Anointing Jesus' feet: What this beautiful and shocking story can teach us


It's one of those stories that we could simply skip over. The Gospel stories become so familiar to us that they can lose their shocking impact.

The story of Jesus' anointing by a sinful woman is one of those. Reading it with fresh eyes reveals how revolutionary Jesus was, and how far he was from being 'just another moral teacher' or 'a great religious leader.'

Jesus is eating with a Pharisee. He's been invited to the Pharisee's house, yet we're not told why. Given that these religious teachers were forever trying to trip Jesus up, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the Pharisee, Simon, had set Jesus up to make a big mistake.

Or at least he thought he had. In fact, Jesus allows the woman to touch him. Luke 7:38 says, "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."

It's an extraordinary scene. Jesus is a teacher, a religious man, a figure of authority who would be expected to behave with decorum and keep to the strict rules of behaviour that the Pharisees imposed.

You can see how shocked Simon is by the way he responds. "If this man were a prophet" says Simon, "he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner."

As so often within the Gospels, the Pharisee has got the wrong end of the stick. It's not that Jesus doesn't know who is touching him and if he did, he would recoil. It's that Jesus knows exactly who is touching him and he allows it anyway.

He transgresses the social rules of his day. Not just to be a rebel, not simply to make a point, but because he truly wants to connect with the woman herself. He values the person in front of him far more than he values the rules of his society.

This was shocking to the Pharisees because their best attempt to get close to God was to follow the rules and keep themselves clean and pure at all costs. Jesus says the way to get close to God is to love your neighbour as yourself.

He goes on to tell a parable about two people who owe money to another person. He suggests that the person who owes more and has their debt forgiven will be more grateful. This sums up the Christian message. The best and the brightest and the most successful and the people who are esteemed by this world – the celebrities, the rich, powerful and famous... Well, of course they can be forgiven. Yet the people who 'get it' the most are those who need it the most.

This means that those of us who are struggling with money, those of us who don't feel happy or successful or attractive or even competent. It's an extraordinary claim that we as Christians make. That God is especially interested in meeting the people who aren't at the top of society.

This weekend we're marking Queen Elizabeth II's 90th Birthday. Churches up and down the country are thanking the Queen for her faithful service. While we can honour and respect the long period she has dedicated to being the Monarch, as Christians, we recognise that God isn't very interested in status. He's more interested in who is willing to open themselves up to being forgiven by him.

That's what the woman who anoints Jesus' feet does. She forgets about protocol and status and just gets close to him. Jesus sees her true value – not the status that her society has assigned her because of her lifestyle. Unlike the Pharisee who talks about her ("she is a sinner"), Jesus is far more interested in talking to her.

"Your sins are forgiven," he tells her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

The story ends there. Or does it?

The beginning of the next chapter sees a new narrative begin. Jesus is about to tell the Parable of the Sower. Except in the original, there wouldn't have been a division between chapters – it was just one long story.

The first three verses of chapter eight give us extra information that backs up the profound point Jesus has just made by allowing the woman to anoint him, before forgiving her sins. Jesus is travelling about and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. As well as the 12 disciples – themselves a rag bag collection of fishermen, zealots and tax collectors – Jesus has with him a group of women.

We read that there were, "Some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others." So the women who anointed Jesus feet wasn't a one off. Far from it – Jesus spent much of his time mixing with women. He wasn't going to let the rules of the Pharisees get in the way of spending time with people who are sinners. It's the same today – the rules won't stop Jesus coming close to you or me...

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy