Here’s a narrative sermon from 2010–the last time Luke 7:36-8:3 came up in the lectionary.
I knew exactly how she felt—this woman at Jesus’ feet. She felt free—free to love and be loved; free to care and be cared for. She felt the same way we all did—all we women disciples of Jesus.
Women did not have much freedom in our tradition—in our customs and laws. We could not choose who to marry. We could not choose what household we belonged to—that was chosen by birth and by marriage arrangements. We could not choose to get a divorce or prevent our husbands from divorcing us. We could not choose to have children or not have children. We could not choose our own livelihood—we were bound by the livelihoods of our husbands and fathers—bound to work with and for them. We could not choose to attend school or study as an apprentice or a disciple.
But we could choose what to think and how to think. We could choose to love. Some of us valued that inner freedom, even if our husbands or fathers never recognized it. It would have frightened many of them. But not Jesus. Jesus knew our hearts and knew our minds and rejoiced at the small measures of freedom we cultivated in our lives. And through his joy, we began to discover new freedom.
It started with the women who were outcasts—women who were shunned by their families—women who had no household to protect them, and no heads of house to take offense if they left. These women were the first to start following Jesus—choosing to be in his household.
Women choosing where they belong! It was a brazen move, but instead rebuking these women for disgracing him with their presence, Jesus welcomed them. He let strangers assume that all these women in his traveling band were sisters or wives or aunts, but we knew the truth. He did not treat us like sisters or wives or aunts—women who were only worth providing for because of the useful purpose they served in the household. No. Jesus treated us like disciples—he taught us and welcomed us into conversations with the men. He even accepted our help when we had resources or skills that could serve his movement. We became benefactors and not just beneficiaries.
So, I knew how she felt—this strange woman who stole her way into our midst at Simon’s house. I knew what it meant for her to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. I knew what it meant for her to spread ointment on his feet. I knew it meant freedom. Freedom to choose who to honor—freedom to choose who to love. So many of us knew women whose husbands expected them to wash and anoint their feet out of wifely duty. It was expected—assumed—it was the wife’s job and she had no choice in the matter.
But here, this woman discovered that with Jesus she had freedom. She had freedom to extend this care as an act of love and gratitude instead of obligation. She had freedom to choose who to love—choose who to serve—choose who to follow, no matter how many Pharisees it shocked.
And it did shock the Pharisees. They value duty and propriety so highly that it always surprises them when Jesus brushes those away in favor of freedom and grace.
Jesus knew, as we all did, that our host found this woman and her public display of affection distasteful. The Pharisee Simon seemed disappointed that Jesus did not send her away in disgrace. I could almost hear him thinking: “What kind of prophet would mistake this woman for a servant from my household—the only person who should be washing his feet in this circumstance? How is it that Jesus is letting this public disgrace of a woman touch him and make such a scene?”
Jesus, who knows our hearts and minds, knew Simon’s, too. He told a story about two debtors who both had debts forgiven, but it was for radically different amounts. The one who had the equivalent of one day’s groceries forgiven could practically ignore the generosity, but the one who owed so much that it would have taken a lifetime to repay—well, that debtor was rightfully overwhelmed by the life-changing act of forgiveness.
Simon understood the story, but he didn’t understand the implications until Jesus spelled them out for him: “Simon—we are here in your own home, but you did not extend this kind of hospitality to me, even out of duty, or social propriety. Instead, this woman has lavished affection and comfort on me out of the nothing but her choice. I know which debtor she is—she is the grateful one whose life is changed. Who are you in that story, Simon?”
Simon looked stunned, and he stammered, trying to find an appropriate reply. Meanwhile some of his other guests tried to cover up his disgrace by pointing their fingers back at Jesus—“Who does he think he is? Is he claiming to forgive sins?” But Jesus ignored them all and gave the woman a dignified farewell: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Where Simon and his friends saw only sin that brought disgrace in this woman’s past, Jesus saw faith that brought freedom, salvation, liberty for her future.
I knew how that woman felt. I knew what it meant to discover that freedom is possible if you just put your faith in the right person. I knew the joy of choosing who to honor and who to follow. I knew how she felt, because I also knew Jesus—that unpredictable, unorthodox, improper man who understands that what we need is freedom, not duty, not obligation, not rules of conduct. No. Those harden our hearts and dull our thinking. What we need—what we all need and what Jesus offers us all is grace to leave the mistakes of the past and walk into the future in freedom.