Anyone who complains that the church’s worship is too heady and needs to be more sensuous and emotional ought to be invited to come this day. What could be more intimate than bathing and kissing feet? What could be more emotional than a confrontation between a self-righteous religious leader and a woman who knows her place as a shunned human being with Jesus defending her in the presence of a meal with a bunch of men?
Luke 7:36 – 8:3
As with the Old Testament reading for today, this reading also confronts us with matters of justice and truth as being matters of the heart. Our word can free us and our word can convict us. A meal in the house of Simon the Pharisee turns into a lesson about grace and forgiveness as opposed to Law and tradition. Hypocrisy is noted especially, as we see the irony in a Pharisee who is well-versed in Law and tradition pointing out the sins of the woman anointing Jesus, yet risking his own reputation in poor hospitality—which Jesus brings to his attention.
From the Pharisee's point of view, he encounters an interruption at a meal, a breach of propriety, and the opportunity to discredit Jesus as a prophet. Jesus comes invited, while the woman sinner does not. However, she has heard of Jesus' deeds and wishes to honor him, which the Pharisee views with disdain; her actions of letting her hair down and anointing his bare feet could have been interpreted as sexual advances. While he is thinking that Jesus is no saint, much less a prophet, Jesus challenges Simon on his own lack of hospitality. From Jesus' point of view, the woman has been loving and is forgiven, and her faith—not the Law—has saved her. – Sky McCracken
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15
Looking at the Old Testament and Gospel stories with an eye to seeing what is common in them, we find different parallels. Both David, in this story, and the woman with the alabaster jar, in the Luke story, are judged by others – whether rightly or wrongly. Nathan charges David with the sin of having Uriah killed so that David could have Bathsheba to himself. Simon the Pharisee calls the woman who honors Jesus a sinner.
Both repent of their sin. David repents in words; the woman, by her costly gift and obvious care for Jesus, even though we have no idea whether Simon’s condemnation of the woman is fair. Nameless as she and so many women are in scripture, we know only her honor for Jesus, not her story.
Another similarity in the stories: David dismisses Uriah and fails to “see” Bathsheba just as Simon dismisses and doesn’t “see” the woman with the ointment. David assumes that Bathsheba can be used as a tool for his purposes. Simon and friends judge the woman as unworthy to be in their presence.
In both stories, the women do not factor as human agents equal to the men. This is a portrait of the relationship between men and women even in our time in which the roles of women are determined in many cultures (including our own) by the so-called “religious” convictions of men.
The dismissal and failure to “see” others can be extended quite easily to include all those, as an old prayer puts it, we “can easily forget.” Name the people in your community who are dismissed, believed to be unworthy, and generally unseen. Those are the people Nathan and Jesus defend.
The Epistle echoes the readings in Luke and 2 Samuel with regard to debates in the church over who is acceptable and who is not.
Paul and Peter find themselves at odds with each other over distinctions regarding righteousness, faithfulness, and cultural background (in this case, Jews vs. gentiles). Are Jews and gentiles going to have to sit at different tables when dining? Are there going to be circumcised and uncircumcised Christians? Paul addresses this gracefully and logically: it is not the works of the law that justify us, it is our faith in Christ that justifies us.
Verse 19 reminds us of our baptism and of being crucified with Christ, and this is perhaps the key to understanding this pericope exegetically and sacramentally: when we die to self, we put on Christ and by doing so we fulfill the law and put it to death instead of becoming slaves to it. To be a slave to the law is to nullify the grace of God. – Sky McCracken
Considering Paul’s theology in light of the story in Luke, we are given a question to ponder:
Justification by faith rather than works is one of the pillars of Paul's theology. While Jesus is visiting the house of a Pharisee, a woman described as a sinner brings a jar of ointment and “began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” Jesus forgives her for her sin and explains that her love is an expression of her gratitude. How is Paul's teaching about justification by faith a paraphrase of Jesus' own words? – Ian A. Curran
Sky McCracken is a United Methodist Church pastor and District Superintendent in Paducah, Kentucky. His blog is at revdsky.blogspot.com.
Ian A. Curran, PhD, teaches World Religions at George Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Homily Service 43, no. 3 (2010): 23-31.