Perfume Poured Out

Preacher: Marilyn Stahl

Scripture: Luke 7:36-8:3

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”


Startle us, O God, with your truth,
and open our hearts to your Spirit,
that we may be one with Christ our Lord,
and serve as faithful disciples,
through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

Opening Story

There are times when a question posed to us stops us in our tracks.  When we have to pause before responding, because an honest answer would reveal a truth about ourselves that we would rather not admit.  

I experienced a situation like that a few years ago while serving as a pastoral intern at a Catholic parish.   This was the first of two field education experiences I was required to do as part of my ministry formation.  Students work in their own denomination for the second internship.  But for the first ministry experience, we were encouraged to stretch ourselves in some way; to find a placement that offered a totally new and different environment, one that would give us a new understanding of what it means to be the church.   I chose to immerse myself in the ancient patterns of the Christian liturgy.

Of course, as a Mennonite serving in a Catholic context, people asked me a lot of questions about what Mennonites believe.  The priest there especially liked to ask me about our Mennonite perspectives on issues arising from pastoral situations that came up during the time we worked together.  Usually, I did not find it too difficult to offer a concise summary of Mennonite thought. 

Then one day, the shooting in a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community at West Nickel Mines happened.  A gunman shot 10 little girls, killing five.  The entire nation gasped at the crime inflicted on innocent children.  But soon, what also caught everyone’s attention was the way the Amish responded to the violence.  Parents grieving the loss of their children did not call for revenge.  Instead, gestures of kindness were immediately offered to the murderer’s wife, including financial assistance.  Within a week, literally thousands of stories about forgiveness were circulating in the news media.

Forgiveness became the news.

“If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven,” an Amish spokesperson explained. “It is the start, not the end of a long emotional process.”  Another article noted that the Amish came through “not just as individuals, but as a community.” 

So, inevitably, at my internship, the question was posed to me:  “What is the Mennonite theology of forgiveness?  Do you practice forgiveness like the Amish?”

How would you have answered? 

Reflection on the Gospel

The woman in today’s gospel knows something profound about the liberating power of forgiveness.  Through her encounter with Jesus, she also learned a profound truth about herself – that God radically and completely loves sinners.  She acts in faith that God is love, and pours out love into the created world.

This is our second story of table fellowship in the Gospel of Luke.  You will recall that last Sunday, the Pharisees were shocked and outraged when Jesus ate with Levi, a tax collector.  At Jesus’ call, Levi had gotten up, left everything, and followed.  But the Pharisees scolded him:  “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Earlier they had challenged Jesus: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 

Jesus did not really explain it to them.  Instead, he spoke of the sick needing a doctor, of the bridegroom being with the children of the wedding feast, of new cloth, and new wine.

Given the storm that was already brewing between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is a little surprising that today, in Luke’s second meal scene, the invitation to dine actually comes from a Pharisee.

What could he possibly have been thinking?   We can only guess at his motives.  Perhaps he had heard of the amazing event that happened at the Jordan River, where all the people were being baptized.  At Jesus’ baptism, while he was praying, heaven opened: “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

Or, maybe this Pharisee had heard Jesus stand up and announce in the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

Maybe the Pharisee wanted to find out for himself whether Jesus really was a prophet.

Many of you have a much more in-depth knowledge than I do about who the Pharisees were, including the power dynamics between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.   And we can talk more about this in the Adult Study hour following worship.  In my research this week, I discovered that a key text for the Pharisees’ view of the Messiah was this:

 “At his rebuke nations shall flee before him,
 and he shall reprove sinners
 for the thoughts of their heart.”

The Pharisees expected the Messiah to be the son of David and king of Israel, who would overthrow the gentile nations and drive out sinners, ultimately restoring temple worship in the capital city of Jerusalem. 
So although the Pharisee in today’s story invites Jesus to a meal, it is likely that the invitation is not simply a gesture of hospitality and welcome.  It seems to be an invitation with a catch, with the intent to trap and discredit, to expose Jesus as the fraud  that the Pharisee probably suspects that Jesus may be. 

Indeed, when Jesus enters his house, the Pharisee does not extend even the most basic gestures of hospitality.   Every culture has ways of expressing welcome that are understood by everyone.  In Mediterranean culture at that time, the basic gestures of hospitality were a kiss of greeting, the offering of water and olive oil to the guests to wash their hands and feet, then, after grace was said, the guests would recline on coaches for the meal.

The Pharisee offers Jesus none of these gestures of true hospitality.  The Pharisee is rude and insulting to his guest, creating an atmosphere of tension, rather than welcome.  But Jesus does not get angry at the lack of hospitality.  Instead, he reclines at table.

Then, the unimaginable happens.  A woman brings an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment.  She places herself – weeping – at Jesus’ feet.  She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with the perfume.  It is a lavish outpouring of tears, love and perfume!  We can almost smell the fragrance of the ointment beginning to mingle with the aroma of the meal about to be served.

Without saying a word, the woman’s gestures speak volumes.  Like the voice of God at his baptism, she announces that Jesus is “the Beloved.”  Letting down her hair as a Middle Eastern bride on her wedding night, she affirms Jesus as the Bridegroom.  “Your name is perfume poured out,” her actions declare, alluding to the Song of Songs.  You are the Messiah.  And yes, the ointment also speaks of death.

The Pharisee sees these beautiful truths being revealed right in front of him, yet he does not understand.  He is shocked and scandalized.  “If Jesus were a prophet,” he reasons to himself, “he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

I do wonder, sometimes, whether Jesus – when confronted with these two people, who embody such radically different understandings of what the reign of God is like – was at all tempted to side with the mean-spirited and judgmental Pharisee rather than the loving and thankful woman.  Did Jesus think to himself, should I establish an intimate, foot washing community, or a rule-based structure?  Jesus’ ultimate choice is clear.

Turning the tables on the Pharisee, Jesus treats him as a sinner, and rebukes him for the thoughts of his heart.  “Simon,” Jesus says, “I have something to say to you.”

And here, at last, we get to the little gem of a parable at the center of this drama.   The reign of God is like this.  There were two debtors.  One was forgiven much and the other was forgiven little.  Even Simon the Pharisee could see that the one who was forgiven much would be more grateful and would love the creditor more.

Then Jesus directs Simon’s attention to the woman.  “Do you see this woman?”  Jesus reviews all the acts of hospitality that Simon neglected, but that the woman fulfilled extravagantly:  He did not give Jesus water for his feet, but she washed them with her tears.  He did not give Jesus a kiss, but she did not cease kissing his feet since the time Jesus entered.  He did not anoint Jesus’ head, but she anointed his feet.  Like the debtor with the larger debt, her many sins were forgiven and she showed great love.

“Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus reassures the woman.  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke does not record what the woman’s great sin was.  It is often assumed that she was a prostitute. But perhaps Luke is making a theological point by not naming her sin.  Luke shows us a God who remembers none of our sins, and calls us so to forgive each other.

At the same time, the gospel text may be asking us to at least consider the possibility that, like Levi the tax collector, the woman’s sin centered on her attachment to material possessions.  The first clue is the alabaster jar of ointment, a symbol of wealth, which she pours out at the feet of Jesus.  Indeed, when this story is recorded in the other gospels, the controversy is that money from selling the ointment could have been used to help the poor. 

The second clue is what happens after the dinner scene is over.  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others accompany Jesus as he journeys from one village to another.  They use their resources to support his work preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

This week, the earthquake in Haiti has focused the world’s attention on the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.  At last, we see its poverty.  We weep with the people of Haiti for the loss of lives resulting from this natural disaster, and are thankful that Kurt is safe and offering trauma care to people in need there.  We pray the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to forgive us our sins, as we forgive our debtors.  How will we pour out the ointment today?  How can forgiveness become the news?

Mk. 14:9
Book of Common Worship
Lk. 3:21-22
Lk. 4:38
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible
K. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008)