When I was in my twenties, I knew this guy and his best friend who seemed to be at every party; I was amazed at the fact that they were seemingly invited to everything that was going on, and it turned out that they had a set of secrets to being included: 1 – accept every invitation; 2 – always bring a gift; and 3 – and this is the one that was the kicker for me – only ever stay for 90 minutes or less. Number 3, it was explained, kept you from ever doing anything particularly stupid at a gathering, it kept you from ever being an embarrassment.
The woman we heard about in the Gospel today was apparently not worried about secret number 3, about keeping herself out of embarrassing situations. She wasn’t even invited to the party, she crashed it; she brought a gift, but not for the host; and she went on to make a scene in front of everybody.
And yet, despite all this, she is the hero of this story, and there is a definite hero and a definite zero in this tale. The hero and the zero deal with the presence of Christ in two very different ways.
“Simon the Pharisee is prosperous, righteous, callous, and smug. He has played by the rules as he understands them and he has attained a position that allows him to lavish banquets in the sort of house where you can throw a lavish banquet. But while you and I would use resources like this to share the joy of fellowship, Simon seems more interested in showing everybody just how much better he is than them. He invites Jesus to the banquet, yes, but then shows him none of the customary acts of hospitality. It would be as if you invited a visiting public figure to your home, threw their coat on the floor, and asked them to take out the trash. And then, because that wasn’t rude enough, he makes a snide remark that manages to insult both Jesus and the woman tending to him in a single breath. “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.” Luke tells us Simon said the remark “to himself” but I imagine it as a stage whisper, and indeed, the very next thing that happens is Jesus correcting Simon with his parable about the debtors….
“The woman with the alabaster jar shows us the correct way to respond to God’s love, accepting that love, making it part of herself, and sharing it back out again. She has no illusions about herself, yes; she is a sinner and yes, everybody seems to know it. Just as important, though, is that she has no illusions about Jesus, either, nor about what he can do for her. The woman’s lavish treatment of Jesus is not something she does to earn forgiveness; she never even asks to be forgiven. Rather, she treats Jesus as she does simply because of who he is— and who she is. He offers not just forgiveness of specific past sins, but a deep, ongoing relationship with God, based on eternal and unconditional love. She brings herself, all that she has within herself and all the possessions she can muster and lays everything, literally, at Jesus’s feet. She doesn’t care how it looks, doesn’t care that this episode will only deepen her humiliation in the eyes of Simon and people like him, all she cares about is being with Jesus and expressing her love and gratitude in the best ways she can.”1
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I can be, at times, a bit too concerned with my own dignity. As you all have clearly seen, I can be less than physically graceful, more of a bulldog than a greyhound, but I do try to retain the dignity of my Order and office. But at the same time, the same Jesus who calls both you and me into relationship with Him, has shown that nothing must be beneath us when it comes to serving Him and those He sends to us. Jesus not only accepts the sinful woman’s humiliating demonstration, but lifts her up as an exemplar of the Faith. He tells a sly parable that humiliates Simon, His host, and He then goes on to the ultimate humiliation of dying bloody and naked between two thieves on a cross.
Every time that we act as this woman did, when we draw close to God and fall down at His feet in gratitude, we can be sure that the Lord Himself will lift us up, He will accept and receive us. Every time we treat others as we would treat Christ, as He Himself told us, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” May we prove to be as humble and thankful before Christ as we are forgiven and loved by Him, ’cause that’s the secret to getting that invite to His heavenly party.
1Fr. Bret Hays, from a sermon give on the Sunday of Proper 6, 2013.