|Intimately beautiful event. Her shining black hair wiping away her tears and the oil used to soothe his traveled feet; he was so blessed. Her actions reminded the Pharisees present of obligations and laws. But for Jesus and the woman it was so special moment of grace. The others saw it as a fault and the two principals of the story saw it as a blessing. Who were the sinners anyway? The pharisees small ways were magnificently outshone by the woman’s outpouring of love. She, experienced forgiveness for her failures and expressed it lavishly. Pharisees, pinched and boxed in, saw only the opportunity to get after Jesus. Sinners indeed?
When confronted by his host-critic, the Pharisee Simon, Jesus asks him about someone who forgave two persons’ debts, one a relatively smaller amount and the other a huge stash of money. Who would have been more grateful for the forgiving? “The one I suppose whose larger debt was forgiven” the Pharisee responds correctly.
Jesus answers by pointing out what happened when he arrived for the dinner. The host did not receive Jesus with water to wash his weary feet nor the required kiss of welcome. But “She has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair and has not ceased kissing my feet.” You did not offer oil for a blessing, but she “anointed my feet with ointment.”
Her many sins have been forgiven. Simon’s social gaffs also are forgiven. Simon has little to be forgiven and his little sins seem to imply that he loves little (“the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little”). We, like the lavishly loving woman in the tale, all have many sins to be forgiven.
There’s a modern story we may have heard that parallels this gospel account. It concerns the events in the life of John Newton (born 1725). He was a ship captain whose tasks involved transporting slaves from Africa to America. At one point in this wretched work his ship, the Greyhound, began to flounder and Newton spent the night trying to keep it afloat. He feared for his life. He remembered the goodness of his mother who had taught him the graces of a life spent in service of Christ.
In those hours he thought critically about the course of his life spent violating all the love that his mother and others had showered him with. He finally saw his life the way that it really was, a failure at its core. He had done very well economically and other more aggressive ways, but his heart was devoid of love, confronting him with the humbling realization he recognized in those perilous hours — the deep failure of his life. The shipwreck of the Greyhound became an image for his own life; he was brought to his senses in the dire straits of the moment.
Ultimately this moment of conversion brought John Newton to turn himself over to God, who has mercy and forgives even the most heinous of sin. Newton began to know himself in the depths of his soul. His conversion was not immediate, but it was grace-filled. After leaving the slave trade he sought out good friends that guided him to glory in the God-given beauty around him. He became a minister and leader of his church: especially as a forthright member of the anti-slave movement. At some point during his long conversion he wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
Now we know that the wretch referred to in the hymn, was none other than him. Can God turn a wretch into a loving person of faith, love and hope? The answer lies in the history of the man, and eighteenth-century slaver-to-saint, John Newton.
The woman who loved so deeply after having been forgiven much and the wretch we’ve visited with today share a similar history. They recognized God’s mercy in their lives and responded with deep and abiding love. Can we wretches respond like them? Nobody wants to be called a wretch and, ironically, that’s the point. My sin and wretchedness are no match for God’s lavish love. Lord, help me to surrender to your grace be made real in the ups and downs of my life!