The law does not know of the forgiveness of offenses. The law does not possess the mystery in which the secret sins are cleansed. Therefore what is lacking in the law is perfected in the Gospel. — Ambrose (333-397)
There is a subtle bit of etiquette that is lost on us in the 21st century in our story about Jesus, the Pharisee and the sinful woman. The invitation of the Pharisee is an invitation between equals. We know this because of how he treats Jesus.
“I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, . . . You gave me no kiss, . . . You did not anoint my head with oil.”
These are courtesies that the lesser extends to the greater one. (Pilch) A few weeks ago we read of the centurion who had sent message to Jesus to, please, not come to his house, where he, the centurion, would have had to extend such courtesies but was not ready to do so. Yet, that centurion, unlike the Pharisee, was aware that Jesus was greater than he and was willing to admit it.
In this story it is the woman of the town that is the one who acknowledges Jesus as the greater. Preciously little is known about her but she seems to have not been a stranger to the Pharisee. He knows her reputation. (7:39) He could have her removed from his house but choses not to. It would have been another of those courtesies that one extends to a greater guest whom one does not want to have bothered.
The Pharisee also uses the woman as judgement on Jesus. “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.” (7:39) Maybe this statement betrays that the dinner was given to figure out who Jesus was and Jesus has just failed the Pharisee’s test. He is not a prophet, even though, like Elijah, he raises widows’ sons from the dead.
The woman is another story. She very much acknowledges Jesus as greater than she and she, the story suggests, senses that the end of her sinful life is somehow in this Jesus to whom she gives oblation. Crysologus suggest she stands for the church, as she seems to be the only one who by her actions of submission points to Jesus as the Lord.
“Wisdom is proved right by her children.” (7:32) There is wisdom in realizing that this Jesus who is being accused of being a glutton and a friend to sinners (7:31) is present among such reprobates because he is their release from sin and guilt and eventually perdition, and they realize it.
The Pharisees on the other hand are “considering” him. They are studying, evaluating, and weighing evidence. Ambrose, in the same exposition quoted in my opening paragraph, writes:
The sinful woman is glorified in the house of the Pharisee. The church is justified in the house of the law and the prophet, not the Pharisee. The Pharisee did not believe, but the woman believed.
These early Sundays in the Green Season have something in common: they are about having Faith. Abraham, the Father of Faith, speaks cold words in Luke 16:31: “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” How then can Faith be possible?
At some point we really, really need to quit looking for evidence. At some point faith has to say: “Let it be so,” (1:38) even if, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month,” is the only sign given. At some point, “you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,” has to be enough evidence that Messiah has come. At some point: “I will make you the Father of many nations,” needs to put a long journey into motion.
Where is that tipping point? It would appear from the Gospel of Luke that the point eludes definition. On the other hand, this woman is but one of many desperate people looking for help in a world that is meeting out some sort of isolation, injury or scorn upon them: Lepers, known sinners, lame, dying ones and their friends, tax collectors, and convicts. It happens last on the cross when one of the thieves is wiling to beg mercy from Jesus.
It would seem that for those in the Gospel of Luke Law and Gospel have run out of answers. There is only despair lying ahead. Will God be merciful? We already know we are sinners; that we are rejected and crushed; but, will God have mercy?