In the Daily Office gospel reading for today, we get the story from Luke’s perspective on the woman, who is a sinner, and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints him with costly oil on his feet. This is all taking place in the home of a Pharisee, who we learn from the conversation with Jesus is named Simon. We don’t know the woman’s name. We don’t know what her sin was. All we know is that she is showering Jesus with all the customary greetings of that period (bathing the feet with water, kissing, and anointing with oil).
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’—Luke 7: 39-50
There’s a lot that went through my head as I read this passage. I found myself reflecting on the story in John’s gospel of the foot-washing scene with the disciples, where Jesus takes on the role of the servant as a means of teaching his followers, “This is what it means to love one another.” Here, a woman who apparently must have been notorious, serves Jesus in a way that his host has not. I am also reminded of the story from Mark before Jesus’ arrest where the woman anoints Jesus’ head with oil much to the chagrin of the disciples who start mumbling about how much money they could have made for the poor with that oil that she’s wasting on Jesus’ head. In that story, Jesus basically tells them all to quit their complaining because what this woman was doing is preparing his body for burial, and reminds them that they’ll always have the poor with them, but they won’t always have him.
But chiefly what I thought about is that we don’t know her name. She’s “a woman” and “a sinner”. And, like so many others (“a blind man”, “a servant”, “a Syrophoenician woman”, “a Samaritan woman”)… all these “others” in the Bible stories of Jesus are incredibly important and powerful examples to us so many centuries later. They are the nameless many who encounter him, are touched by him, and through their faith in these encounters they become part of the Kingdom of God. These are the people that society, back in those days, had left behind or were seen as unworthy of such an invitation. But here in the gospels, they become the very illustrations of what Jesus was showing as “the way”, “the truth”, “the life”: love of God… love of neighbor. We don’t really need to know their names, or to know the why’s and what for’s behind how they came to be in the conditions they’re in. What we need to do is to pay attention to what’s happening in these stories, and to understand the liberation that comes to these nameless people through these encounters. And to see, feel, taste, touch, hear, and experience how liberating God’s love is for them.
God knows more than just the names of the nameless ones. God knows their hearts, and has seen in their hearts a faith that says, “Here I am”. That was true then, and I believe it remains true to this day. God knows each of us completely. And he will liberate… and is liberating… all those who seek him out… each of us in all our perfect imperfections, and self-imposed prisons of fear, and beliefs that somehow we aren’t worthy of such love.
All the more reason why we, who have felt this liberation, should seek to serve God in others and not assume that we know “who’s in and who’s out” because we don’t.
In the words of the General Thanksgiving:
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise
not only with our lips, but in our lives
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.
And so, nameless people, let us go forth to love and serve the Lord. Episcopalians… you know what to say next!