If you have ever watched Zefirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth you will have seen this episode acted out in all its drama. Our Lord, although a guest, is not among friends. To understand this demands that I explain a few things. The Pharisees were largely a lay movement and usually wealthy. They were devoted to their faith and to their Law, in particular its rules on ritual and personal cleanliness. In the culture of Jesus’ time the custom for welcoming a guest was that they were offered water to wash their hands and arms, as well as their feet and for an honoured guest oil was provided to anoint their head. They did not eat at table as we do. For one thing they lay down on couches and reached forward to take their food from the dishes – they ate with their fingers. For large groups the tables were set in a horseshoe pattern and the guests sat around on one side of the tables all facing into the centre where the servants served the food. The Pharisee has deliberately neglected to offer the basic signs of welcome for our guest. So you see our Lord has been offered real insults. The Pharisee is trying to provoke Him. The whole meal is a trap.
It is into this charged situation that the woman comes. She is not named – we are only told of her bad reputation. Our imaginations can fill in the blanks here. She is even more unwelcome than the Lord. As a public sinner she risks making the Pharisee and his guests unclean by her very presence. They are lying on the couches so she has easy access to the Lord’s feet. She weeps over Him, and her tears drip down onto His feet. His feet that are filthy from the street. Remember there were very few sewers outside the major cities back then and there was every kind of filth in the streets. To touch and kiss His feet she must bow or even kneel before Him. Then she does something that perhaps women understand better than men. Hair means so much more to women. A woman’s hair is described in the bible as her glory and it is this woman’s glory that she uses to dry the feet of our Lord. Then she goes further, anointing his feet with ointment, an expensive gift from what she treasures most.
Our Lord then confronts the Pharisee. He points out his rudeness and challenges him with a case: who will love the master more, the servant forgiven less or the servant forgiven more. Our Lord points to the woman. She has been forgiven more. Here Jesus is sometimes misinterpreted. He is not saying that the woman has sinned so much because she has loved so much but that she is forgiven so much because of the amount of love she has shown for the Lord. Her tears and her drying of His feet with her hair are a sign of her faith in Him and His mission and her true sorrow and repentance. So He responds to her with mercy, forgiveness and absolution because she is the believer not the Pharisee.
The Pharisee who is so devoted to his religion cannot see God at work in Jesus. He is so convinced of his perfection that he is unable to do as this poor woman has done. He cannot weep for his sins. He cannot even humble himself to offer water to the Lord let alone wash the Lord’s feet with his tears, nor dry them with his hair. He certainly cannot put his wealth at the Lord’s service. But this woman with a bad reputation has acknowledged Christ’s Lordship and mission by weeping for her sins at His feet. Her lips have been made holy by the feet she has kissed. In anointing His feet she places her most valuable possessions at His service. Christ means ‘anointed one’ and by anointing our Lord’s feet she proclaims her faith that He is the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’, the ‘Chosen one’ of God sent to save sinners. She knows that Scripture has foretold: Behold, on the mountains the feet of him who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace! So our Lord proclaims peace to her and sends her away at peace with Him. She was still reviled by the people of her town but she was no longer cut off from God. Christ has reconciled her. Whatever the world might think she is a new creation.
So note the four things she has done:
She has courageously come to the Lord with faith.
She has wept at His feet in repentance.
She has wiped His feet clean in penitence.
She has anointed His feet in loving self-sacrifice.
This woman with a bad reputation is a model us and for the Church, and for all who would be truly repentant.
This Autumn I will be seventeen years a priest. In all that time I have rarely heard a penitent weep for their sins. I have heard people weep over other things but rarely over sin. I do not suggest that they lacked sorrow for their wrongs or were not penitent. Perhaps it is our lack of faith or a lack of understanding of Who Jesus is and What He has done for us. Perhaps it is a poor understanding of the nature of sin and the harm it does to ourselves and to others.
Whatever the cause the Lord is always inviting us to move deeper into our knowledge of Him. He wants us to draw closer to Him whatever the Pharisees (and all the others who think they have no need of God and can save themselves), whatever they might think. He wants us to come to His feet in genuine sorrow and repentance, to recognize that He is the Love and the Mercy, the Compassion of the Father made truly human for us. He wants us not only to recognize but to weep as best we can over our faults and failings, our wrongdoing, our sins, for we can only find rest in Him. He wants us to show Him that we really are sorry, really do want to change, that we really do want to make amends and heal what we’ve broken. He wants us to love Him in return for His love and to kiss and anoint His feet with our good works, with the love, mercy and forgiveness we show to others. He wants us to:
Courageously come to Him in Confession with faith in Him and His mercy.
To weep at His feet in repentance through asking for the gift of true contrition.
To wipe His feet clean in penitence through prayer, fasting and service of our neighbour.
To anoint His feet in loving self-sacrifice through care of the needy and the most needy are those who need our forgiveness and to place all that we are and all that we have at His service.
It is by coming courageously to the feet of the Lord in humility and sorrow and trusting in Him that we discover His mercy and kindness. It takes courage and humility to go to Christ in the Sacrament of Confession. I know, I have to go often enough myself. Every time we go to Confession, and we ought to go often, we ought to pray that we go as this woman went. We should go bravely no matter what others might think or say and put our trust in the Lord, asking Him to bless the priest with all the graces he needs to help us. Perhaps you think that you have no sins. If you have no sins that what are you doing here? The Church is a hospital for the sinners not a museum for saints. Perhaps you think that the Lord will not forgive you. Who do you think He died for? He has told us often enough that He would die for each of us even if we were the only one. Therefore we ought to run to Him in the Sacrament, confess our sins to the best of our ability and do our penance – after all a few prayers is nothing compared to drying someone’s dirty feet with our hair. When we do what is ours to do, when we confess our sins in sorrow, when we forgive from our heart and care for those in need, then He will do the rest. The Lord is never found wanting.