An Irishman moves into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walks into the pub and promptly orders three beers. The bartender raises his eyebrows, but serves the man three beers, which he drinks quietly at a table, alone. The next evening the man again orders and drinks three beers at a time, several times. Soon the entire town is whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers. Finally, a week later, the bartender approached the subject on behalf of the town. “I don’t mean to pry, but folks around here are wondering why you always order three beers?”
“‘Tis odd, isn’t it?” the man replies, “You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America, and the other to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order an extra two beers whenever we drank as a way of keeping up the family bond.”
The bartender and the whole town was pleased with this answer, and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet, even to the extent that out-of-towners would come to watch him drink. Then, one day, the man comes in and orders only two beers. The bartender pours them with a heavy heart. This continues for the rest of the evening: he orders only two beers. The word flies around town. Prayers are offered for the soul of one of the brothers.
The next day, the bartender says to the man, “Folks around here, me first of all, want to offer condolences to you for the death of your brother. You know – the two beers and all…”
The man ponders this for a moment, then replies, “You’ll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well. It’s just that I, myself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
Lent, that period of the church year that calls us to self-denial and careful introspection – the realization of our own sinfulness before a Holy God. It is a reminder of the incredible Calvary sacrifice that was made on our behalf. We are sinful people, whether we like to remember that or not, and Lent brings the fact into focus.
The woman who washed Jesus’ feet was a sinful person. Her name is not given. We know next to nothing about her. The Bible says only that she was a woman of the city…a sinner.
Even though the Gospels introduce many men and women who met and talked to Jesus, who through him found healing and forgiveness, few are identified by the word “sinner.” But this woman was a special case. She had a reputation. Simon the Pharisee was offended by her appearance in his house and by the scene she made, and Jesus himself described her as a woman of many sins.
The word “sinner” is a generic term that does not specify what kind of sin the guilty one committed. Tradition however, has characterized this woman as a lady of loose morals, probably a prostitute. Here, as is so often the case, a woman’s unconventional sexual behavior earns her the contempt of her neighbors.
Never mind that we know nothing of her background that might help explain her behavior. She might have been abused or emotionally crippled as a child; she might have sold herself as the only way to provide for herself or her family. And never mind that nowhere in the Bible does a man’s socially unacceptable sexual antics earn for him the designation of “sinner.” Never mind society’s double standard, which sneers at such a woman, whose sin is mostly against herself. Never mind that this woman was neither important nor wealthy enough, not enough of a celebrity to make her sexual improprieties glamorous. She was a sinner, the kind of woman we would not want to invite to our homes and who, if she came uninvited, would make us as uncomfortable as she did Simon the Pharisee – especially when she proceeded to make such a spectacle of herself.
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In that culture people dined in a semi-reclining position. Picture the scene with Jesus lying on his side at the table, since the text tells us the woman was standing behind him at his feet. She was weeping; her tears fell on Jesus’ feet. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. Shocking behavior! But what shocked folks even more was the reaction of the rabbi from Nazareth. He did not recoil in horror, although it was a grave breach of etiquette for a woman even to greet a strange man in public, to even talk to him. To touch a man was much worse, and to touch him in this intimate way was simply unthinkable.
Why did the woman put herself through all this? Surely she knew that her appearance would scandalize the host and his guests. She not only risked being thrown out of the house or possibly arrested, but risked the one thing that would have crushed her completely – the rejection of Jesus. She was used to the sneers of the Pharisees and the others. She could handle that. But could she have coped with having Jesus turn away from her?
We overlook her risk because we know the story. And we are aware of Jesus’ great compassion for those who suffer in body and in spirit. We have known about the love of Jesus ever since we were children. But this woman did not know all that. With only her intuition and a great hope to go on, she risked everything in an act of desperation, penitence and love.
Nearly everyone else who came to Jesus knew exactly what he or she wanted and asked for it – sight for blind eyes, hearing for deaf ears, healing for an illness. But this woman? She asked for nothing. She had nothing to gain by her display of affection. She came not to receive but to give. Not only is she one of the most courageous people in the Bible, she is one of the most unselfish. Poor as she must have been, she had purchased an alabaster flask of expensive ointment. No doubt it represented months of saving from what many would regard as her “ill-gotten gains.” She brought it as a love offering, poured it on the feet of this man who did not even know her name. We do not know why she did it. We know only that Jesus did not pull away from her. He did not turn cold eyes on her. He did not condemn her. Instead he used her bold action to teach his host a lesson about forgiveness.
It may be that the woman who washed Jesus’ feet had seen him showing love to the “unlovely” people around him. It may be that this love opened her up, for the first time, to the possibility of forgiving herself. That made her risk everything. And so Jesus says of her, “Her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much.” But that was not the end of it. Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” That word of blessing is possible for each of us as well. Hear it again as you come to the table. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Copyright 2006, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.