The episode of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet is one of the most complicated stories in the Gospels. It is complicated because although the four evangelists each have such a story, there are similarities and differences, which give rise to many questions about who the woman was, where the event took place, how was it really enacted, and what its purpose might be.
Inevitable, one may say, when a story passed on by word of mouth, is later set down in writing by four different authors, with different contexts in mind.
In Luke’s story, a woman known to be leading an immoral life, sneaks into the banquet hall where Jesus is being hosted by a prominent Pharisee, Simon. She places herself at Jesus’s feet – in the custom of the day, guests reclined at table, their feet on the outside, and so, accessible. Then she bursts into tears, wipes his feet with her hair, and bathes them with the scented oil from a flask she carries. It’s an awkward scene, any way one looks at it. But Jesus isn’t fazed one bit. He even seems to be enjoying theattention !
At this Simon the host, Pharisee that he rightly is, thinks to himself: “What kind of bogus prophet have we here? Doesn’t he know the sort of woman who’s touching his feet!”
Jesus who knows very well who the woman is, and what kind of man Simon is too, breaks his silence: “Simon, I’ve something to say to you,” he says, and narrates the parable of the two debtors, men with unequal debts, and how they were both forgiven.
“Who do you figure will love the lender more?” is Jesus’s question to his host.
“The one who was forgiven the more,” is Simon’s reply. Isn’t it obvious?
“Well…” Jesus goes on, and slowly points out how this woman at his feet had gone overboard in expressing her affection for him, whereas Simon, his actual host, had been stiff and formal. Her great show of affection points to a great debt being forgiven, does it not? adds Jesus. Whereas your miserly show of affection, Simon, indicates that your own debt was small, by comparison.
Note, Jesus hasn’t said, because the woman loves much, much is forgiven. Or because you showed few signs of affection, Simon, little is forgiven. The initiative is always God’s. God forgives us first, and that is why we love.
It is because we appreciate how great his forgiveness is, that we in turn can show great love. Those of us who do not appreciate his forgiveness – because at heart we may be self-righteous Pharisees – express little love, to ourselves and to others.
Once again, Jesus stands the conventional wisdom on its head. We don’t earn God’s grace by being good. God gives his grace first, and that’s why we are good…and why we may even embarrass the onlookers with the effusiveness of our loving!