The Healing of Smelly Feet

Week of Sunday June 12
Gospel: Luke 7:36 - 8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now 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.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

The hospitality of my Hazara neighbours has increased my appreciation of this reading. The curtains remain open on nights of formal hospitality. Anyone can see in from the street; the woman from the town would have no trouble finding Jesus here. You sit or recline on the floor on cushions. There is none of this stuffed armchair business; it means you can comfortably fit heaps more people in the room. The setting is brightly lit, yet intimate, and welcoming.  But it's no place for smelly feet!

In Luke's story everyone has smelly feet, not least Jesus. Visiting various of my neighbours whose cultural custom is to remove shoes before entering the house, I am always restrained: "No. No. Leave your shoes on. Please!" It's a mark of hospitality and honour— at least, I think it's not because my feet smell exceptionally bad! But the Pharisee did not offer the expected hospitality to his honoured guest. He "offered no water for [his] feet."

Jesus was an honoured guest. NRSV hides this with its translation about seating. They reclined at this table. (36,37, 38 implied, 49.) Fitzmyer tells us this was the way you ate a festive and formal meal in Palestine; this may have been a Sabbath Feast. (Fitzmyer The Gospel According To Luke I-IX pp 688.) But somewhere in the preparation, the Pharisee who hoped he was inviting a prophet (39) to the meal, forgot some of the basic good manners. It's not that he didn't honour Jesus— however much he wondered about him, for he calls him "Teacher." (40) Fitzmyer says of this, "Simon sees Jesus as one of the revered teachers of Palestine." (pp690) What happened is that Simon was rushed, busy, and fallible, like all of us, and in his effort to put on a good show and do the right thing, he forgot the basics.

This is a beautiful and gentle story: four times we are told Jesus is at the house of a Pharisee; a paragon of virtue, or a byword for a hypocrite, depending on our point of view. We are being set up, with the Pharisee contrasted to a woman who was a sinner, and invited to relax into our prejudices, and then, suddenly the Pharisee is human. "Simon," says Jesus. "Then turning towards the woman he said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman…" In the presence of Jesus we gain an identity. Even as Jesus is exposing our blindness, we are given a name.

Well, who was the woman, then!? She remains nameless. Or does she? I wonder if the woman is like the companion of Cleopas in Luke 24. As James Alison suggests there, is she is N———? That is, place your own name in here; you can be this woman; you are Simon, but you can be this woman. Your eyes can be opened. (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice: An Introduction to Christianity for Adults, Essay One [Kindle version])

This woman who loves, is an exemplar of what it means to be human. In this male dominated text from a male dominated society, it is a sinner woman who shows Simon what it means to love. It is Mary, Joanna, Susanna— even the wife of Herod's steward named only through her important husband, who are named. The twelve are simply "the twelve" in the verses at the end of our reading.

A Simon was also one of the twelve. The name Simon appears 17 times in Luke: once for the cross bearer, 3 times in this story, and 13 times for that disciple who will especially be sifted like wheat. Who is Simon?

The story suggests the woman had met Jesus before. In verse 47 tells us this: "… her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love." She has come to the table as a forgiven woman; it is Simon who still holds her sin against her. (Fitzmyer pp692)

Simon is disappointed in Jesus; "if this man were a prophet" indicates that he thinks Jesus, if he were a prophet would have known she was a sinner; real prophets can discern character. But Jesus is a real prophet, for he discerns Simon's thoughts exactly!  And tells a little parable. Simon is seen right through, and knows it. "I suppose…" tries to maintain dignity by distancing himself from the debate. Jesus will have none of it: "… you gave me no water. Do you see this woman!?  She has shown you what it is to love and honour and respond to God's forgiveness of us all. Her love is the sign of it."

He reaffirms her: "Your sins are forgiven." This is important. She is not forgiven because of her love. Her love follows her forgiveness.

… a key point of Jesus’ message was to reverse the usual order of penance and forgiveness. With Jesus, forgiveness comes first and is what enables us to begin living lives of penance. It’s not an “if-then” logic — ‘if you repent, then you will be forgiven.’ It’s a “because-therefore” logic — ‘because you have already been forgiven, therefore you are freed to respond with a changed life, a heart that turns to God.’ (Paul Nuechterlein, referring to work by Raymond Schwager.)

Let's come back to the issue of her name.

I find this question, “Do you see this woman?” to be incredibly evocative. Of course Simon sees the woman – he has been loathing this sinner touching Jesus ever since she started. Of course Simon sees the woman – she’s an embarrassment to the sanctity of the table. Simon isn’t blind, he’s angry. 

But, does Simon see this woman, whose provocative expression of brokenness and love is greater than her nametag that says “SINNER!” Does he see past the reputation, the scarlet letter that mocks her, the notoriety, to the person whose life needs wholeness? Does he see the woman who is not secretly debating whether Jesus is a prophet or not, but who is pouring out herself in worship?  Simon sees and does not see. It’s the ‘not seeing’ that is tragic – for him and for us. (Mark D. Davis.)

I'm not much into crying. It's one legacy of the hard socialisation of a boy childhood in rural Australia. Crying makes you a target. And I was already a target. My nametag was too often SCAPEGOAT, not that any of us understood that.

In Year 10 a new teacher in our high school offered to take kids bushwalking over Easter, which proved to be four days of glorious escape into a new world. We went again on the June long weekend, and again in the September holidays, and again for Labour Day weekend. Suddenly I had a name!  And a life, and friends. I belonged. And at the end of the year, we found out he was leaving.

I remember standing under the cedar trees in the quadrangle as we milled about waiting for the head master's dismissal. I was so close to tears, I couldn’t speak. I'm not sure if I could have articulated my grief, or what he had done for me even if I'd trusted myself to say anything. The bushwalking teacher said, "You'll be alright. You'll make it." A grand declaration of love and regard amongst Aussie men. He said something else, which I can now phrase differently: "You are not who they said you are." A Jesus stood with me in the school ground. He began a giving to me of a new self, my self.

But is forgiveness really everything? Can it possibly be worth that much? Consider: forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable.    But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner [or as the outsider scapegoat] – these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe, [the story they told about you]. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free. David Lose (I have added the emphasis and the bracketed words.)

My name is forever Simon. There is a part of me which is hard, judgemental and self-righteous. The exact words my bushwalking teacher said were, "You are not like them," and remembering that kept me alive even as I defined myself over-against them and was therefore just like them.

But the Greater Jesus, who also says "You are not who they said you are, Simon," calls me past my judgementalism, and past my denials, to cross carrying and loving, and to footwashing in the place of shame. Trusting this is what he does (aka faith) is what makes me whole (aka saved.)

Perhaps the most fruitful way of reading the word “faith” here is to let the ‘weeping, anointing, wiping, being forgiven and showing love’ describe for us what faith looks like. None of those descriptions mentions “belief” or “doctrine.” …  The word σῴζω is often translated “saved,” but its meaning is rich. It can mean ‘healed,’ or ‘rescued,’ or ‘made whole.’ I am using “made whole” because it seems to be a wider term than “saved” and “saved” has become an almost exclusively ‘religious’ term over time. (Mark D. Davis op.cit.)

The place of shame is the place of victimisation. To go back, without resentment, and not seeking revenge, is to be free. The woman has come among those who despised her, immensely free. Simon is treated gently, even though confronted. He is neither condemned nor praised; there is simply an opportunity to see this woman. But… there are other folk: "the ones-lying-back-at-table-together" one translation has it. (συν-ανα-κείμενοι)  And… (the Greek kai will bear and or but as a translation) they may see signs of grace and freedom in her, and wonder deeply at who Jesus might be, but… the ones-lying-back-at-table-together can be the forming of the mob of rejection. NRSV chooses but.

Nonetheless, Jesus says to her in such a place, "Go in peace." Fitzmyer's commentary notes "1 Sam 1:17" under his translation of the words "go in peace." It's the word said to Hannah, soon to be Samuel's mother, "… and her countenance was sad no longer."

Andrew Prior
In this post, some readers will recognise James Alison's theology, which is so compellingly presented in the twelve essays of Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice: An Introduction to Christianity for Adults, and which has enthralled me in the last few weeks. 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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