Have you ever noticed that Luke loves to use two characters in the telling of the “Jesus story”? Simeon and Anna are temple dwellers who prophecy over the infant Jesus. Two brothers vie for a privileged place at his right and his left. There are two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the Acts of the Apostles, and Jesus sends the disciples out as witnesses, two by two.
On a deeper level, Luke uses this “principle of twos” to tell a story of contrasting characters. So we have Jesus telling the story of a father who had two sons, a younger, rebellious type and an older “duty-bound” resentful follower of the rules. It is noteworthy that the father in the prodigal son story goes out to both of them in an effort to bring them home.
There’s the story of the self-righteous Pharisee praying to God and the penitent tax collector beating his breast and asking for mercy; the heart of the Pharisee full of himself, and the heart of the tax collector full of remorse.
Even the friends of Jesus, Martha and Mary, have different responses to Jesus. We also have the contrasting thieves who are crucified beside Jesus; the first who mocks Jesus’ inability to save himself and them, and the repentant thief who simply asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
This literary tool of contrasting characters is used in our Gospel today. We are introduced to Simon, the Pharisee, a publicly righteous man who has invited Jesus to his house to dine, not out of any desire for a relationship, but rather, out of a mild curiosity. He offers Jesus no common signs of hospitality, no foot-washing, no customary kiss, hardly even greets him at the door.
The second character is a woman who has been classed as a “public sinner.” She has had such a powerful experience of transformation from her encounter with Jesus that she is unafraid to enter this all-male gathering and boldly anoint Jesus with costly ointment, clean his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair.
This act of repentance and “metanoia” (a turning around) is all the more moving when considered against the backdrop of the story of King David’s repentance for his sin in the first reading. With David there is no minimizing, rationalizing or otherwise discounting of the sin he has committed. He is a model of real repentance. So is this woman who is anointing Jesus.
While others judge her harshly for this extravagant act, Jesus defends her with words that are meant to shed meaning on the extravagance of Jesus’ own imminent sacrificial death. Just as the alabaster jar has been broken, and the precious ointment has been totally spent, so will the alabaster jar of his body be broken for all, and the precious ointment of Jesus’ blood be poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
In defence of her actions, Jesus contrasts her loving ways with the inhospitable actions of the Pharisee. Hers was a heart reborn of love, compassion and mercy, while Simon looked down on her with judgement, harshness and a distrust of this so called “prophet” who let her touch and defile him.
This story has even greater weight because it is mentioned in all four Gospels and it precedes the Passion narrative.
In the same story in Mark and Matthew, Jesus says something about this woman that he does not say about any other person in the Gospels: that, “wherever the Gospel is proclaimed throughout the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” This is like a key signature in a manuscript of music. If we miss this, we could miss a deeper understanding of the passion and death of Jesus. It recalls the phrase Jesus used at the Last Supper: Do this in memory of me. It signifies a eucharistic moment. When we give our hearts in loving service, we are sharing in the act of Jesus giving himself to the world. We are meant to spread that same kind of loving mercy to those around us.
As a missionary with the Redemptorists for 30 years, we almost always included this Scripture reference in our preaching, as we felt it to be an injunction of Jesus’ “wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
My wife, Joan, and I led a lenten parish mission entitled: “The eucharist: unfolding the mercy of God.” Two “linch-pin” scriptures acted as bookends for this four-day event. We began the mission with the classical story of the prodigal son. We ended the closing night with today’s Gospel story of Jesus’ visit to Simon the Pharisee’s home.
In both of these stories, Luke invites us to contemplate our relationship to Jesus. What Jesus offers us is a friendship that is deep and abiding. Our whole life of faith is meant to centre around this fundamental relationship. What Luke offers us is contrasting responses to that invitation. I dare to add that, in those contrasts, we can find ourselves at times the Pharisee, but hopefully more often, the one at the feet of Jesus, loving boldly for the forgiveness and healing we have received!
Williston is a retired Parish Life Director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.