The beliefs of the Pharisees were closer to the teachings of Jesus than those of the Sadducees. Some have even speculated that Jesus might have been a Pharisee. In any case, Jesus got a seemingly friendly invitation for dinner at the house of this Pharisee. Jesus may have been viewed as just one of the rabbi’s or teachers, who could either shed an interesting new light on the Torah or the prophets or be a good opponent in a nice debate. Several other people had been invited to hear what Jesus would have to say.
Now as soon as Jesus had taken his place at the table, this woman of a certain reputation appeared, uninvited, and began to wash his feet. You would expect this uninvited guest to be sent away immediately by the owner of the house. But the Pharisee doesn’t do that. He probably wants to see what the reaction of Jesus will be. Earlier in the chapter we read that Jesus had already built a certain reputation of consorting with tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners. And as his host must have half expected, Jesus does not send the woman away either.
Now the Pharisee wants to know why, but for some reason he doesn’t just ask Jesus why.
You will notice in the text that he only mumbled to himself. “If this man were a prophet, he would have known that she is a sinner”. How often do we draw conclusions without simply asking the person who could give us the answer? How often do we hardly give people a chance to explain? Or don’t we listen when they speak? Or do we put words in their mouth or make assumptions about his or her true intentions?
The Pharisee also made many assumptions. For instance, that you can divide people in two groups, sinners and righteous people. And that he himself was not a sinner. And that once you are a sinner, almost nothing you can do can change that. And that Jesus did not know about her sinful past. And that a prophet should always know everything. Lots of assumptions which he did not check.
Of course Jesus knew about the woman, but he also knew about the Pharisee.
Then Jesus started to approach him in a gentle, almost timid way, “Simon, I have something to say to you”. This reminded the Pharisee that he should let Jesus explain, listen to him, suspend his judgement. He remembered why he had invited Jesus in the first place and then addressed him as ‘teacher’.
What follows is a precious parable, extra helpful because it sits inside another story, a real life one, so we know how Jesus used it, how he tried to reach and teach people by it.
Many other parables have come to us without such an explanation. But here we see how Jesus, talking about two people who could both not pay their debt, applies this to a religious group and a group of outcasts, respectively. Mind you, our Lord did not deny that the woman had been leading a sinful life. She may even have sinned ten times as much as the Pharisee. But in the end there is no absolute difference, because both are in debt,
and neither one can pay it back.
Moreover, no matter how grateful each person will turn out to be, both debts were cancelled. There is hope for all kinds and degrees of sinfulness and failure. And this forgiveness is pure grace, because it does not depend on any action on the part of the debtor. In the parable, forgiveness is granted spontaneously and immediately, and only afterwards will it become clear to what extent this forgiveness has been appreciated, in other words how successful and life changing that forgiveness has been. How generous this God can be. And how different from our usual idea that we should convince Him to be merciful, or go through all kinds of rituals first.
But we are not finished yet. Jesus, turning to the woman, identifies her as the one who had the greatest debt, and who, when forgiven, showed the greatest love. But wait a minute, when had this forgiveness been granted? It is only in the next verse (48) that Jesus says that her sins are forgiven. But in verse 47 he already speaks of forgiveness as the reason for her great love. In other words, just like the woman had not spoken a word, so Jesus had granted her forgiveness without speaking a word. To which she had reacted with gratitude. And this all took place in silence and without the Pharisee and his friends having any idea.
For one thing, they had overlooked the fact that the woman was crying. Now crying can be faked. People sometimes manage to do this when they want to accuse someone. But this woman did not accuse anyone. She was lamenting her own failures. And in this simple way she confessed her sins. She had turned to Jesus, not to test him, to seduce him or to bother him in some way, but to find acceptance as a person. And Jesus had not turned her away. What started as tears of sorrow and repentance must have turned into tears of joy. Not that anyone else noticed, of course. And then she continued to do what the Pharisee had conveniently forgotten to do, and she did more. And finally, to let the others know it as well, Jesus confirms that the woman’s sins are forgiven.
It is interesting that, unlike the way it happened in the parable, Jesus does not say to both that their sins are forgiven. He says this only to the woman. But in order for the story to make sense, we must assume that he too, had received forgiveness at some time.
Otherwise he could not have been expected to be even a little grateful.
Well, what do you think? Had he been grateful enough? All we know is that in exchange for some entertainment, he had invited Jesus and given him diner. We are not told how he finally reacted to Jesus’s words.
It is an open-ended story, perhaps to enable us to imagine what our reaction would have been. We have made mistakes and received forgiveness, but what has that done to us?
Has it enabled us to understand other people, who according to us have made graver mistakes, although that could easily have been related to their circumstances?
Or have we taken pride in the way we think we are following the rules, even though we, too, break a few rules of common decency and respect sometimes? And what about the two most important rules, about loving God and our neighbour as ourselves? As our first reading, from Galatians, says: “no one will be justified by the works of the law”. You will always find that you have violated something. We are never able to say that we have done everything “by the book”.
The Pharisee must have painfully realized this. Maybe the fact that he isn’t mentioned anymore means that he was at a loss for words, like the other time when Jesus drew in the sand and the accusers of the adulterous woman left one by one.
What this story also reminds us of, is that spirituality is never a solo-exercise. It is always linked to how we view and treat other people. And it is linked to how we treat ourselves. Are we demanding perfection from others and ourselves? And are we the ones who define what perfect is like? Then we are in for a lot of disappointment, but also for many surprises.
Although the Pharisee is not mentioned anymore, his guests are. They were asking, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” They had either found something that could be used as an excuse for not listening to the actual message of Jesus, or their words could be interpreted as admiration, or a bit of both. In any case, the Jews believed that only God could forgive sins. So how could this Jesus have spoken in the way He did?
When people want to disagree on something, but have no real arguments left,
they often resort to things like, “who does that person think he is?”
And again they don’t simply ask Jesus, but they just talk amongst themselves.
It makes finding and embracing the truth very hard when politics and status are involved.
One answer to their question could have been, “yes, Jesus is God. Therefore He too, has the right to forgive”. But that is not what Jesus said. He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace”. Like Jesus, the woman did not believe in a God who was only there for one party. If there is a God at all He has to be there for everyone. And she recognized this merciful God in Christ. He represented the continually self-giving aspect of God. And when this gift, that is widely available, is accepted, it amounts to forgiveness.
The key is our faith, our acceptance. On the part of God there are no restrictions.
His nature is always to have mercy. Our nature is to doubt it.
Now if you were to take one thing home from this sermon, what would it be? That we have to do better than the Pharisee and his guests? Well, that would be a pity. Because the whole point is that our achievements don’t matter. They will only bring further division and illusions of grandeur. I think the point is to be able to become humble in the sight of God’s patience with us. Then we will welcome Him again as a teacher, forgetting all our so called knowledge. We will learn to ask questions and seek advice, rather than repeat our own ideas.
And as for the woman, she might have a few lessons for us as well. To have faith, to silently serve the Lord and only Him, to show hospitality and gratitude. To trust in God so much, that human invitations don’t matter to us anymore. When God calls us, we can trust again, trust in being welcome and loved against all the odds. When we realize that God is always more compassionate than any human entity, we don’t need to hide our weaknesses anymore. And we will rediscover gratitude.
In the words of that great hymn:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.