A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dinner. A woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house, and she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. The men reclined on cushions on the floor at a low table. As she stood (στᾶσα, a form of ἵστημι) behind [Jesus] at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.
The translators have assumed that στᾶσα is a form of ἵστημι (to stand). But it may have been a form στάζω (drop, let fall). As she [collapsed] behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil…makes more dramatic and practical sense.
This scene became the image of ἐγκράτεια for me (erroneously translated self-control), the word at the end of the list Paul called the fruit of the Spirit. (It was translated temperance before Carrie Nation picked up a hatchet.) I took it for granted that Jesus’ thirty-something body worked perfectly well, that He had an erection, but that He loved this woman rather than dragging her onto the cushions and fucking her. I talked about this with a friend once. He couldn’t believe that Jesus had an erection because that would be a sin.
I might have said that only the young and vigorous could mistake erectile dysfunction for holiness. As it turned out I didn’t say much at all. The fourteenth chapter of Romans came to mind: I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean. For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died. For better or worse the Scripture the Holy Spirit brings to my mind in the moment is what I take to be the leading of the Spirit.
Personally, I think that a woman kissing my feet, wiping them with her hair and rubbing scented oil on them as she weeps would be a complicated issue for my penis to work out. At my age it is more prudent to be appreciative when it takes the initiative and demonstrates that kind of rough-and-ready-better-safe-than-sorry attitude. In fact, if I were inclined to criticize my penis for an erection it would be about the one every morning when I need to urinate. And though my assessment may be mistaken due to the urgency of the moment, it seems to be more persistent and stubborn, when it is pointed in a direction that no toilet will accommodate, than it ever was when my wife and I might have appreciated such persistence and stubbornness.
As I revisit this scene, however, after over a year and a half of considering the differences between the mind of Christ and the ordinary religious mind, I see so much more here. It is not just that Jesus exhibited ἐγκράτεια and love. He rejoiced over this woman. He was at peace in a social situation I would find incredibly awkward. He was patient with Simon. His kindness, his goodness, his faithfulness and his gentleness are all apparent in a scene my religious mind rejects completely. So now rather than being about ἐγκράτεια alone, this essay is about the righteousness of God.
I’m going to put myself in the scene playing Jesus. I’ve played Simon often enough in the past. This will be a new experience for me, just to see how far I can follow Him into God’s righteousness. Obviously, I have more cultural baggage to deal with than He did. But I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that I grew up in his culture, a small boy kept back by the women, still sneaking a peek, longing for the day when I would come of an age that I, too, could hang out with the guys, reclining on cushions at the table, barefoot, in a dress.
I’ll start calling the woman by name, rather than a woman of that town, who was a sinner. John informed us that it was Mary [the sister of Martha and Lazarus] who anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and wiped his feet dry with her hair. And I’ll assume that the Holy Spirit took control, filled me with ἐγκράτεια and I didn’t act on the impulse of my penis to take Mary right then and there. So I didn’t sin. But not sinning is still a long way from God’s righteousness.
Truth be told, I’m not all that likely to fuck Mary in a room full of guys, no matter how bawdy the conversation or bold the invitation was. I’m far more likely to pull my feet up under my dress, pretend that her ministrations tickled, and make some face-saving joke at her expense. But that doesn’t seem like any kind of righteousness at all. Kicking Mary in the face and telling her to keep her wicked lips and hands off of me is a kind of “righteousness” I’ve heard about, but it’s not really me. Sitting up, taking her hands in mine, looking into her eyes and saying something like, “Please, whatever this is, this isn’t the time or place for it,” is about all the righteousness I could muster on my own in a room full of guys.
Jesus lay there and let Mary do what she would to his feet, long enough to make Simon very uncomfortable. Somehow Jesus knew that Mary needed to do this. I shouldn’t pretend that I don’t know how. It’s axiomatic to me that Jesus didn’t utilize his own godliness, but trusted the Holy Spirit that descended like a dove from heaven, and…remained on him. Otherwise, Jesus’ invitation and command, Follow me, is little more than a cruel joke. But even with the Holy Spirit I can still be dumb as a post when it comes to reading women I know, much less a stranger off the street.
Still, I will say for the sake of argument that the Holy Spirit was able to communicate to me what kind of woman this is who is touching [me], that she is a sinner, and beyond that, that her tears, her kisses, her caresses and scented oil were her way of both confessing, and repenting of, that sin. Given all of that, I have taken my first step following Jesus into the righteousness of God. There is no way I could do this on my own, apart from the Holy Spirit. There are no laws, rules, precepts or guidelines that could possibly help me here. There are no twelve, five, seven, three, or four steps to a better me that would ever get me here. So? Now what?
I’m pretty tired right now, exhausted even, but Jesus turned his attention to Simon. If I were so deep into the Holy Spirit that I grasped this knowledge of Mary and shared this intimate moment with her, my consciousness, upon returning to Simon and a room full of guys, would be a shock to say the least. I would probably start making excuses, or try to explain the ineffable. Jesus, in the kindest and most ingenious way, began to grapple with the judgments of Simon’s religious mind: “If this man were a prophet,” Simon said to himself, “he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” How could I possibly follow Him here?
I am skipping over the fact that Jesus knew what Simon was thinking. Maybe that was the Holy Spirit. Maybe it was just growing up around religious people. We’re not very subtle in our disapproval. Sometimes I think our disapproval is the main way we distinguish ourselves from others. And, unfortunately, it can become the main way we demonstrate “our righteousness.” So I think Jesus may have known what Simon was thinking with or without the Holy Spirit.
“Simon, I have something to say to you,” Jesus said. “Say it, Teacher,”  Simon replied. It’s a small thing, perhaps, but I know me. Even if the Holy Spirit gave me this wonderful story in the moment, I’m not convinced I would have addressed it directly to Simon. I probably would have made it more general and aphoristic, even though I see now that it would fall flat and have less meaning for everyone present.
A certain creditor had two debtors; Jesus continued, one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love (ἀγαπήσει, a form of ἀγαπάω) him more? I doubt that Simon had any clue what the Spirit of God would reveal through Paul about how this greater love (ἀγάπη) is the fulfillment of the law, or the connection between this greater love and the confession that Jesus is the Son of God through John (1 John 4:15, 16 NET):
If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love (ἀγάπην, another form of ἀγάπη) that God has in us.
I’m not even sure whether Simon had a clue what Jesus would say next. I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled, Simon offered. You have judged rightly, Jesus said. And then He turned his attention back to Mary who was apparently still doing her thing on his feet. I just throw up my hands at this point. How do I follow Him into this righteousness? There’s just too much going on all at the same time.
Do you see this woman? Jesus said to Simon, as if he could pry his eyes off of her. I entered your house, Jesus continued, speaking to Simon, but looking at Mary. You gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! He didn’t even try to justify Himself before this Pharisee. He justified Mary instead. And I am weeping.
Jesus continued to make his point three times clear. You gave me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil. I’m done, if there was ever any hope that I would make it this far following Jesus into the righteousness of God. But Jesus continued on.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much… Surely, now He has finished. No, not Jesus. …but the one who is forgiven little loves little, He concluded, calling the entire theory of childrearing we religious people adhere to “religiously” into question.
For who among us hasn’t wished, hoped, prayed, taught, argued, lectured and punished our children in order that they would sin as little as is humanly possible, without ever even considering whether we were condemning them to being forgiven as little as is humanly possible, and knowing as little love as is humanly possible? And who among us, when our children have sinned, have gotten down on our knees and thanked God for his infinite wisdom, so much greater than our shortsightedness?
Jesus wasn’t finished yet. He said to Mary, Your sins are forgiven, and, Your faith has saved you; go in peace. I can only imagine what it was like for Mary to become conscious of her surroundings again, the staring eyes, the erections she never actually intended to inspire. Jesus gave her an exit, and as far as I can tell stayed to face the guys alone—with the Holy Spirit. Whatever reproaches they may have intended for her then fell upon Him, if they dared.
I would have great difficulty writing this scene as fiction. To act it extemporaneously is truly beyond my imagining. Follow me, Jesus said. Those are some giant steps to follow in. But the story doesn’t end here.
Mary did it again, with a more sympathetic audience, perhaps, but no grievous sin for cover. At home with her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, her sister Martha, and Jesus’ disciples Mary took three quarters of a pound of expensive aromatic oil from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.) I like that little detail the elder John recalled from his youth.
No Pharisee was present who dared to question Jesus’ righteousness. Jesus’ disciples had seen it all before. On an earlier visit, while Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said, Martha had struggled alone to get a meal on the table for Jesus and his disciples. She had complained to Jesus that her sister [had] left [her] to do all the work alone. “Tell her to help me.” But Jesus said, Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her. Martha wasn’t about to criticize Jesus or her sister Mary. And I like to imagine that Lazarus could only sit and watch and love and admire his sister for having the presence and liberty to do what he should do.
Only Judas Iscariot protested, because he was a thief, according to John. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it. Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?
Leave her alone, Jesus said to Judas. She has kept it for the day of my burial. I shouldn’t discount Jesus’ reason here. Mary had sat at his feet, actually listening to Him. She may have understood that He would die for her sins a few days later. For you will always have the poor with you, Jesus said to Judas, but you will not always have me, He said to Mary. This double-dipping was so scandalous to the religious minds who wrote the gnostic gospels that they forced Jesus into a shotgun wedding. And Dan Brown entertained us with suspicions that the Bible and the Church are hiding some terrible secret for their own nefarious purposes.
I don’t think it’s any secret that had Jesus asked, Mary would have been his wife. In fact, I think if Jesus had asked, Mary would have been his whore, gladly, without doubts, no questions asked. That’s what I love and admire about her. She came to Jesus without rules or many delusions about her own righteousness. But I don’t think it makes her a goddess. I also think that it’s no secret that Jesus didn’t ask Mary to be his wife or his whore, but his disciple. He did let her express her devotion in an intimate way that was special to them both, and others as well, a beautiful part of the righteousness of God. Who would want to keep this a secret?
Only someone with a religious mind.