Today I found myself returning to a story in Luke 7:36-50 that I love, often return to and enjoy preaching on …
It’s the account of Jesus being invited to a dinner party that almost goes totally awry. Once at this party, Jesus immediately encounters a woman — and a sinful woman at that. She is desperate, and she then makes a big scene — cornering Jesus, falling to her knees, wailing and weeping tears all over his feet.
This story speaks to me as much as any story in the Gospels because it showcases Jesus’ terrific emotional health. Jesus is completely engaged emotionally at this evening dinner engagement and shows what a true hero he is. Over and over I have read and pondered this story, and I have yet to tire of trying to plumb its depths.
The story begins…
A man who is a Jewish teacher (a Pharisee) named Simon throws a dinner party and invites Jesus. I like to imagine that Jesus is not the only guest at the party. In my mind’s eye, Jesus is joined by a room full of other guests: wealthy muckety-mucks from the town — businessmen, maybe a couple of tax collectors and few of the movers and shakers. Some of them are respected; others, well, maybe not so much.
Many have heard about this traveling rabbi and they are all at Simon’s house on this particular evening, along with, of course, Jesus and the woman.
Now this woman — “a certain sinful woman,” Luke tells us — heard that Jesus was going to be at Simon’s house. Everyone knows her. I don’t what she knew about Jesus. I don’t know how she heard about him. But on this evening, nothing was going to stop her from seeing him.
We know nothing of the woman’s back story, other than she is known to be a sinful woman. Now I’ve always heard that she is a prostitute — mostly because of commentaries I’ve read probably — but in fact the story never says what her sin is. She is, however, labeled as a known sinner.
Now there’s a label for you. Do you know anybody who wants to be labeled? I hate to be labeled. Who of us doesn’t? Regardless, this woman is labeled, and maybe her whole family along with her. I can only imagine.
Labeled or not, this known, sinful woman decides, come hell or high water, that she will crash the party. She succeeds, too. Taking a “beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume,” (Luke 7:37) she makes her way into the house. Once inside, she heads straight for Jesus. She drops to her knees and promptly begins sobbing. Apparently there are lots and lots of tears — big, wet tears — enough to get Jesus’ bare feet wet. The woman then wipes them with her hair and rubs lotion into his feet. I’d say Jesus and the woman had everyone’s attention by then, wouldn’t you?
How’s that for a creating an emotional scene? What would you do at this point if you were Jesus? How would you feel? What would you say, if anything? Would you flee? Would you freeze? And my goodness, try to imagine how this poor woman must have felt?
Simon the host, of course, sees all of this and is disgusted by it. Or so Luke the writer seems to indicate. Maybe he’s just jealous the woman hasn’t come and done the same to his feet. I doubt it, but who knows? It’s hard for me to imagine that Simon’s motives are very pure in the way this entire dinner party has been set up. In any case, Luke tells us that Simon sees this scene unfolding inside his house and cynically says to himself: “Huh, if this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She is a sinner.”
Now my guess is, as custom would have it in that day, that only men are at this party. Perhaps there were woman slaves serving them, but that would be about it. My further guess is that this woman who weeps buckets full of tears all over Jesus’ feet may have been at Simon’s parties before. Maybe plenty of times.
I’ll admit that I am such a doubter of any pure motives in these kinds of situations. For all I know, Simon the Pharisee, the host of the party, may have set the woman up to be there, especially since Luke tells us the woman already had heard about Jesus and suddenly finds out he is going to be a guest at the dinner party.
Luke never tells us how this woman got labelled a sinner. And in fact, Jesus does not disagree with the label affixed to her. (People get labeled for all kinds of reasons — often bad ones.)
But it is in how Jesus responds that I find so brilliant. As this whole scene unfolds, Jesus asks Simon if he can say something. Simon gives Jesus the floor simply saying, “Go ahead, teacher.”
Jesus, with the woman next to him, then proceeds to then tell Simon and all the gathered guests a story of a man who loaned money to two people. Neither person could repay the man who loaned the money. One person owed hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The other owed just a pittance, a dollar or two. The man kindly forgave both people to whom he had loaned money, canceling both debts.
When Jesus finished his story, he immediately asked Simon which of the two forgiven people in the story loved the man who have forgiven the debt more. At this point in the story, we all know that Simon is being set up. Simon knows, and I think the guests may also see, that that Simon is about to get his fanny nailed to the wall.
Frankly, there is not much Simon can do at that point. He’s already said Jesus can speak, and now Simon has to answer Jesus’ question or lose face and look like an idiot. And Simon does answer, simply by saying, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.”
That’s the right answer. Of course. Pretty obvious to anyone. Everyone in the room knew the answer. Simon got it right. But then Jesus turns to the woman but continues speaking to Simon. Pretty clever. And boy is Jesus is on a roll now.
Now use your imagination. Can you see Jesus in Simon’s house sitting among the known leaders of the town? Can you see the poor, weeping, sinful woman, looking totally spent emotionally, her tear-stained face red and drawn, now hoping against hope? Can you see the 8 or 10 guests — businessmen, leaders of the synagogue, city fathers, sitting around the table, taking it in, perhaps now disgusted with Jesus’ audacity and wondering what in the world is about to happen?
Now think about Jesus’ emotional intelligence here because that’s the key.
He is present — totally engaged and zoned in to what’s happening. At this moment, his emotional intelligence is a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “shows outstanding emotional intelligence.” I am amazed at how emotionally present Jesus in this very tense situation. Jesus does not waver a whit. He stands up for the woman, both defending her and then forgiving her sins. In my imagination Jesus is utterly calm, totally present, and very self-assured.
At this point in the story, I am standing on my feet cheering him on.
When Jesus tells the woman he actually forgives her sins, the men at Simon’s table have just about had enough. They say, “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”
Jesus, who is still emotionally engaged — and so incredibly comfortable in his own skin — just smiles, looks at the woman and boldly says, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
The story drives its point home…
You know, as many times as I have read this story, I never ceased to be amazed at how present Jesus is in the moment, how he defends this poor, sinful woman in a room where she has ZERO power to do anything or to influence any change. She is a total pawn, a labeled woman who has been disregarded by almost everyone. She is just scared and pitiful and unloved.
Into this milieu, Jesus somehow musters the courage and confidence to say what only he can say, “Woman, your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace!”
Now that, my friends, is an emotionally healthy person, who clearly acts on what he believes — that all humankind need love more than they need hate or derision or being labeled. I love this story. Jesus indeed is a man worthy of emulating.
“Lord, help us all to be present in every situation… not fighting, not fleeing, not freezing. Just being fully engaged and being our true self in what we say and do.”
That is the self of whom we need to say, “Help me to love my neighbor as I love myself!”