Do You See This Woman?
When a prostitute wanted to honor Jesus, He welcomed and honored her. But the religious folks of His time wanted to turn her away. Whose example are you following?
by Mark Buchanan
"Do you see this woman?”
It’s one of Jesus’ most pointed, poignant questions, which is saying something. The man could skewer you with a question, plumb to the depths and pry loose and drag into daylight your deepest, most hidden thought.
But this question just about tops them all.
He asks it of a Pharisee named Simon, a man filled with righteous indignation and self-congratulatory piety (not unlike me at times.) He’s invited Jesus to lunch at his house with an agenda: to suss out Jesus’ bona-fides. Is this “rabbi” really a holy man? A prophet? Is it possible he’s the Messiah? Simon wants an up-close-and-personal encounter with Jesus to weigh the matter, to test it against certain assumptions.
But plans go sideways. A woman crashes the party. Not just any woman: one of those kinds of women. With a reputation. A past. A stigma. Her life has been turned upside down by Jesus, but this is entirely inappropriate. She’s probably dressed all wrong—too scantily, too gaudily, too seductively. Her behavior is appalling. It’s embarrassing. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, tears dampening His toes as she wipes them with her hair. She pours perfume on his feet. She showers kisses on them.
I’m trying to picture it happening to me. At a restaurant, with my elders board watching, and some of the uptown people who attend my church. A woman enters: she’s well-known in town for all the wrong reasons. She’s not invited but comes anyhow. Gushes on me. Weepily caresses and kisses my feet. Douses me with perfume.
I’m embarrassed just thinking about it.
Jesus, on the other hand, receives it with joy. Indeed, her behavior is not only beautiful in His eyes, but it also makes up for a glaring negligence on Simon’s part. This religious leader has invited Jesus to his home, but hasn’t welcomed Him there. Inviting is something you do. It’s an act you commit. Welcoming is something in your heart. It’s a desire you express.
Simon knows how to invite. He just doesn’t have a clue how to welcome Jesus. That, it turns out, takes much love, humility, openness of heart. It takes gratitude—knowing you’ve been forgiven much. The Pharisee is deficient on both counts, but not this woman. She knows how much she’s been forgiven. She loves much, and so she is brilliant at welcoming. Though she’s not on the guest list, she welcomes Jesus lavishly. And though He’s not the host, Jesus welcomes her in kind.
Simon, on the other hand, is disgusted and outraged, and his sentiments are aimed at Jesus more than the woman: “ . . . he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner’” (Luke 7:39).
Jesus knocks Simon awake with a question: “Do you see this woman?
I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).
"Simon, do you see this woman?” He doesn’t. Most of us wouldn’t—or we’d see her as Simon does, through the lens of our moral disdain. It’s always hard to see when you’ve forgotten how much you’ve been forgiven.
In many ways, this story is really about hospitality. Yet I think most of us don’t have a clue about what this biblical hospitality really is. We’re plagued too much with a Simon complex. Our idea of welcoming others is laden with hidden agendas: we want to impress, to be entertained, to gain something. We want to upgrade our social status. We want others to think well of us. We don’t want to risk our reputations.
Jesus has a different idea: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
Some theologians think the chief attribute of God—the one that contains all His others qualities, including justice and mercy and love—is hospitality. God invites only people who can never pay Him pack. And He runs to greet the prodigals.
It’s scandalous, really. Our version of hospitality in the West is inviting friends to come for three hours. Biblical hospitality is begging strangers to stay one more night. Divine hospitality is pursuing enemies so that, after you’ve died to make them sons and daughters, they can live with you forever.
Simon’s nickname was Leper. Simon the leper. There must be a story behind that. Let’s speculate: most likely, he was at one time afflicted with the dread disease—ghostly pallor, numbness creeping down his limbs, digits falling off. But then, by some miracle or another, he recovered and returned from exile back into society.
Once he became Simon the leper—unclean by Jewish religious law—he would have known rejection. Exclusion. People avoiding him at all costs, disgusted by him, and judging him as one whom God was punishing. He also would have known the joy and relief of being restored and made whole, the sweetness of homecoming, of being welcomed back.
And then, somehow, he forgot it all.
This line of interpretation may seem far-fetched to you, except that it’s likely some version of this story has played out in your own life. I know it has in mine. And it’s easy to forget. Easy for Mark the leper to let love die and become Mark the Pharisee. And to learn, instead, the game and the act—ages old and always current—of excluding others from the banquet.
For me, this drama actually played out in public. A woman with a past crashed the party. Only, it was at church, during communion, at Christ’s banqueting table.
Her name was Wanda. She’d come to me the week prior, desperate. She had a substance addiction, and practiced the oldest profession to keep up the habit and sometimes to feed her kids. That eventually caught up with her, and the social services took her children away. She had to make big changes if she wanted them back.
That got her attention. So she called our church and asked to meet with as many pastors as we could round up. That day, there were two of us. Wanda poured out her story, and we shared the gospel. She accepted Christ there and then. As she was leaving, the other pastor said, “Wanda, when you come to church this Sunday, it might seem overwhelming, intimidating. There’s no shame in taking things slow. You can come a little late, leave a little early. Sit at the back if that’s more comfortable.”
He was being genuinely caring, but Wanda looked at him with dismay.
“Why would I want to do that?” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”
She was the first to show up, the last to leave, and she sat closest to the front, in the clothes of a hooker.
The next week, the same, except she brought a friend, another lady dressed just like her. I was preaching on servanthood, making the point that when we experience the love of Jesus, the overflow of it is that we want to serve. Wanda and her friend were loudly agreeing. Then I said “Amen” and announced communion.
In those days, our elders were called the Servant Leadership Team. I called on them to help me serve the elements. Only two straggled up.
Wanda was thunderstruck. Here I was, the man who led her to Jesus, explaining that if you have tasted the love of Jesus, you’ll want to serve. Here I was, making a bold call for servants to come forward. And only two people out of hundreds respond.
Wanda was aghast.
Wanda stood up.
Wanda turned around.
Wanda glared at all the slackers and deadbeats sitting in the pews.
And then Wanda strode up in her spiky heels, fishnet stockings, short skirt and low-cut top, to help me serve communion.
I burned with embarrassment.
I saw my job flash before my eyes.
I was leaning over to explain that she had made a mistake, when I myself got thunderstruck. It was as though Jesus inserted Himself between me and Wanda. Mark, do you see this woman? Do you see what it looks like when someone has been forgiven much and loves much?
So as I leaned over to her I said, “Wanda, since this is your very first time serving communion, do you mind if we do it together?”
She was delighted. So were most of the people who took communion from her. In fact, I might have been the only Simon there that morning. I’d just remembered in the nick of time my own recent leprosy. Thankfully, I saw her.
The story in Luke 7 ends abruptly. Jesus—partially to scandalize Simon and his gang all the more, it seems—declares the woman’s sins forgiven. Just like that. Lock, stock, and barrel.
While everyone is muttering about that, Jesus utters a final benediction, out loud, but just for her: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).
Except, where will she go? Where can a woman like this—who’s still figuring out how to act and talk and dress and behave “like a Christian”—go in peace?
Simon is certainly not the only Pharisee around town. Everywhere she goes, someone like him will be ready to judge, condemn, and dismiss her. Will be unable to see her. Unwilling to welcome her.
So where can she go in peace?
I have an idea: How about your home, your church?
Mark Buchanan is the author of Your Church is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside Down.