She came not to receive but to give
Luke 7 36
The woman who washed Jesus' feet was a sinful person. We are not told her name. We know next to nothing about her apart from Luke says that she was a woman of the city...a sinner.
Even though the Gospels introduce us to many men and women who found healing and forgiveness, few are identified by the word "sinner." But this woman was a special case. She had a reputation. Simon the Pharisee was offended by her appearance in his house and by the scene she made, and Jesus himself described her as a woman of many sins.
The word "sinner" is a generic term that does not specify what kind of sin the guilty one committed. Tradition however, has characterized this woman as a lady of loose morals, probably a prostitute. Here, as is so often the case, a woman's unconventional sexual behaviour earns her the contempt of her neighbours.
Never mind that we know nothing of her background that might help explain her behaviour. She might have been abused or emotionally crippled as a child; she might have sold herself as the only way to provide for herself or her family. Here is society's double standard, which sneers at such a woman, whose sin is mostly against herself. She was a sinner, the kind of woman we would not want to invite to our homes and who, if she came uninvited, would make us as uncomfortable as she did Simon the Pharisee - especially when she proceeded to make such a spectacle of herself.
In that culture people dined in a semi-reclining position. Picture the scene with Jesus lying on his side at the table, since the text tells us the woman was standing behind him at his feet. She was weeping; her tears fell on Jesus' feet. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. This would have been outrageous and shocking behaviour. But what shocked the people even more was the reaction of the rabbi from Nazareth. He did not recoil in horror, although it was a grave breach of etiquette for a woman even to greet a strange man in public, or even talk to him. To touch a man was much worse, and to touch him in this intimate way was simply unthinkable.
Why did the woman put herself through all this? Surely she knew that her appearance would scandalize the host and his guests. She not only risked being thrown out of the house or possibly arrested, but risked the one thing that would have crushed her completely - the rejection of Jesus. She was used to the sneers of the Pharisees and the others. She could handle that. But could she have coped if Jesus turn away from her?
We overlook her risk because we know the story. And we are aware of Jesus' great compassion for those who suffer in body and in spirit. We have known about the love of Jesus ever since we were children. But this woman did not know that. She had heard about Jesus, and with only her intuition and hope to go on, she risked everything in an act of desperation, penitence and love.
Nearly everyone else who came to Jesus knew exactly they wanted from him - sight for blind eyes, hearing for deaf ears, healing for an illness. But this woman asked for nothing. She had nothing to gain by her display of affection. She came not to receive but to give. Not only is she one of the most courageous people in the Bible, she is one of the most unselfish. Poor as she must have been, she had purchased an alabaster flask of expensive ointment. No doubt it represented months of saving from what many would regard as her "ill-gotten gains." She brought it as a love offering, poured it on the feet of this man who did not even know her name. We do not know why she did it. We know only that Jesus did not pull away from her. He did not turn cold eyes on her. He did not condemn her. Instead he used her bold action to teach his host a lesson about forgiveness.
It may be that the woman who washed Jesus' feet had seen him showing love to the "unlovely" people around him. It may be that this love opened her up, for the first time, to the possibility of forgiving herself. That made her risk everything. And Jesus simply said “Her many sins have been forgiven-for she loved much."
But that was not the end of it. Jesus told the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." That word of blessing was life to her that day, and it is possible for each of us as well. Hear it again today, for nothing has changed – we are all sinners saved by grace alone. "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."