When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who had lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 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.
-Luke 7:36-38 (NIV)
Whispers. Stares. Rolling eyes. Barbed comments behind hands. Respectable people crossed the street if they saw her coming in time, and averted their gaze if they didn’t. She considered it a good day if everyone just ignored her.
Few of her days were very good.
Not everyone treated her that way, of course. There were people, men, who didn’t avert their eyes: men who stared straight at her and didn’t try to hide what they were thinking. They were usually merchants passing through town on business, or farmers selling produce. They usually had families back home. But they paid attention to her, at least, and treated her as if she were good for something, and sometimes with them she actually experienced what passed for happiness in her world. Anyway, she had to eat, and she didn’t exactly have other marketable skills. So she’d return their stares in that way that had earned her the contempt and disgust of the respectable people and pretended not to care what they thought.
In her unguarded moments, she had to admit that she did care, though. She was lonely. She would have liked having a friend or two, friends she could laugh with and cry with and gossip with. A husband. Children, even. That wasn’t her world, though, and she had long since learned to make the best of it.
She thought little about it when she heard that the famous rabbi was passing through town. They said he could do miracles, but miracles weren’t for people like her. Rabbis were always coming through town, it seemed, and she usually avoided them. Not that it was hard; they never came through the part of town where she lived. And she wasn’t exactly on anyone’s A-list. Was there such a thing as a Z-list?
That’s what she was thinking, and smiling to herself a little, when he came around a corner and almost plowed into her. She dropped her eyes, started to go around, and heard him speak. “Excuse me,” he said, and she realized he was speaking to her. To her. She raised her eyes, tentatively, and saw him looking at her. Not like the others, though. Not like the last piece of meat at a banquet, not like she was put on earth for his amusement. There was respect in his eyes, and kindness, and compassion. They started at each other for just a moment, seconds, really, and she actually felt something like human again.
One of the men with him leaned close to him. He stared at her with that same look she had seen in the eyes of countless people and spoke softly. She heard, though. “Rabbi, we should go. Simon’s waiting.”
“Rabbi. What’s he doing on this side of the tracks?” she thought. She started to step away, to let him pass, but he waved off his friend and turned his attention back to her with a laugh. “Don’t mind Rock,” he said to her. “He means well, but sometimes he lives up to his nickname,” he chuckled, pointing to his head. She laughed, too, more from delight at the idea of a rabbi joking with her than at the joke itself.
Still he looked at her, and his expression changed. The wide smile faded to one that was smaller, and sadder. “They’re wrong, you know,” he said earnestly. “About you. You’re not trash. You’re not worthless. God doesn’t think of you the way they think of you. He’s your Father, and he loves you, and when you’ve had enough hurt and hunger and you’re ready to come home he’s waiting for you with open arms.” He leaned close. “I’ll tell you a secret. The first will be last, and the last will be first. The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of Heaven before some of your ‘righteous’ neighbors.”
She felt almost breathless. She didn’t quite understand everything he was saying, but she understood two things well enough. He knew something of the life she’d lived up until now, and he believed that God still loved her. And, strangely enough, she was starting to believe it herself, just because he said so with such certainty. How could he possible be so sure about that? She was startled to find tears in her eyes; it had been years since she had cried about anything.
She shook her head. “I…I’ve done things I’m not proud of…”
He spoke again. Quietly, so none of his crowd of followers could hear, he told her about those things she wasn’t proud of. His voice was solemn…sad, it seemed…but gentle. There was no trace of condemnation, no hint of the righteous indignation she’d grown used to hearing from people of faith. She felt a sense of guilt that the things she’d done caused him such sadness. But she also felt relief: he knew her, knew all about her, and didn’t consign her to the trash heap.
And then he did a remarkable thing. He touched her. Not like so many men had; he just put a hand casually on her shoulder. It was a gesture between friends, and it had been such a long time since she had a friend. And then the dam broke, and she was sobbing and almost didn’t hear his next words, when he ducked his head down to look into her eyes.
“Your sins…are forgiven.”
She wondered how, how he could say something like that, how he could possibly know that God forgave her sins. Then she realized that he was telling her that he forgave her, and yet it felt to her like the same thing. If he forgave her, then God did. “Now go make some changes in your life,” he told her, a little more sternly but still with that slight smile. And she knew she could. This man Jesus loved her, and her sins were forgiven. God accepted her, and because he did she didn’t need to look for acceptance anymore from an endless succession of strangers.
She felt something else she hadn’t felt in a long time. It took her a moment to place the feeling. It was love. Funny, she thought, how it only takes one small experience of love to set off a chain reaction. She turned to tell him, and found that he was gone, on down the street.
That’s right, she remembered. Simon was waiting. Well, she’d just have to go tell him there. The thought made her laugh, and she started off. She needed to go by her house first.
There was something there that she needed to pick up.