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Alabaster jars, faith and love

James Tissot's "Le parfum de Madeleine" (between 1886 and 1894) via Wikipedia

My 9 year-old son and I have been reading through a graphic novel version of the gospels and recently hit that moment in Luke where Jesus is reclining at a table eating dinner by invitation at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Suddenly, a woman with a less than stellar reputation appears at the door, makes her way to Jesus, and stands at his feet with an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment. She’s weeping so hard that Jesus’ feet are wet. She kneels, dries them with her hair and spreads the expensive ointment on his feet, kissing them.

Now, I’ve read this story before, but this time I couldn’t get out of my head. It’s a riveting and jarring moment. Just what exactly happened—what kind of encounter with Jesus did she have—that made her respond like that?

“It is not clear whether she had met Jesus,” Leon Morris tells us in his commentary on Luke. “She may simply have been among the crowds who listened to his teaching and had been so convicted that her life had been changed. Or she may have had unrecorded contacts with Jesus. We do not know.”

But something happened. And while we may not know the specifics of her original encounter, I’m struck by what this rest of this story suggests about encounters with Jesus, faith and love—and the connection between them.
As this woman knelt weeping at Jesus’ feet, the room full of people is riveted. What kind of man allows such a woman to do that? If he really is who he says he is, he would know what kind of person is touching him, Simon thought to himself. 
Jesus immediately hones in on Simon and tells him a story: A creditor had two debtors. One owed a full day’s wage and the other a tenth of that. Neither of them could pay off their debt, so the creditor wiped the slate clean for both of them. “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks.  
“I suppose,” Simon relents, “the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” 
Jesus approves—but then turns his attention back to the woman. “Do you really see this woman, Simon? When I entered your house, you didn’t give me water for my feet—but she has bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss on the cheek, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with this ointment.”  
Then Jesus brings it home: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.” 
  “Your sins are forgiven,” he tells the woman, ignoring the disgruntled whispers around him. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  
(my paraphrase from the NIV, NRSV and The Message)
Ultimately, it really doesn't matter that we don’t know the specifics of her encounter with Jesus because, at some point, his message sinks in. This woman repents—or, as Mark Scandrette puts it in Soul Graffiti, "rethinks her thinking" and "reimagines” her life “in view of new alternatives.” She “calls into question her previous ways and awakens to new possibilities.” She “reimagines her life by allowing God to examine her thoughts, attitudes, motives, and behavior.” Jesus hands her the keys to the kingdom and she follows him in. She believes he is who he says and can do what he says. She takes a leap of faith and now she’s free—from a past life leading to destruction as well as to a new one of life.

In contrast, it strikes me that Simon’s playing it safe. He invites Jesus to dinner—but, as Morris points out, he doesn’t accord him the customs of an honored guest. Maybe he’s concerned with his colleagues’ approval. Perhaps he just isn’t sure who Jesus is yet. No matter, he keeps Jesus at arm’s length.

The contrast between these two reminds me of something important about faith: Remaining cautious when it comes to faith yields little, but a sincere act of trust yields jaw-dropping abundance.  Later in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples about the ongoing need to forgive even those who offend you constantly. The disciples see this as impossible and exclaim, “Give us more faith!” Eugene Peterson renders Jesus response like this: “"You don't need more faith. There is no 'more' or 'less' in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Go jump in the lake,' and it would do it.” The smallest act of trust in Jesus renders an explosive effect.

I can see that in this woman. Her whole life changes by a choice to trust Jesus—and, somehow, her choice of faith is linked to her capacity to love. Jesus connects the woman’s choice to trust him and her understanding of the extent of her forgiveness to her extravagant response of love. But Simon, keeping Jesus at arm’s length, doesn’t seem to realize how much he needs to be freed from—or how much he can be freed to. Not only does he refuse to admit the many ways he’s fallen short God’s expectations and designs for him but he has little if any faith that Jesus is the answer to that. If Simon doesn’t rethink his thinking and trust Jesus is who he says and can do what he says, then he won’t experience the freedom and peace that this woman has. And somehow, that also affects his capacity to love.

That makes sense. God is love—and, if we are in relationship with him, then our capacity to love can only grow. But if we hold back, then we aren’t really trusting and we will never really be at rest in him. Instead, our fears, desires, and doubts will distract us from Jesus and our capacity to love will be thwarted.

Perhaps this gets at something about our living-together today. Far too many of our communities fall short of the ones in those early centuries—which were characterized by, as Joseph Hellerman points out in When the Church was a Family, such great love and charity both to each other and those around them that it drew the attention of others. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are more like Simon, inviting Jesus in but keeping him at arm’s length. Maybe we are concerned about what people think. Maybe we aren’t sure Jesus really is who he says or can do what he says. Maybe in our fear or doubt we put a fallback in place and aren't really resting in God. Perhaps we, like Simon, need to rethink our thinking and allow God to examine us, both individually and as a community, so we too can love lavishly according to our faith.

For my part, this story has challenged me to regain my focus on, as Paul puts it, “the simplicity and purity of my devotion to Christ” and consciously reject fallbacks. There is an exquisite ease and streamlined-ness to a no-fallback choice to trust that Jesus is who he says and can do what he says. It helps to push back those distractions caused by fears, doubts, busy-ness and selfishness. I needed to be reminded of that.

In the end, this story reminds us that constant and simple acts of faith save and free us, allowing God to transform us into to be the kind of people he created and enables us to be: those who lavishly love God—and others.