Simon seems to have this same understanding of the holiness of God. If Jesus was a prophet, in other words if Jesus had access to the perspective of God's holiness, he would never tolerate this woman's presence, let alone touch. She's a sinner. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to delight in keeping company with sinful humans. This mystifies us. How could this be? His parable provides a beginning. It is forgiveness, not sinlessness, that opens the door to fellowship with Jesus. The woman's desire to be with Jesus is driven by the sense she has that she is acceptable to Jesus. As far as we read, she pays zero attention to Simon the Pharisee, though he is a powerful, upstanding member of the community. She is not currying favor or looking to advance her own cause. She is a grateful heart desiring the fellowship into which being forgiven has ushered her.
We must constantly be on guard against making Jesus and his message about sin management. Simon seems to be operating from the assumption that the less sin you commit the better. Most of us would agree with that, but Jesus seems to contradict it. If loving much is the goal, then being forgiven much seems to be the pathway toward that goal.
Be careful here. This hairline we are trying to walk is precisely why Paul, at the beginning of Romans 6, has to put out a disclaimer: "Shall we continue in sin so that God's grace may abound? By no means!" The issue is not that we should make sure we are sinful enough. Rather, the issue is that we should make sure we recognize the depth of our own depravity. The trouble with Simon is that he doesn't know his own sinfulness, and so he doesn't recognize the magnitude of his own forgiveness, so he doesn't throw himself at Jesus' feet. Our churches are full of Simons who engage in tepid, self-righteous worship because they don't really believe they need much forgiveness and they look down their noses at those who do.
There's another interesting facet to this story. Given Luke's penchant for detail and accuracy, well attested by everyone who has ever studied Luke & Acts in depth, it's hard to reconcile this version of the story with those in Matthew, Mark, & John. In those three gospels, the woman is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus out of gratitude for his raising her brother Lazarus and who does so immediately before Jesus' betrayal and arrest. Luke places the story much earlier in Jesus' ministry, and the woman is a prostitute. The entire incident functions differently in Luke's gospel. While it's not necessary or helpful to try to reconcile the gospels at every turn -- different witnesses to the same events often tell slightly different versions -- this story has stuck in my craw over the years. I've come to the belief that a few interesting possibilities are in fact likely:
- I believe Simon the Pharisee, referred to elsewhere as Simon the Leper, was the father of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and they all lived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem.
- I believe that Simon came to be a follower of Jesus and opened his home to Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters seem to have continued this practice.
- I believe that Simon died sometime during the course of Jesus' ministry, leaving Lazarus in charge of his household.
- Luke's version of this story of the sinful woman takes place early in Jesus' ministry when Simon and Jesus are first getting acquainted.
- Matthew, Mark, and John tell about another incident entirely. When Mary, overcome with gratitude, is looking for a way to express her devotion to Jesus, she intentionally imitates what she saw this woman do.
Other explanations are possible, but there are numerous elements in the biblical story that make sense this way. Just for fun a few years ago I wrote a version of what the event might have looked like from Mary's perspective that you can read here.