One day when Jesus was dining at the house of a man named Simon, a woman entered the house and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears. She then proceeded to wipe them with the hair of her head, kiss His feet, and anoint them with ointment. (Lk 7:38; Mt 26:6-13; Jn 12:1-8)
In Luke's version of the story, Simon, a Pharisee, was quite put off by this action because evidently, the woman was some kind of a sinner, which in biblical euphemism might mean that she was a prostitute or had transgressed the Law in some other way.
Jesus, sensing that Simon was scoffing at Him in his heart, told a parable:
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more? Simon answered and said, "I supposed the one whom he forgave more." And He said to him, You have rightly judged. (Lk 7:41-43)
I have always been moved by this story because the woman's action was so beautiful. The story is of her, of Jesus' love, and also of the kind of love that we might aspire to, for divine love leads to forgiveness of the most radical sort.
The first thing that we notice if we compare the account in Luke with those in Matthew, Mark, and John, is a kind of biblical identity crisis. First of all, who was Simon? In Luke, he was a Pharisee, much respected. In Matthew and Mark he was a leper, one of the lowest kinds of people, who wandered about with bells, shouting "Unclean! Unclean!" so that normal people would not be defiled by going too close to him.
And who was the woman? In Luke, Matthew and Mark she was a sinner of some sort, a social outcast. In John, the woman was Mary, a friend of Jesus and certainly not a sinner.
In my mind, it doesn't really matter who exactly Simon was, or who the woman was. Two things do not change¡XJesus' forgiveness and the woman's action of love. All the records contain essentially the same narrative, and perhaps this can tell us that if we really think about it, many of the distinctions that we usually make about people are not justified.
Pharisee or leper? Sinner or friend of Jesus? Landowner or homeless person? Business executive or AIDS patient? It has become almost automatic for us to make instant judgments about people. On the street, we would note the kind of car a person drives, the type of suit he wears and the kind of credit cards he carries. Even in church, we may know our brethren by their professions, their net worth. But how much does any of that matter in the eyes of Jesus who forgives all our debts, who is our God who embraces all of His children?
Now, regarding the ointment. The author of John identifies it as nard, a precious balsam made from spikenard, an aromatic root grown in India. And in Matthew, it was contained in a jar of alabaster, a precious, translucent mineral, which the woman must break in order to get the ointment out. Some calculate that the ointment was worth a whole year's wages. Others claim that it was part of her dowry, intended for her wedding day. In any case, it represents all that was important to her.
It seems then, that although God's love is always there, we cannot take it for granted. If we would be near to God, it seems that we must give up all that is important to us and just yield to God. And what is most important to us? Is it our ego that we have to break just as the alabaster jar that the woman broke? Or is it our wealth accumulated over the years that we must part with? Whatever we can conceive of, whatever we value as our own must be dedicated to God. We need to appreciate that in the grand scheme of things, our lives and all that we hold dear, need to be dedicated to Him. We don't need to sell all our possessions, give up our jobs, and go live in church, but it does mean that we perform every action as if we were offering it to God. And does this not make sense since Jesus Himself gave up His very life for us?
Lastly, the story teaches us about forgiveness. While the woman was anointing Jesus, Simon, the disciples, and in particular Judas, could be heard in the background, muttering to themselves about what a sinner she was and how Jesus should have known about her background. It is amazing that even though Simon and the disciples could see with their own eyes that Jesus had forgiven her, they could not themselves forgive her. In the very presence of the Lord Jesus, they still couldn't give up their human prejudices.
Today, we often talk about how wonderful God is and how much He loves humanity. We also talk about how much we love God. But then, shouldn't we love God, who is all-perfect? How hard is it to love perfection? When we cast our eyes upon our neighbor, can we do the same? Can we love imperfection?
In everyday situations, whether in the classroom, in the office, or out on the street, we encounter people that we just don't like. In fact, I think that each of us, if we think for a while, could come up with a pretty good list of people we don't like, including reasons. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dearly says:
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Mt 5:43-46)
If we know that there are people that we cannot bring ourselves to love, and yet know that the Bible commands us to go and love them, what are we to do?
So you see, the Bible is not that easy to live up to after all. One common way to deal with people whose company we deem less than desirable is the simple rule of avoidance. Just try to have nothing to do with them. We might even say that we hold no hatred in our heart for anyone. But how good is that? I would argue that in this commandment to love our enemies, as in any commandment of the Lord, there is a minimum requirement that we at least have to reach, but also a maximum attainment at which we may never arrive. What I am saying is that if we only stick with the people that we love, love only those who love us, and hold no special grudge or hatred against anyone, that is only the minimum of what we are commanded to do.
As it is, just reaching that level is difficult enough. But we can always do more. How exactly do we love our enemies? One sister told us in a recent Bible study how she had had some bad experiences in the office and would initially return home each night with fresh horror stories to tell and complaints to make to her husband. But as time went by she began to change her attitude, first by constant prayer to God to shower His abundance on her, and also by viewing those stressful situations as tests through which might improve her character. Slowly, she was able to begin changing how she felt about certain people.
There's no quick solution, and we change over along period of time. But as long as we always keep the love of Christ in our hearts and, like the woman in our story, dedicate our thoughts, words, and deeds to God, we can begin to change some of our narrow assumptions and judgments about others.
There were situations in my own life when I have judged people, and have refused to forgive people for the things they might have said or done even years ago. But how petty! If God in heaven can not only forgive but also die for all humanity—including the people we really cannot bring ourselves to love—what does that say about our behavior, our jealousy, envy, and hatred?
We may be judging others by whether they are Pharisees or lepers, Marys or sinners. Faced with the deep love of the Divine, we must realize before passing judgment on anyone that we have every reason to first love everyone with whom we are blessed to pass through this life. John says:
We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 Jn 4:19-21; 4:8)
It is a difficult task to love those whom we deem unlovable. Yet that is God's command. And on the widest level, who are those today whom society has cast aside? The poor, the uneducated, the immigrants, the homeless, the drug addicts, AIDS victims, gays and lesbians... Can we live up to our calling as disciples of Christ? Do we allow ourselves to become channels of God's love that changes lives?
The story of Jesus and the woman is a rich one that tells us about God's eternal love for us, our attempts to love Him back, and our even more difficult task of loving each other. May we look into ourselves and find that love is what God is, and that ultimately, is also what we should be.