Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 12, 2016
Taken from Luke 7:36-8:3
“One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him, and so Jesus went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table.” Thus, Luke begins to paint his picture for us. Much as Peter Paul Rubin later did, depicting this story through his early 17th century painting that’s on the cover of our bulletin this morning; so Luke presents us first with this tableau. There is first no interpretation at first, but only presentation.
Luke’s canvas is the dinner table in the home of an unnamed Pharisee. Four times in these opening verses, Luke refers to him simply as “the Pharisee”. Luke will later mention there are others there at table, we may assume they too are Pharisees and scribes; certainly, Luke’s first readers would have assumed the presence of these others, and so Luke has no need to mention them at this point.
There, says Luke, you see the Pharisee who has invited Jesus to share dinner at this table; you see, of course, the other religious notables of the town also gathered around the table with the Pharisee and Jesus. There, they recline in the usual manner of the day, leaning upon the table with their legs stretched out behind them.
The tableau so far, in verse 36, is one of typical early Middle Eastern hospitality, but Luke is not finished yet with his tableau. “Look, there!” Luke points us as he continues in the next verse, verse 37…”Look! Behold!” Unfortunately, the translators of the New International Version printed in the worship bulletin made a serious misstep in their work. For some reason, they left out this simple but most important word direction to us from Luke.
The first two words Luke writes to us his readers in verse 37 is this emphatic direction, “And, behold!” It’s a narrative word; it’s a word meant to signal to the reader, “now, pay attention and watch what happens next!” 1
“Don’t miss this! Do you see her? You don’t know who she is, do you? She’s the town…well, you know! Oh, my gosh! What in the world! How did she slip in? I don’t know, but there she is!
Luke continues laying out the brush strokes of this shocking tableau, as this infamous woman silently enters the room. She is the woman whom no man would dare to be seen with, certainly not in the light of day; certainly never near the good and pleasant homes of their fair city. Yet, there she is, quickly slipping in behind the guests reclined at table, crouching down, finally stopping to bend over the feet of the guest of honor, this Galilean peasant rabbi, Jesus.
Of course, the Pharisee sees it, just as we see it, because Luke told us, “watch for it!” The Pharisee sees that she holds a small, alabaster vial, as she kneels down, her face now but a breath’s distance from Jesus’ feet. As silently she has entered the room, so silently she weeps, her tears flowing so fully and freely they fall from her cheeks onto Jesus’ feet. She lets her tears fall, as if to bathe the dust off these feet she now tenderly holds.
The Pharisee watches; as the host, he’s horrified, of course. Yet, he is also intrigued because he questions the truthfulness of this rabbi. His can’t understand why Jesus does not react in the slightest to this filth that dares to touch him. Jesus fails to yank his feet away out of the hands of this mess of a woman, this unclean woman that no righteous man would even tolerate to share the same path with him. Certainly, no anointed prophet would abide such an embodiment of all that God abhors.
These are the reactions and the thoughts that race through the Pharisee’s mind, as he looks down on this woman. He looks back up to see that his guest, Jesus, has been watching him, waiting for him to take it all in.
By verse 40, Luke’s tableau of words is now complete, much as Rubin’s paint strokes so well capture the moment on his own artist’s canvas. We see it, as the Pharisee sees it. Now, Jesus challenges his host and us to see it as Jesus sees it.
In verse forty, we learn that Luke actually does know this Pharisee’s name, as Jesus says to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” But, what of the woman’s identity?
All four Gospel accounts—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all four tell some version of this story.2 All four agree that at some point in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had dinner in someone’s house when a woman slipped up behind Jesus, broke open an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus with the perfume. After that, the details among the four writers differ on exactly what, when, how, why, and most especially, on who this woman was who did the anointing.
Matthew, Mark and John agree that the woman does this anointing to show her extravagant love for Jesus. It had nothing to do with her sinfulness and her forgiveness. The woman simply wanted to express her total devotion to Jesus, by bestowing on him this exceptional gift, an act for which the others at table with Jesus criticize her, because of her extravagence.
Matthew and Mark don’t name her. John, however, tells us that this is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (John 11:1-44)
That’s all good and well until we toss in Luke’s account of the woman anointing Jesus. Because, based on Luke’s telling, it was commonly understood that this woman was a prostitute everybody knew about in that town.
Well, it did not sit well with later church leaders to have a story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus associated with a very similar story of a prostitute anointing Jesus. So, in the 6th century, Pope Gregory the First decided to put the question of this woman’s identity to rest.3
Pope Gregory decreed that Luke recorded a different encounter by another woman who anoints Jesus, and her name was Mary Magdalene. Pope Gregory had absolutely no basis to put this burden on Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene simply had the misfortune of showing up first in the list of women that Luke names immediately after this, in chapter 8, verses 1-3.
Mary Magdalene was literally in the wrong place at that wrong time on the page when church leaders were looking for someone to pin this story on. That and the fact that Luke says Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene seemed to seal her fate in church history. At least in Pope Gregory’s mind, that meant she must have been the prostitute whom Luke was describing in the previous chapter.
Well, given the cloudy and slanderous history behind naming this woman, I’m choosing today to call her by another name entirely. For today, I’m naming her, “Roxanne”. We’ll pretend this is Luke’s account of a prostitute named “Roxanne”, as later immortalized by the British rock band, The Police, and sung by Sting.
Released in 1978, “Roxanne” went on to be among The Police’s biggest hits. It’s a woeful ballad of a young man who’s in love with a young woman, Roxanne. But, Roxanne is a prostitute. Sting sings her name out with a despairing cry, “Roxanne…
I loved you since I knew ya/I wouldn’t talk down to ya
I have to tell you just how I feel/I won’t share you with
Roxanne you don’t have to put on the red light.
Those days are over you don’t have to sell you body
to the night.
Roxanne you don’t have to wear that dress tonight,
Walk the streets for money you don’t care if it’s wrong
or if it’s right.
That’s Luke’s Roxanne, putting on whatever that first century version of the red light might be, selling herself to any man who’d want her body for his use.
There’s nothing of love in prostitution. There’s no Julia Roberts and Richard Gere “Pretty Woman” kinds of prostitute who gets rescued by her super-rich, knight in shining armor. There are simply prostitutes, women and men, underage girls and underage boys, being brutalized by the pimps who sell them and the men who pay for them.
Beyond that fact of Luke’s Roxanne, that she most likely was a prostitute, we just don’t know much else about her. But, what we can glean of Luke’s Roxanne are these two tantalizing details.
First, Roxanne possesses a small, alabaster flask of expensive ointment, most likely a kind of perfume. Alabaster was a soft stone which an artisan could carve and hollow out to hold such precious liquids. Then, the artisan would seal the neck of the flask in such a way that its owner would have to break the flask to get to the contents.
These alabaster flasks were precious heirlooms mothers would pass down to daughters, often as the daughter’s dowry for when she should be married. It was like having money tucked away under the mattress, held in reserve should she and her husband ever face the desperate need for money. Only then would an alabaster flask be sold or traded away.
How in the world had Luke’s Roxanne come to hold such a precious commodity? Was it her dowry given to her own mother that she’d held on to out of sentimental reasons? Perhaps some wayward husband had taken his own wife’s alabaster flask of precious perfume to trade it away to Roxanne for his own night’s pleasure?
However she got it, Roxanne realized that one day men would no longer pay good money for her services, so she’s held on to the flask as a kind of rainy day fund. If this little alabaster flask could talk, the tale it would tell of hope and of heartache, of betrayal perhaps, and most certainly, this flask would tell a story of personal ruin. That’s the first tantalizing detail.
The second tantalizing facet of Luke’s account is why Roxanne is there this day in Simon the Pharisee’s home. The reason is this: for the first time in a long time, for the first time perhaps ever in her life, Roxanne finally had met a man who loved her. She had met Jesus.
We don’t know when or how their paths had crossed. But when Roxanne had met Jesus, her whole way of life—the bad, desperate choices she had made, the wrongs others had perpetrated against her—all of it fell away from her.
Yes, Jesus knew exactly who and what Roxanne was the moment they’d met. But, what Simon the Pharisee did not know and could not comprehend, was this: in their earlier encounter, Jesus had not tallied up Roxanne’s sins. He had not weighed the sins against her on some scale of righteousness. Jesus was not concerned to eyed Roxanne over to see if she might yet be some value to him. Jesus never examined her for even the briefest moment. No examination was needed.
In the moment she encountered Jesus, Roxanne knew instantly that her sins carried no weight with Jesus at all. If anything, it was as if her wrongs, her despair, her abuse, served only to measure the fullness of Jesus’ love for her just because he loved her. In Jesus’ presence, there was no sin left in this woman, and she knew it, because she met God in Jesus, and God forgave her.
Of course, Simon knew none of this. What Simon the Pharisee knew of others was what he could measure by the yardstick of righteousness and of wrong. Simon valued his own life and the lives of others by what each earned and possessed, and by what each owed and must someday repay. Therein lay the balance of one’s standing before God and before Simon.
“Simon,” says Jesus to his host, “let me help you see this woman as I see her.” So, Jesus tells his little parable in verse 41 and 42. It’s a parable designed just for Simon. There were two debtors. The one debtor owes only fifty, while the other debtor owes five hundred.
But, when their creditor forgives them both their debts, “Simon, which debtor will love the creditor more.” Simon responds to Jesus with an expression that roughly translates, “well…duh!” “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more. And Jesus said to him, you have judged rightly.” 4
“Now,” says Jesus in verse 44, “do you see this woman?” Examine her through the lens of the story I just told you. Do you see how she has welcomed me into her life, as though she were a hostess welcoming me into her own home? Do you see this alabaster flask, Simon? Do you realize what this means for this woman who has sold her body over and over for money, yet who now offers me this particular gift?
Whatever misbegotten claims or outright crimes had attached themselves to this alabaster flask that Roxanne carried around with her, when Jesus had looked upon her, it was as if the flask itself was restored to its original purpose and purity right along with her. The flask of pure ointment now became Roxanne’s own dowry to give to the one in whom she would entrust her life, her love, and her soul.
There was more to Jesus’ little parable than just the simple lesson Simon first saw. Consider again the facts as Jesus laid them out. Though their debts were miles apart when measured out and weighed, in effect, their debts were exactly the same: neither the one who owed fifty nor the one who owed five hundred could repay his debt.
Each one’s only hope lay in the creditor who held both their fates in his hands, either to prosecute or to forgive. Their creditor chooses to forgive and to release them from the consequences of their debts. Their creditor restores to them their freedom when he could have condemned them both to the debtor’s prison. Both debtors should have come from the presence of their creditor with equal gratitude in their hearts and praise on their lips.
Simon the Pharisee, if he had seen Jesus with the insight of one whose sins were forgiven, if he had seen Jesus with the insight, for example, of Roxanne, well, let’s just say he would have given Jesus a far more generous welcome at his table than what he’d actually provided.
We sin, and others sin against us. Some of us manage far better than others under the weight of those sins, by whomever and however those sins entered into our experience. But, some of us don’t manage at all well; we break under sins’ burden, and sin quickly becomes a burden that gets compounded over and over again, like a bad debt compounding usurious amounts of interest month by month, year by year.
We who manage our lives well, indeed we seem very well, don’t we? And those who don’t, well, we know who they are and how to avoid them. At least, I know I do.
But, Jesus doesn’t avoid them, just as Jesus doesn’t avoid us. The question is how we see ourselves when Jesus does encounter us. Because, how we see Jesus seeing us, makes all the difference in how we see others, especially in how we see others whom we know have made a royal mess of things.
The shining example in this little story as Luke tells it turns out to be the one who clearly knows what it means to be forgiven. May our life’s joy in Christ match more closely the joy of a forgiven prostitute, who for the moment is named Roxanne, and not the apparent righteousness of a Pharisee who was named Simon.
1BAG, idou, p. 371a.
2Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8.
3Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1981) p. 688 n.37
4 epolamvano, Geldenhuys notes the word indicates “’an air of supercilious indifference’”, Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979) p.236 n.8.