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Myrtle Langley

Luke 7: 36-47

Back in the 1980s, a church had commissioned a statue of Jesus from Hugh Collins, who was serving a life sentence for murder. He chose to depict Christ with the 'woman who was a sinner'. Carved from ten tons of sandstone, the finished product was considered to be one of the greatest works of art to come out of Scotland in 20 years. Yet the church turned it down.

Why? Because Christ was naked. Usually, I reflected, in our culture we tolerate nakedness in women but not in men. Perhaps the church would have preferred a naked woman and a clothed Christ - a portrait of a stereotypical prostitute or bimbo and a sanitised Christ so beloved by the Church. Yet never had I seen such a gesture of acceptance or such an expression of serenity and love. I got the feeling that the artist knew more than most of us about guilt and forgiveness.

The narrative of the woman and the story of the two debtors are a superb example of setting and parable inextricably intertwined. The parable is incomprehensible without its setting, the narrative pointless without the image of the debtor.

A dinner party is in progress. Simon, the host, is not only wealthy but a Pharisee and, therefore, religious. He has heard of the popular young preacher and healer called Jesus, believed by many to be a prophet, and has invited him to join his guests. Yet, although he addresses him respectfully as 'Rabbi', Simon does not extend to him the customary courtesies. Jesus does not fail to notice.

The guests recline on low couches with their feet behind them. It is likely the doors were left open to admit all sorts of people, from beggars to the intellectually curious. Yet neither Simon nor his guests are prepared for this particular visitor. They recognise her as a notorious woman of the streets. She takes up her place behind the prophet, with a jar in her hand full of expensive perfume.

But before she gets a chance to open it, her tears begin to fall onto Jesus' feet. She dries them with her hair, covers them with her kisses and then pours the perfume over them. Her act of extravagant love extends to Jesus the courtesies denied him by Simon. It is the intruder and not the host who has been drawn to the prophet and has recognised who he is.

The parable interprets what has happened. God is like the creditor; the woman and Simon are the debtors. Love does not earn forgiveness, but expresses its effect. The woman is not forgiven because she loves much; she loves much because she is forgiven much. Simon loves little, not because he has not been forgiven, but because he has comparatively little to forgive. Perhaps he does not know what it is like to feel forgiven.If the story demonstrates the value of love and forgiveness, it also shows that they are offered to all. Jesus makes clear that neither the worthy nor the religious have any exclusive claim on God's favour.  Thus, the parable is an invitation to joy. Basic Gospel does not set itself up in judgement over others, whether they be single mothers, errant fathers, wayward politicians, warring clerics or prostitutes. Basic Gospel offers love and forgiveness and a new start for all. Basic Gospel offers new relationships in a new community. Then, loved much and forgiven much, we shall go out to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Only this will put a heart back into the Church and the 'great' back into Britain. Only this will give due emphasis to the needs and significance of both the individual and society.


This is an abridged version of a piece which first appeared in April 1994. Find the full article in the Third Way archive.