Blogging toward Sunday

June 10, 2007

When you have long hair and perfumed oil and kissing feet and a sinful
woman in the same pericope, it’s hard not to think of sex. No wonder
Christian commentary has for centuries assumed that this woman is a
prostitute. No wonder church Fathers talk about her “fornication” and
“lewdness,” calling her “the whore.” Ephrem of Syria describes her
“casting from her hands the enticing bracelets of her youth. . .
casting away from her body the tunic of fine linen of whoredom. .
.drawing off and casting from her feet the adorned sandals of
lewdness.” It’s as if he’s narrating a striptease. The idea that if a
woman is a sinner she is a sexual sinner seems a little
one-dimensional, maybe even the product of the male imagination.

woman letting her hair down could be an erotic thing, but it was also
something women did in grief and in mourning and out of shame. Her
actions are certainly sensual, but so is kissing your baby or preparing
a body for burial. Her sensuality doesn’t mean she’s a “whore.” She’s

Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon
apparently hadn’t really seen her, and I wonder if we continue to be
unable to see her. She may have been old; her hair may have been gray,
not silky and brown. She may have had crooked teeth, brown teeth,
missing teeth, wrinkled skin, eyes filmed over with cataracts. Maybe
she wasn’t a “sexy” “loose” woman with scented oil bent before a man,
but a woman desperately grieving or grateful. Her sin might not have
been being sexy; it may have been being cruel and calculating and mean.
Read 1 Kings 21, where Jezebel arranges the death of poor Naboth who
would not give his vineyard to the king; we see that there is a whole
range of women’s sinfulness. I think most women are well aware of this.
I have moments where I think, by the grace of God, I can see my “sin”
and it generally has nothing to do with my sexuality. It’s my judgment
and my inability to love the other and my scapegoating tendencies and
8,000 other things that make me a sinful woman.

I think we need
to take Luke seriously when he says she was a sinner. We probably
wouldn’t have liked her or been at all attracted to her. And Simon may
have been great and beautiful and kind. When he thinks to himself that
Jesus must not know who this woman is, maybe he wasn’t being an
obviously horrible judgmental prig. Maybe he knew how she beat her
children or poisoned little kittens. Jesus eats with tax collectors and
sinners. Tax collectors weren’t just “good” people that the world
ostracized. They worked for the Roman Empire and extorted money from
the poor. They did things that hurt people. And we probably would have
liked the Pharisees. Though the text (obviously) often portrays them
negatively, they passionately believed that their faith was expressed
in acts of loving kindness, especially to the poor. They are the rabbis
who made the word of God alive.

I don’t think we’ll get to the beauty and complexity of forgiveness and the grace of God
we are somehow given to see that Jesus is really on the side of the
sinner. When you glimpse this, it’s always breathtaking. In this story
Jesus takes the side of the sinner against the righteous. Paul Tillich
says, “Here we approach a mystery, which is the mystery of the
Christian message itself in its paradoxical depth.” The truly sinful
woman is truly forgiven. That’s earth-shaking. It’s the kind of thing
that could send you into paroxysms of intense joy or anger, get you
down on the ground weeping with gratitude, or up in arms over the
impropriety of it all. Tillich says, “There is no condition for
forgiveness.” This is basic to our faith, and yet we can hardly keep
ourselves from believing in the conditions—if not for the people we
like, then at least for George Bush or for Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps
God’s grace is always offensive unless you are the one receiving it, in
which case you might take down your hair and weep and kiss someone’s

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