The Gospel for this Sunday is a passage about gratitude and the hospitality that comes from it; about debt and the release of all debts. It is a profound study in vulnerability and knowing the truth about our selves and about God.
A pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to dinner. Simon doesn’t know that he’s in debt. He enters the scene as someone confident that he is not a sinner. A "woman who was in the city" is introduced. She is identified as a "sinner." The woman appears suddenly in the home--her actual entrance is not mentioned--and she is carrying an alabaster box containing perfume. The woman's intrusion provokes a religious and social crisis.
She has just barged into the home of a pharisee, yet that pharisee will consider her impure and unclean. Her presence contaminates the gathering. She clearly has crossed a significant social and religious boundary. From his point of view, she does not belong here.and he is wondering how Jesus could not immediately know that this woman was someone who owes a debt to God and to society.
The crowds at Nain had already hailed Jesus as a "great prophet" (7:16), but Simon is not impressed. He thinks to himself that Jesus can't be much of a prophet if he doesn't know certain things about certain people, such as whether or not they are sinners. Sin has always been close corollary of debt. As the anthropologist David Graeber has written: “In Hebrew, and Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word.
Jesus addresses Simon by name. This is because Jesus will soon make the point that the woman before them is not a category of person, but an actual human being. As the woman is a human being and deserving of dignity, so is Simon. Jesus will address him, respectfully and personally, by name.
Simon’s response is encouraging--"Teacher, speak." He appears open. Jesus then tells what is often called the "parable of the two debtors."
Then, Jesus asks which of the debtors will love the moneylender more. The question shifts from debt to love. Simon is being asked to view the woman not in terms of her "deficiencies" but rather in terms of her "capacities." Simon responds tentatively, but accurately, "I suppose whomever he graced the most."
The story reaches its dramatic turning point--literally. Jesus "turned to the woman and was speaking to Simon." Imagine that. Jesus was "reclined," which means they were sitting at a low table with their feet spread out behind and to the right. Jesus "turned to the woman"--that is, behind and to his right--and "was speaking to Simon," who was probably to his left.
"Do you see this woman?" Jesus posture reflects his attitude. He sees the woman, but Simon does not. Jesus sees a human being--moreover, one in loving action--while Simon sees only a category of person, a "sinner," who renders others "unclean."
In our reading Luke tells us that the woman’s hair was undone—this was a social symbol that could mean a number of things from mourning to petition, but all of them are tied to vulnerability. In her tears and in her undone hair this woman is showing her self to be fully aware that she owes and whom it is that she owes.
The Pharisee Simon, on the other hand, sees no such debt for himself. He is confident that he’s done it all right; kept his religious savings accounts full and isn’t in need of any help. He’s not unlike the myth of the self-made man; having pulled himself up by his bootstraps (or perhaps in this case, his fringes). He is forgetful of hospitality because he doesn’t think he needs anything from Jesus.
So it is that Jesus offers his metaphor of debtors—a metaphor that places Simon on the side of sinners. Jesus is rhetorically kind enough to let Simon off with being the lesser debtor, but Jesus is telling him that he is a debtor all the same.
It is the woman; vulnerable in her owing that is then offered an entrance into the forgiveness that Jesus has come to proclaim. Jesus has come to set the captive free and forgive those who are in debt so that they can be restored to the gift of life. Now set free, she is filled with gratitude to the one who has freed her, the one to whom she owes her freedom. This is the life of grace.
The poet prophet Wendell Berry has written: “we must live the given life in the given world.” By this he means that our must fundamental understanding of the creation and ourselves is that all is gift. As gift the world is not our own and our lives are not our own, their goodness and value are not made by any economy we can create. Instead these gifts must be accepted with gratitude and used with the care that is born of our obligation as ones who owe everything to God.
To live into this truth we must be vulnerable, immersed in a truthful understanding of ourselves as ones who owe. Like the woman we must see that we are forgiven a great debt when we accept the gift of life. If we fail to do this then we will be like Simon. We will think that we did it on our own, that we don’t need forgiveness because we don’t owe anything.
When we imagine ourselves in this way we inevitably do violence to the world. It is by a false accounting of our obligations and gifts that we continue in the path of devastation.
Let us instead be like the woman Jesus praises. Let us be clear about all we owe. Let us unbind our hair, be embarrassingly open about our neediness, and revel in gratitude for the forgiveness God offers each of us in Christ.