The Gospel writers are not primarily concerned with presenting a chronological record of the life of Jesus, but with presenting a theological reflection on the event of Jesus, woven from the life of Jesus as source material. So, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early on in Jesus' ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it within the final days.
The Gospel reading for Holy Communion today (Luke 7:36-50) is striking, in that it takes the account of a woman anointing Jesus with ointment, which the other three Gospels locate within the final days leading up to his death, and places it much earlier on in the narrative. This, in order to do something different. Whereas in Matthew, Mark, and John, this is about preparing Jesus’ body for burial, in Luke it provides occasion to consider the possible and varying responses of sinners.
Nonetheless, the Church is not given one record of this event, but four; and therefore, we must consider all four if we are to fully understand what is going on.
We know, from Matthew, Mark, and John that this event takes place in Bethany; and, from John, that the woman who anoints Jesus is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
We know, from Matthew, Mark, and Luke that the host is a man called Simon. Luke tells us that he is a Pharisee, a member of a sect who sought to live under God’s approval. But we know from Matthew and Mark that he is known as Simon the leper, a term relating to skin diseases that were seen as evidence of God’s disapproval. A leper would be excluded from the community. That Simon is a Pharisee surely implies that he is a healed leper. Indeed, it is entirely within the realms of possibility that he is one of those who were healed of leprosy by Jesus, restored to community, restored in standing before God.
The woman is identified, in Luke, as a sinner. To be a sinner is not, primarily, a moral designation but an ontological one, a matter of being, and of how we understand ourselves and others to be. For many in Jesus’ day, the term sinner applied to those whose life circumstances ‘self-evidently’ showed God's disapproval. For others, self-identification as a sinner expressed utter dependence on God.
That Mary is a sinner has, for far too long and without any justification, been interpreted in terms of prostitution. But how might we re-frame her as a sinner?
Mary and Martha are unusual in their culture, in that they are adult women, living with an adult brother; yet both are unmarried, and it is Martha, not Lazarus, who is the head of the family. In recent times, commentators have speculated on whether their parents, who would have brokered marriages for their daughters, had died while the sisters were still very young; and whether Lazarus, who never speaks in the Gospels, was disabled, including some form of profound learning disability. Such family circumstances would certainly have been seen as evidence of God’s disapproval, would brand someone a sinner. Here, sin is not primarily personal wrongdoing, but separation from God (perceived) and neighbour—indeed, multiple barriers between them. Yet, in his friendship with this family, Jesus has overcome the barriers. Sin has been forgiven. Relationship, restored.
It is possible, then, that both Simon and Mary have had their lives significantly transformed by Jesus (and all the more-so when we note that John places Mary’s actions after Jesus has raised her brother Lazarus from death). Yet, one knows herself to have been forgiven many sins, or barriers between herself and God and neighbour, and so loves greatly in return; while the other knows himself to have been forgiven a lesser debt, and so loves, but loves sparingly.
The tragedy is that Simon cannot identify with Mary (even knowing her history with Jesus, who, for Simon, does not know his own friend). She remains, in his eyes, a sinner—and he, not—even though both have known what it is to be judged and excluded by the community, and both have known what it was to be utterly dependent on God and to have been restored to community by and through Jesus. (John tells us that Martha served, while Lazarus was at table. This might suggest that Simon saw himself as benefactor to Mary’s family. They are not impossibly far apart; but neither are they here as equals.) Simon suffers from selective amnesia.
When Jesus tells Mary, your sins are forgiven, he is restating what she already knows, for this knowledge is what her act of love sprung from. But he is also making the point that Simon’s sins are not, yet, forgiven; he has not yet been fully restored to community—not because of any lack of willingness on Jesus’ part, but because of lack of perceived need on the part of Simon and his friends, who are content to be restored to one another without being restored to a wider and more radical community.
The stark warning of Simon the leper who became a Pharisee is that it is too easy to forget the only debt we ought never be free from, the debt of love we owe to God and others. For we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven.