One day Jesus was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, but when Jesus arrived at Simon’s home, the common courtesies that were normally extended to a guest were omitted.
Normally, when a guest arrived at a home, the host would greet the guest by placing both hands on the guest’s shoulders, then kissing him on both cheeks. If the guest was a Rabbi, all the family members would wait at the door and kiss his hands as he came in. But with Jesus, this was omitted.
The roads of that day were dusty tracks. The shoes were merely soles held in place by straps across the foot. Cool water was normally provided for the guest, to wash and refresh his feet. To neglect such water for the washing of one’s feet would be to imply that the guest was a person of very inferior rank. For Jesus, the water to wash his feet was neglected.
With the omission of these common courtesies, the message becomes clear: Jesus has not been invited to Simon’s home as a guest but as a curiosity. He is there so that Simon and his Pharisee friends can scrutinize Jesus, to figure out whether he really is from God.
They recline at the table, eating the meal, engaging in deep theological debate, when suddenly a prime opportunity to scrutinize Jesus presents itself. A woman with a reputation in that town as “a sinner”—a woman whom the Pharisees would never have invited within spitting distance of their dinner—enters Simon’s house. Standing behind Jesus, in the home of a Pharisee, her emotions catch up with her. She is suddenly paralyzed. She just stands there. As she does so, her tears begin to fall. And oh how they fall! She blubbers all over Jesus’ feet. Feeling bad about the mess she has caused, she falls upon her knees to dry Jesus’ feet with her hair. Thought it was considered highly improper and immodest for a Jewish woman to unloose her hair in public, she wants to clean up the mess she has made of Jesus’ feet from her tears and from the dripping of her runny nose. Then she breaks open an alabaster jar of ointment, filling the room with the sweet smell. All the while, she continues soaking Jesus’ feet with her tears, rubbing the ointment into his feet with her hands, drying his feet with her hair, and covering his feet with kisses.
How sloppy! How embarrassing! But how genuine!
The Pharisees became convinced that their scrutiny of Jesus had been answered: If he were a legitimate prophet, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Luke 7:39).
The Pharisees were concerned with propriety, and what Jesus was allowing this woman to do was not proper! Pharisees were upright and proud people—proud of their propriety and goodness. C.S. Lewis, though, points our attention to the danger of pride: “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (Mere Christianity, p. 111)
Something other than pride is motivating this woman. Victor Hugo once remarked, “The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.” That’s what brought this woman to Jesus. That’s what overwhelmed her with emotion. That’s what prompted her sloppy, embarrassing, genuine display of gratitude!
Jesus looks beyond the sloppiness and the impropriety; he delights in the love and gratitude that motivated her. He tells a parable about everyone’s need for forgiveness, then he says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Ann Kiemel tells a similar story of a boy who wanted to express his love to his grandfather: “Grandfather was in the backyard, and it was midmorning. His small grandson kept begging him, ‘Gramps, can I fix you a hamburger?’
“‘No, honey, gramps is full. He just had breakfast.’
“‘Hmmm. Can I fix you a hot dog?’
“‘I don’t think a hot dog would mix well with the eggs inside.’
“The child tugged on his grandfather’s arms, and burst into an enormous smile. ‘I know, Gramps . . . a glass of water?’
“Grandfather looked into the dirt-smeared face. He wasn’t thirsty, but he could see the boy’s desire to do something special for the man he most admired. ‘Yep, I think Gramps could use a drink.’
“The child ran into the kitchen. He happened to pick up a dirty glass from the sink instead of a clean one. He turned on the hot water tap, instead of the cold. As he ran out the door with the water, the mud from his hands smeared over the outside of the glass, dribbled inside, and clouded the hot water. ‘Here you are, Gramps.’ (Oh, his enthusiasm.)
“Gramps looked at the awful glass of water, and caught the sparkle in the small face. He drank it all, and wrapped his arms around the lad. ‘You know, that was the best glass of water Gramps ever had.’” (I Love the Word ‘Impossible,’ pp. 92-93)
What God delights in is not our propriety, but the genuineness of our love and gratitude.