Feet. Tears. Perfume. Hair. All four Gospels tell it, the scandalous story of a woman who dares to love Jesus in the flesh. Each writer frames the story differently to suit his own thematic concerns, but that hardly matters; the story at its core remains the most sensual and shocking one in the New Testament.
In Luke’s version, the story is set early in Jesus’s ministry at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Curious about the young rabbi garnering praise and outrage in the surrounding villages, Simon invites Jesus to a dinner party. After all, why not check out the would-be prophet from Nazareth? Perhaps he’ll have some fascinating things to say about religion. Maybe he’ll impress the other dinner guests with a nifty miracle or two—wouldn’t that be a credit to Simon? If nothing else, Jesus’s presence might make for interesting chit-chat around the table, and some delicious gossip afterwards.
So the invitation is extended and accepted. The guests arrive on the appointed evening, and as they recline around an impressively laden table, Simon settles in for a few hours of good food and lively conversation.
Enter the woman with the alabaster jar. In Luke’s account, the woman is unnamed and unwelcome: “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). How exactly she crashes the party, we don’t know, but she manages to get in the door, approach the table, kneel quietly behind Jesus, and let down her hair.
Then, while God-knows-what transpires between the dinner guests, the woman bends over Jesus and begins to cry. She soaks Jesus’s feet with her tears, caresses them with her hair, bends to kiss his soles, his toes, and his ankles, and finally breaks open her alabaster jar to anoint his salty skin with a costly perfume. As far as we know, Jesus doesn’t say a word. Neither does the woman. But they communicate volumes.
Can you imagine the scene? I wonder if the conversation around the table falters as the woman begins to cry. I wonder if the temperature rises a few significant degrees, and everyone in the room reaches simultaneously for the water jug. I wonder where the men look—or don’t look—as the woman wraps Jesus’s feet in her lustrous hair. I wonder if Jesus (never one to make things easy for the etiquette-obsessed) captures Simon’s gaze and holds it, extending the discomfort, forcing his host to endure every searing kiss that grazes Jesus’s skin.
The temptation here is to deflect. To minimize: “Perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal in the first century. Showing affection like that was probably normal back then.”
No. No, it wasn’t. The Gospel writer takes pains to describe how scandalous the woman’s behavior is in Jesus’s own time and place. Simon is nothing less than disgusted, not only with the woman, but with Jesus, who tolerates her. Specifically, it’s the woman’s touch that makes Simon squirm with indignation: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner” (v. 39).
Luke sets the woman’s story in the theological context of sin and forgiveness. Those who are forgiven little, Jesus says, love little, but those who are forgiven much, love lavishly. Simon’s love is thin in this story because he doesn’t recognize his need for grace. The woman, in contrast, knows the extent of her sin and the wide embrace of Jesus’s forgiveness, so her love is boundless. This is an important lesson, and Jesus teaches it beautifully.
But what interests me more about this story is how much it conveys without language. What happens between Jesus and the weeping woman happens skin to skin. The woman never says, “I need you,” or “Thank you so much,” or, “I love you.” Her contrition, her worship, her yearning, and her love are enacted wholly through her body, and Jesus receives them into his own body with gratitude and pleasure. The holy sacraments here are skin, salt, sweat, and tears. The instruments of worship are perfumed feet and ardent kisses. This is not a polite piety of the mind; this is physical extravagance. What writer Mary Gordon calls, “A Sabbath of the skin.”
Meanwhile Simon, the religious expert? Simon misses the encounter entirely. Unable to recognize what only the body can know, Simon fails to see the sacred transformation happening at his own table. Notice what Jesus asks him: “Simon, do you see this woman?” (v. 44). It’s a lacerating question. Because no, Simon doesn’t see her. He doesn’t see her humanity, her generosity, or her capacity for deep love. Neither, in fact, does he see Jesus’s humanity—his dusty feet in need of cool water, the sunbaked skin in need of fragrant ointment, the ever-giving, ever-sacrificing Messiah in need of reciprocity, affection, and loving touch. Though he accuses Jesus of ignorance, Simon is the one who is blind and ignorant in this story. In his eyes, Jesus needs to remain a curiosity, an idea, an abstraction—and one can’t love an abstraction.
In fact, Simon needs Jesus to remain “a prophet,” and the woman to remain “a sinner.” His own identity depends on every other identity at his table remaining fixed. But this is exactly what the woman unhinges when her body enters the room. With her hair, her tears, and her touch, she forces each guest back into his own skin. With her more perfect, more radical, and more offensive hospitality—a hospitality that breaks through cultural barriers, a hospitality attentive to mind, soul, and body—she confronts everyone in the room with their common humanity. Do you see this woman? The weeper? The washer? The anointer? She’s the one who sees and knows. She’s a prophet, too.
There is a cost to seeing. A cost to seeing Jesus’s body. A cost to seeing my own. I, too, inhabit a culture that treats bodies with scorn. Most of the time, I see my body as something to shrink, starve, conquer, or tame. I see its flaws more clearly than I see its God-ordained dignity and beauty. Rarely do I see it as a vehicle for worship, love, hospitality, and grace. But if I can’t see my own body as God’s temple, how will I ever see or embrace yours?
Praise for Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories
“In this audacious, luminous book, Debie Thomas examines gospel stories, tales made soft as cloth for many readers, and reveals their strangeness. Reading with ferocious attentiveness, she explores stories that are challenging, troubling, sometimes frightening, and always filled with invitations to a new life that is larger and more startling than most of us have imagined. … Every reader who seeks God should own this book—dog-eared, underlined, and committed to memory.”
—Erin McGraw, author of Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories
“Debie Thomas offers more hope in this one book than many volumes filled with religious certainty. Through reflection on her own courageous living, Thomas has learned the indispensable value of making mistakes (can’t be avoided), suffering (ditto), honesty about the aforementioned (can definitely be avoided), and taking all the above into our relationship with God. Walk with Thomas through a world you’ll recognize and find an invitation to a whole and integrated life.”
—Marc Andrus, Episcopal Bishop of California
“A lot of religious writing is devotional but not particularly thoughtful. Some is high on scholarship but low on personal engagement. Debie Thomas brings head and heart together. Her beautiful new book will help you understand Jesus better, and yourself too. Highly recommended!”
—Brian D. McLaren, author of Do I Stay Christian?
“While most Gospel commentators offer you information, when Debie Thomas speaks of the text, she offers you insight. Into the Mess is just the kind of honest, grace-soaked, beautiful, heartbreaking view of Jesus that makes me want to believe. There are few writers about Jesus out there today I trust more than Thomas. I’m so grateful for this book.”
—Nadia Bolz-Weber, Host, The Confessional with Nadia Bolz-Weber
“Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories breathes new life into sacred texts, inviting us to experience Christ with fresh eyes. Thomas’s words beckon our real, wondering selves to draw close to Christ without shame or hindrance. By making space for both the humanity of Jesus and the modern-day struggles of us, her readers, she gives us a glimpse of the fullness of God.”
—Amy Olrick, author of The 6 Needs of Every Child
About the Author
Debie Thomas is a columnist for The Christian Century and an essayist for Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church. She serves as the Minister of Lifelong Formation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California.