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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Washing the Sacred Feet

Luke 7:36-50

(Lesson actually begins with reading Dana Parson’s column of January 22, 1997, from the Los Angeles Times). This column tells the story of a middle aged woman whose “stable relationship” (10 years) was destroyed by her boyfriend’s visit to, and ultimate affair with, a stripper. The intent is to paint a more accurate picture of the prostitute than is painted in the “Suzy Wong” mode of Hollywood today.

Follow with discussion on our reaction to the stripper. (Ignore the “woman got what she deserved for not being married.”) And then meet her Biblical counterpart.

(Luke 7:36-50 NIV) Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. {37} When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, {38} and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. {39} When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is--that she is a sinner." {40} Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. {41} "Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. {42} Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" {43} Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said. {44} Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. {45} You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. {46} You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. {47} Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." {48} Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." {49} The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" {50} Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

The Woman

The classic interpretation of this passage is based upon a misunderstanding. We need to understand that a prostitute in this time was often a widow, and that this was a means of surviving. Because of the misidentification of this woman with Mary Magdalene[1], sometimes also identified as Mary the sister of Lazarus, a sympathetic portrait of this woman is often given. This is more common today, for we are taught to approve of prostitution in a backhanded way. Cries of outrage are made that prostitutes are arrested more often than their customers. (Amazingly enough, no such outcry is given for drug pushers versus addicts). The reality of the situation is simple enough. This woman is not a woman forced into a life as society’s outcast -- she is a sinner by choice (like the rest of us). Her society rightly condemns her for what she is -- a woman who fractures homes by plying her “profession.”

And yet, we can see the reason for which she is esteemed today. There are two key characteristics to this woman which deserve mention:

·         Her faith. Christ tells her it has saved her, but we can see it easily in her actions. She believes that he can and will forgive her. Thus, she will go to any length to achieve this.

·         More than that is the repentance in humility. Every gesture this woman makes is one of humility, as understood in her culture. It is not too much to suspect that pride played its part in turning her to prostitution; now, it is gone.

Indeed, the actions are those of total humility. Washing the feet was always the task of the lowest servant[2] A woman kept her hair up in public; to lower it was shameful in public. To use it to wash a man’s feet was unthinkable. Tears are the sign of repentance. And finally, there is that perfume -- which we know from history to be extremely expensive (from the jar). It is said by some that the jar might represent a year’s wages for the average laborer -- which says a lot about the wages of prostitution, and the sincerity of her repentance.


Simon, on the other hand, suffers from a bad rap. He is not, in my view, the terrible hypocrite portrayed in so many accounts. Consider this:

·         Simon is obviously a rich man (the party is being held at his house). He is a Pharisee. If he was so self righteous, why wouldn’t he just ignore this man?

·         Note the phrase, “If he was a prophet...” Simon is wrong, of course, but it shows what he had been thinking. This man Jesus must be a prophet; to receive a prophet in your home is a good thing, a source of blessing.

In my opinion Simon is suffering from a common enough malady of the time: “class clash.” Think of it in our terms: suppose someone asked you to entertain (say, as an overnight guest) someone from Africa (we have such a woman in our class, of course). At the appointed hour someone shows up in tribal garb, spear in hand. Do you hand them a teacup and saucer, or not?

Think then what Simon must have had on his hand. The visiting rabbi, tefillim about his wrists and forehead, tassels on his robe, would have been a familiar guest. What is he to make of this rough carpenter with his country, Galilean accent?

The failing, however, is the result of leading the “balanced life” so coveted today. The incident shows his weaknesses:

·         First, he condemns sin -- but also the sinner. He knows right from wrong, but buckets people that way.

·         He does not recognize the worth of repentance. Repentance is nothing; “decency” (he would have used the word “righteousness”) is everything.

The question, then, comes to this: why?


It is an interesting question. If God appeared to you tonight and announced that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, proposed to visit you in the flesh -- for dinner, tomorrow night -- what would you do? What kind of welcome would you give him?

I suggest that the welcome would vary just as Christ has indicated here. His welcome would vary by forgiveness. But note Christ’s point:

·         forgiveness does not vary by how much you have sinned, but

·         by how much you have been forgiven.

And here we see the reason for the lukewarm Simon and the fervent woman. Simon sees himself as basically righteous. For such minor sins as he might have committed, he knows the appropriate Temple sacrifices. His sense of obligation for forgiveness, his relief at no longer being the guilty, is rather small. There are only three strategies for dealing with guilt:

·         the first is to deny its existence. I didn’t do it; my culture made it inevitable; it’s in my genes; right and wrong are all cultural (read: irrelevant) anyway.

·         the second is to deny that I have it: after all, I go to church, I tithe, etc. I’m righteous; it’s the rest of you that are guilty.

·         the right method? The prostitute has shown us that.

Note that this “right method” is based on two key characteristics of Jesus:

·         He has the authority to forgive us (as only God has).

·         He has the willingness to forgive us (as the Cross showed).

The Allegory and Interpretation

Most Christians today balk at the idea of the existence of allegory in the Bible. This comes from the argument with evolution, in which many liberal Christians said (of the record of Adam and Eve), “It’s just an allegory.” From this, many conservative Christians concluded that “allegory” was just a code word for “myth.” To them this was a rejection of the inspiration of the Scriptures.[3] There is, however, allegory in the Scripture. Adam and Eve’s account is allegory if nothing else; Hosea certainly is; Paul clearly uses this method to interpret the Old Testament in Galatians 4:21-31. Until the twentieth century, a passage of Scripture was not considered fully understood until the allegorical interpretation was made. You didn’t know the full story until you understood the creative artist’s (allegorical) view.

The allegory here is in three parts:

Washing- washing is always symbolic of cleansing and purifying. Men naturally desire to see God, and to see him is to see Him in purity. As Abraham washed the Lord’s feet[4] so the disciple must serve the Lord in pure heart.

Anointing- this is symbolic of honor being given. Prophets, priests and kings were anointed in the Old Testament; Jesus is all three. We must honor Christ in our lives, for he is prophet (holding the future), priest (going between us and God the Father) and king (and coming again!)

Breaking- the alabaster jar, cut out of a single stalactite, symbolizes the human heart. Until it is broken at the feet of Jesus, repentance is not real and forgiveness is not come.


·         How is it that Simon never attracted repentance, but Jesus did?

·         How can we, the church, the body of Christ, attract such repentance?

·         How can we, as Christians, show such repentance?

·         Are those last two questions really different?

Thomas à Kempis put it this way:


To You, O Lord, humble sorrow for sins is an acceptable sacrifice, a sacrifice far sweeter than the perfume of incense. This is also the pleasing ointment which You would have poured upon Your sacred feet, for a contrite and humble heart You have never despised. Here is a place of refuge from the force of the enemy’s anger. Here is amended and washed away whatever defilement has been contracted elsewhere.

[1] My computer Bible has a footnote thus: Many have supposed that this person was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Lazarus. But there is no indication in the gospel history, that Mary Magdalene was the sister of Lazarus; but on the contrary, it would appear that they were perfectly distinct persons, the sister of Lazarus residing at Bethany, while Mary Magdalene appears to have resided at Magdala, east of Jordan, a distance of nearly ninety miles. Add to this, that our Saviour seems to have been now in or near Nain, not at Bethany; and the woman appears from the recital to have been previously unknown to him.

[2] See Christ’s actions at the Last Supper for the true place of the Servant.

[3] But see C. S. Lewis’ view of “myth become fact” for a view which upholds inspiration and the mythic characteristics of the allegory.

[4] Genesis 18:1-4

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