The story we just heard appears in all four gospels in one form or another. In Matthew and Mark the woman is a stranger though not a sinner and she anoints Jesus’ head, not his feet. In John’s gospel it’s Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus. She anoints his feet, and the gesture has a foundation in familiarity and friendship. In each case it is in the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry- and the metaphor is of Jesus being anointed for burial.
Luke’s perspective is unique. Of the four, he seems the most interested in character development and since it’s relatively early in his ministry, it sets a tone- a contrast between the way different people experience Jesus when they meet him.
You might be wondering how the woman and her alabaster jar got into the dinner party in the first place. Back then privacy didn’t really exist the way it does for us. In those days dinner parties were often held in an open courtyard and it was not uncommon for there to be spectators milling around both outside and inside. Because Simon was a public figure and Jesus was quickly gaining fame, this particular gathering would have been big news. It’s like when Lincoln was filming here in town. I remember someone came into church for Wednesday night supper and told me that Tommy Lee Jones was going to be eating at Can Can. I wasn’t inclined to go see Tommy Lee Jones, but if it had been George Clooney…
If this story is familiar, it may not sound very extraordinary. Imagine though that you were at this dinner party or one of the spectators. A woman, a known sinner- possibly a prostitute if she has such a public reputation, washes Jesus’ feet with tears, kisses them, dries them with her hair and anoints them with oil. It’s a very intimate act and she makes herself very vulnerable- publicly vulnerable. People ate reclining on pillows with their feet out behind them so she’s not under a table or anything but it’s still really scandalous not to mention distracting. It’s forbidden for a woman to touch a man in public, and she’s an unclean woman. Jesus ought to have known better than to let her get away with it.
Simon is quite understandably scandalized and offended. He is literally dishonored in his house, and so is Jesus. What he apparently doesn’t get is that he dishonored Jesus too- he didn’t offer Jesus water for his feet, didn’t greet him with a kiss or anoint him- all basic expectations of hospitality. He cannot stop looking at the woman’s sins and offenses, but he is totally and completely unaware of his own.
None of us have ever been guilty of that, right?
As the story’s focus bounces back and forth between the 2 main characters- it naturally sets up a contrast between them. The issue of forgiveness is one of the central themes and it’s interesting that when Jesus pronounces forgiveness of someone’s sins everyone is pretty astonished- except for the person whose sins are forgiven. For all of Simon’s religious knowledge and authority, he missed something about Jesus that a sinful woman knew intuitively. Someone once wrote, “How we come to know God, how God breaks through to us, is probably through something that is broken in our lives.” Maybe that’s the difference for the two main characters in the story. One knew she was broken.
A friend has a collection of bumper stickers that all have religious or at least semi-religious slogans on them. They’re pinned to a large corkboard in her office- we called it her bumper sticker theology wall. I’m a little jealous of this collection, and there are several stickers I’ve seen that I particularly want for myself. One is “What Would Scooby Do?” I also like “It’s not the years in your life it’s the life in your years that matters.” Then there’s “Are you following Jesus This close?” There’s another one that has the symbol of what looks like a Christian fish and underneath it the words “I just support fish.” Or how about “Jesus Loves You But I’m His Favorite”?
There’s one car I see frequently around the Fan with the sticker “I believe in life before death.” There’s a whole sermon there but we’ll leave that for another day. And my new favorite is a spin-off of Descartes’ famous maxim. Instead of “I think therefore I am” it says “I Love Therefore I Am.”
“I Love Therefore I Am.”
If God drove a car, that would be his bumper sticker.
And this appears to be the motto that the woman with the alabaster jar has adopted for herself.
We don’t know what happens to her or to Simon after this memorable dinner party. By all expectations it’s Simon who should be better off- he’s the one with good standing in the community and a respectable vocation. And yet somehow we’re left with the impression that if we checked in with them 5 years later- you know, did a little biblical ‘Where are they now’ that it’s the woman we would find filled with joy and life and love. Simon comes out seeming kind of- clenched. And shriveled.
The open ended-ness invites us to think about where we might be- in the story- or maybe some years down the road from now. Have we encountered Jesus in our lives? And if so, what difference has it made? Has it made us more loving? More compassionate and less judgmental? Or are we clenched? Shriveled? Unforgiving?
I love therefore I am.
Maybe this is a motto that you live by, or one that you could adopt as your own.
Sometimes love means an act of extravagant intimacy and vulnerability.
Sometimes it means having the courage to speak the truth, even when it’s difficult and costly to do so; and to do what is right instead of what’s easy.
Sometimes love is a wedding or a baptism or even a funeral.
Sometimes it means letting your family member accept the consequences of their addictions. In the wisdom of the 12 steps movements- don’t prevent a crisis if that’s the natural result of someone’s self-destructive actions.
Sometimes love means having compassion for yourself: letting yourself off the hook and telling the critics inside your head to take the night off. Or better yet, firing them completely. Don’t ask me how I know about that one.
As it is for the woman with the alabaster jar, who was forgiven much and so who loves much- love is reflected in our actions. It is reflected in the way we interact with each other and how we relate with the world. Love is reflected in what we give back to our community, in the courage to be vulnerable. Love is always enough. And God is Love.