Jesus, a Pharisee, and a repentant woman

June 12, 2016


2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13    Nathan calls out King David

Psalm 32:1-2, 5, 7, 11    Lord, forgive the wrong I have done.

Galatians 2:16, 19-21    Justification a grace, not an achievement

Luke 7:36—8:3   Jesus, a Pharisee, and a repentant woman

scale woman tearsRepentance is a primary theme in Luke’s Gospel. Not only does he mention it frequently, but he gives us a selection of characters who represent the salutary practice of repenting. Among them are the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Zacchaeus who climbed the tree (19:1-10), the Good Thief (23:40-43), and the woman in today’s gospel story. Also, we can include Peter, who in this gospel, after the miraculous catch of fish, called out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (5:8). One is reminded of his current successor, Pope Francis, who upon being elected was asked about himself. “I am a sinner,” he said, to universal surprise. So part of our interest today is to find out about this theme.

The repentant woman of today’s gospel reading turns out not to be Mary Magdalene, as popular piety has assumed. This is clear enough, since in the longer reading for today we also meet Mary (8:2). It turns out she is one of the socialites that help to support Jesus’ ministry, along with many others “who provided for them out of their resources.” This makes sense, since the name “Magdalene,” means “from Magdala,” a town on the shore of Lake Galilee. Only persons of some consequence are likely to be identified in this manner, and not public sinners, as the repentant woman seems to be. Mary Magdalene, of course, is most famous in the gospels for being the first witness to the empty tomb.

It is worthwhile noticing that the repentant woman is not the only person interacting with Jesus in the story. The entire episode takes place at the house of someone called Simon the Pharisee. In fact, most of the dialogue takes place between Jesus and Simon. In the story, the Pharisee and the woman are placed in contrast. This resonates with a common pattern in Luke. Often we see and hear about the contrast between sinners and tax collectors, on the one hand, and Pharisees and experts in the law, on the other. (See, for instance, just previous, Luke 7:29-30.)

Jesus is invited to the Pharisee’s house for a dinner. In the course of the exchange, we discover that Simon has not extended the conventional courtesies to Jesus—the greeting kiss, washing feet dusty from wearing sandals, and anointing the guest’s head. All of these omissions were remedied by the repentant woman. She who is supposedly shameless honors the guest, whereas the host failed to do so. One wonders why. Did he invite Jesus as entertainment for his other guests?

The parable Jesus places the entire episode in the categories of love and forgiveness. Those who view themselves as virtuous are less likely to seek forgiveness. Those who recognize their own sinfulness have less illusion about their need, especially when society is eager to point out their failings.

The contrast between the two figures is dramatic. Simon, a public figure of rectitude in Jewish society, honoring the law in its details, is capable of denying Jesus the respect due any Israelite, not only Jesus. The woman, a public sinner, is capable of acting out of love, and remedies the lack. We cannot help but think of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

Luke shows Jesus asking repentance of everyone, and not only the obvious sinner. Today Paul provides his own rationale. Justification—that is, right standing before God—is not something we achieve for ourselves by meticulous observance of the laws of right conduct. It is a grace, a gift of God. It is a relationship won for us by the saving work of Christ.

For reflection: What did Pope Francis mean when he said he is a sinner?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.

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