The Woman and the Pharisee and Me

Monday, April 29, 2913 — Week of 5 Easter

Catherine of Siena

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 962

Psalms 56, 57, [58] (morning) 64, 65 (evening)

Wisdom 9:1, 7-18

Colossians (3:18 – 4:1)2-18

Luke 7:36-50

You can feel the elitism in this gospel passage. A Pharisee has asked Jesus to his home for a meal. Maybe he is one of those liberal and tolerant Pharisees who is reaching out to the peasant rabbi Jesus. Jesus should feel himself honored to be invited to share the table with such a one. Some of the niceties are avoided — the elaborate greetings, washings and anointings that might be offered to a dignitary or leader. The Pharisee is investigating some of the stirring among the lower classes. There is rumor of a prophet among them. This Pharisee is not one who would dismiss such things out of arrogance. He is open to reaching out to the lower classes. He’s interested to hear what this unknown teacher of peasants has to say.

But there is a social embarrassment. A woman of the land, one of those who cannot follow the law because of her poverty and circumstance, comes off the street into the open courtyard and begins to make a scene. She behaves emotionally, weeping and washing Jesus’ feet with an extravagant demonstration. Such public displays of feeling are unseemly in this setting. No doubt, she is unclean. A real prophet should know that she is a sinner and should upbraid her and put her in her place. But Jesus seems to accept her presence and her actions.

It is an uncomfortable situation for the host. This woman should not be there. She is uninvited. She is not the kind of person who comes to this table. She is violating the social norms. She is befouling what he hoped would be a comfortable meal with this odd religious curiosity. The weeping, the anointing, the kissing and hair. It’s all just so inappropriate. Tacky.

But Jesus turns to the Pharisee and gently offers him a lesson. Jesus’ point: Those who know themselves to be forgiven much, love much. It is not a lesson that would come easily to the Pharisee. His whole life has been oriented around his intention that there be nothing that he might need forgiveness for. He has lived scrupulously, attentive to the large and small matters of the law. He is righteous. He knows that. He has earned that.

Jesus implies that this woman has something that the Pharisee lacks. Because she knows she has been given so much, forgiven so much, her heart bursts with grateful thanksgiving. She pours out her feelings with her extravagant demonstration of affection. We can see that she loves much. She knows how deep her need has been; she knows that Jesus gives her something powerful from God. She is overwhelmed with emotion and unashamed to express it. She has a freedom that the Pharisee lacks.

Sometimes I feel like this Pharisee. I live a pretty conventional, proper life. Sometimes I will see someone expressing their faith with demonstrable and extravagant public emotion, and I find I shrink from them. I like my proper, sedate, understated expressions of faith and devotion.

When I can shed my elitism I can see that these other passionate expressions are loving and true. They reveal an inhibition that I lack. They reveal a kind of forgiveness and love that I lack. They can reveal the presumption and arrogance that often infect those of us who make our religion our practice. We can be tempted to think that we have earned our place in God’s light. We can be tempted to think that we are better than those who appear less religious or less proper.

Jesus’ sympathies are more oriented toward the woman in this story. She has much to teach me.

Past Posts