In a week where persisting is all the rage, it’s hard not to approach this text thinking of the United States Senator Elizabeth Warren being warned by Mitch McConnell not to read a letter about a controversial appointee, Jeff Sessions. It has become a rallying cry, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

You could say the same about this “certain immoral woman” with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She persisted as she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. She persisted as her tears fell on his feet. She persisted as she wiped those tears off with her hair. She persisted as she kissed his feet and put perfume on them.

She persisted.

As an answer to the Pharisee’s complaint about the “immoral woman,” Jesus told a parable: a man loaned money to two people, to one a smallish amount, to the others ten times that amount. Neither could repay. Which one loved the man more?

And while it’s a great story of persistence, I wonder if that’s too easy. Yes, there’s a political undertone to this Sunday’s text (you can read it here and read the Working Preacher commentary here).

But Jesus’ politicizing is not like ours.

After telling the parable, Jesus goes on. He points out that the host has overlooked an important cleansing ritual, a sign of honor and hospitality. Then Jesus talks about the woman (yes, he talks about her with her standing there) and he calls her a “sinner.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that her sins were “many.”

Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, says core of Jesus’ message was two-fold: divine love and the need for repentance. In other words, Jesus taught us about God’s unconditional love and that we are sinners.

We don’t ever talk about the poor needing repentance, do we? We don’t talk about the marginalized being sinners, do we? If Jesus shared today’s liberal ideals, he would be saying that the marginalized need justice, that they need healing. Not that they (or we) need repentance, and not a “radical alteration of the course and direction of one’s life, its basic motivations, attitudes, and objectives” but, as Volf says, “repentance implies not merely a recognition that one has made a bad mistake, but that one has sinned.”

Mind you, though. The sins committed by the marginalized were not the sins that the religious people were pointing out to them, like breaking the purity laws. Nor were their sins in a vacuum. The marginalized “commit sin” and “sin is committed against them.”

Volf says this: “The truly revolutionary character of Jesus’ proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hand of others, they also committed sins of their own.”

Whew. I’ve been so busy seeing her marginalization, I haven’t noticed her sin. Let me rephrase that… I’ve been so busy seeing my own marginalization, I haven’t noticed my own sin. How shall I repent from that?

What about you? How will you be preaching this text?

Here are some other ideas:

  • The woman gave what she had. How do we give “what we have?” to Jesus?
  • The woman was shunned by the Pharisee. How do our churches shun sinful women now?
  • Jesus saw her sinfulness, but he also saw her goodness. How is that working in and through our political system now? Can we see the goodness of those we’re othering?
  • If we write about persistence, what shall we persist in?

And preaching women, one more thing, if I may. I have notice that I am very tired, and I’m aware that our political situation is going to last a long time… Have you scheduled some way to take care of you this week?

Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).

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4 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Wiping Jesus’ Feet

    1. Terri Peterson, that is astounding! Truly makes it harder to preach because it shifts the whole context. But, it makes sense. One thing that perplexes me is why Powell and others seem to find it surprising that Jesus would have different expectations of people in different contexts. Of course Jesus would see prostitution as a sin when the woman had been sold into sex slavery. Thank you for this.


      1. Regarding my comment above: Of course Jesus would NOT see prostitution as a sin… (How can it be when there is no choice as Mark Alan Powell’s comments suggest and like many who are sex workers today have found.)


  1. I’m preaching in a rare context this week when my Lutheran congregation and the Mennonite congregation that use our building worship together. I’d like to focus on the idea that this woman comes as she is to Jesus, not trying to be anything but her sinful self. She knows what she has done and so she weeps at his feet and offers him what she can. She is the least powerful person in the room, and yet her actions display great power. The only thing that happens that is more powerful is forgiveness.

    We are the ones for whom much is forgiven, no matter what we’d like to think. So we are called to offer ourselves and the good we have to serving the least, because they are Jesus. And this is what unites us as sisters and brothers in Christ – not the badge we wear that says Lutheran or Mennonite – but our hands and feet working to the glory of God.


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