She Loved Much
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
June 17, 2007
Scripture: Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Therefore I tell you her sins which are many, are forgiven, which is shown by her great love for me, while your sins which are few remain unforgiven, which is shown by your little love for me (paraphrase). — Luke 7:47
There is too much in this passage to appreciate in even one whole lifetime, never mind twenty minutes. We have the story of an incident in the life of Jesus and within that story we have a parable. The parable tells us that kindness it is what evokes love. A debtor who owes a huge amount will love the one who forgives his debt more than a debtor who owes a trifling amount. To forgive a debt is to show grace, so we may say that love is a response to grace, or that if you wish someone to love you, be gracious to him/her first. Jesus in this parable draws on the common biblical understanding that places sin and grace in the context of exchange and the obligation that exchange creates. If you receive something of value you are obliged to give something of value in exchange, and if you do not you incur debt, that is, delayed obligation. You must give it back sooner or later. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer has “debts” (“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors – 6:12- opheleimata)” where Luke’s has “sins (11:4- hamartias).” In the Aramaic that Jesus presumably used the word for debt and the word for sin is the same, “hoba.” Matthew chooses the commercial meaning, “debt,” and Luke chooses the moral meaning, “sin.” Debt is delayed obligation, but in Greek “sin” is “missing the mark,” two apparently different takes on what goes wrong. Jesus’ parable here follows the biblical version of sin as debt, the incurring of delayed obligation by failing to reciprocate. The debt in the parable is forgiven and the beneficiaries love the benefactor proportionately.
By now you see why this passage could take a lifetime to digest, because here we must leave the fascinating subject of sin as debt and sin as missing the mark, and turn to the story of the woman who loved much and so received grace and the religious expert who loved little and so shut himself off from grace; that is, the story of how naked need attracts grace and religious self-sufficiency repels it; that is, the demonstration of religion as a resistance to God. The parable of the two debtors is the key to the meaning of the story; the story in turn, is not simply a fiction invented to make this point but the account of an actual incident in the life of Jesus. We see in real life the difference between graciousness and boorishness, forgiveness and accusation, love and fear in its guise of arrogance and contempt.
Simon the Pharisee is unspeakably rude. He has his slaves extend the normal courtesy of foot washing to his other guests, but not to Jesus. Imagine how you would feel if you arrived at a dinner party to which you had been invited and were singled out as the only one not offered a preprandial drink, or access to the munchies. Simon delivers a clear and public insult to Jesus. Foot washing, and the rubbing of sweet smelling ointment into the feet is hugely important in a society where most people walked, on dusty, unpaved surfaces, many in sandals, some in smelly shoes, and where they reclined at meals on the side with the feet stretched out behind. It would be an embarrassment to be there with unwashed feet. Simon snubs Jesus and then puts him in this embarrassing situation. This kind of psychic cruelty is the unkindest of all, as any good novelist will show you. Why we ask does the religious man inflict it on Jesus?
Simon is a religious person, and my experience tells me that it is his religiousness that makes him cruel. He feels that his orthodoxy and rectitude entitles, nay, compels, him to be dismissive of an unauthorized teacher like Jesus. So it turns out that the invitation was a set-up to humiliate Jesus. The hometown whore saves the occasion and turns an ugly scene into one of immortal beauty and exaltation. It took a whore to bring love into a loveless religious home.
The occasion was probably a conventional event at that time. The meals of the wise were open to the public to come into the room and sit on the floor against the walls to listen to the conversation. That explains the phrase, “to sit at the feet of the wise.” Against the wall one was literally there at the reclining feet, all washed and anointed, except for Jesus. The hometown whore was there and when she saw how they treated Jesus she wept, and wept, and on her knees crawled to him and caressed those neglected feet, pouring out her tears of love and grief, smudging her face with their dust, ignoring the smell. All Simon could say was: “What kind of a prophet is this who cannot even tell that the one loving his feet is a whore?” To which Jesus, overhearing, (much of the communication of religious slander has to be overheard because it is seldom open and honest) answers: “Simon, you insulted me, you ridiculed me, in your own house where even the laws of minimum hospitality forbid it; she is trying to make up for your meanness in the only way she knows how, with her own body. You would not give me a slave, she is giving me herself; and this shows that her sins, which are many, are forgiven. So the point is not that she is a whore, it is that you are a boor; when you recognize that and find forgiveness, then you too will be able to weep and to love, and thus embrace God in his real presence.”
Notes for a novel: A whore’s trade depends on the absence of love; on the separation of love from sex; the death of love and its language. Whores don’t make love they have sex; they are sex workers not lovers. See the irony? The structurally loveless one becomes the exemplar of love, while the presumably loving one is the exemplar of fear. Why does she take pity on humiliated Jesus? Because she has been in that position so many times; her life is defined as humiliation. Or, she may have propositioned him on his way to Simon’s party and he, in refusing her, looked at her, touched her, and she felt love for the very first time. She went home to get her most treasured possession, a phial of perfume, and returned to hang out against the wall, putting up with the curses of the men around her whom she knew too intimately for their comfort, a nest of hypocrisy. The love Jesus gave her when he touched her overflows and she crawls to touch him, and he accepts her touch and lets her fondle his feet, and the men whom she probably had fondled more intimately and often are indignant and a whole sewer load of hypocrisy begins to flow and Jesus says she is the best one in the house, the only honest person there, and the only one forgiven.
Her love shows this, her physical demonstration of love. Does the forgiveness come first, and then the love? I think the love and forgiveness are the same thing: forgiveness is the restoration of the ability to love, which takes the form of actual loving acts. For a whore that had to be a mighty miracle, for a Pharisees an even mightier one.
“You faith has a saved you,” says Jesus, in a phrase characteristic of Luke. Her faith is first, to accept the love of Jesus, when he looks on her, touches her, as he declines her services, and then to touch him back, cherishingly, probably for the first time in her life, a truly loving physical act. This is faith and this is forgiveness, and this is the love that is divine, and this is one more indication of why the religious and political institutions of his day murdered him, and why we religious folk continue to do so. Jesus is too loving for us! May God forgive us and help us!