Our gospel today is a story of vivid and illuminating contrasts. In this remarkable scene we see two very different people who respond to Jesus in very different ways. First, there is a Pharisee named Simon who invited Jesus to dinner. Then there is a woman. We never learn her name. All the gospel tells us is that she was “known in the town to be a sinner,” a description that has led many scripture scholars to conclude that if she wasn’t a prostitute, she was certainly sexually promiscuous. The woman obviously was not invited to the dinner, but nothing—not even the whispered comments and disapproving stares of the guests—will keep her from getting to Jesus; in fact, her desire to be in the presence of Jesus is so strong it’s as if nobody else is there. Down on her knees before Jesus, she begins to cry. She uses those tears to wash his feet and her hair to dry them. She then kisses Jesus’ feet and massages them with oil. The woman does all this with such focused determination it’s as if she had rehearsed the scene in her mind many times before. In the presence of Christ she opens her heart, repents of her sins, and performs exquisite acts of contrition and love.
Simon sees it all quite differently. Instead of being moved by the woman’s actions, he arrogantly assumes she could never be more than the sinner she has always been. As far as he is concerned, she can never be forgiven, she can never be free. But Simon not only judges the woman, he also judges Jesus. He denounces Jesus as a religious impostor because anyone truly of God would never allow himself to be touched by such a notorious sinner. Thus, before the end of the evening, Simon looks down both on the repentant woman and Jesus who forgave her. Both fall short in his eyes.
The problem is not with Jesus or the woman, but with Simon’s seeing. Pride had so twisted his vision that he completely missed what was happening before his eyes. But that’s the way it goes when we are so busy judging that we never have time to love.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family.