A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 7:36-8:3
For years, if you had asked me who the woman in this story was, I would have answered, with great confidence, that she was Mary Magdalene. If only the answer were that simple!
In Luke’s Gospel, we are never given a name. We are only told that she was “a sinner”, that she entered the home of Simon the Pharisee (clearly uninvited), where Jesus was sharing a meal, and that she stood behind him as he reclined at the table and wet his feet with her tears. It is not clear whether she directed her tears onto Jesus’ feet, or if they fell there by accident. But, she was crying and Jesus’ feet got wet, which indicates some proximity. Then, she used her hair to dry away the wetness – which implies that her, in keeping with her occupation, hair was loose. This means that, in that culture, her display would have been interpreted as shockingly sexual. It may be that in the early verses of the next chapter, where Luke lists Mary Magdalene as one of the women who travelled with Jesus, that he is trying to give us a hint of who this woman was, but this is only speculation.
Every Gospel has a version of this story, but only Matthew and Mark’s versions agree. In those two Gospels (Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9) the scene is Bethany and the home is that of one Simon the Leper (about whom we are told nothing). In these accounts, there is no washing of feet with tears, and no drying with hair. Nor is the woman identified as a “sinner”. There is just the pouring of expensive ointment over Jesus’ head. In response, the disciples complain that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor, but Jesus defends her actions. In both of these two Gospels, this seems to be the event which finally causes Judas to betray Jesus.
In John’s Gospel (John 12:1-8) the scene is Bethany, just after the raising of Lazarus. Martha served the meal and Lazarus was at the table with Jesus. Here Mary, their sister, pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair, and it is Judas who complains about the waste.
We can’t know whether these are different versions of the same story, or different events that involved different women. But, here’s what we do know. In every account the woman is shamed by the men around her and Jesus removes her shame. In Luke’s Gospel (characteristically), this is most clearly seen, as Jesus declares her forgiven in the presence of the Pharisee who has judged here. Most significantly, the forgiveness is shown to be the reason, not the prerequisite, for her repentance and devotion.
We live in a world where men shame women almost without thinking – through humour that minimises womanhood, through blaming women for men’s broken sexuality, through sexual and domestic violence, through cat-calling and sexual harrassment, through rejecting female strength as “bossiness” and female nurturing as “weakness”. In such a world, the example of Jesus is a challenge. When the woman showed her devotion in overtly sexual ways (perhaps because she had no other language?) Jesus did not take advantage and he did not blame or shame her. When she was attacked by other men, Jesus defended her, without making her weaker in the process. Rather, he raised her up, as an example of great love and great forgiven-ness. Perhaps all we need to do to stop the global violence against woman is for Christian men to follow Jesus’ example, instead of that of the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel, or the disciples in the others. I pray that I, for one, may have the grace and courage to stand with Jesus alongside the woman in my corner of the world.