibited sinful woman in the city did. This story is more than a curious tale about an anonymous woman often mistakenly identified with someone else. It is an invitation – more than an invitation, a challenge – to go beyond the Pharisee’s superficial curiosity about Jesus, to come to know who Jesus really is, to realize what he has to offer and to embrace him in a life lived in love.
The story ends with Jesus journeying from one town & village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the 12 and some women who had been cured of evil spirits & infirmities. What was that already but a gathering of the Church in miniature? What was that already but a gathering of the Church in miniature, what the Church was then and what it must no less likewise be now – a community of forgiven sinners, reconciled to God and to one another, caring for one another and the world around them, in a life lived in love!
Homily given at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, June 12-13, 2010.