William O'Brien
How Gospel forgiveness challenges our social order

In my hometown of Philadelphia stands a looming structure: the former Eastern State Penitentiary. It was originally the site of a Quaker experiment to treat offenders in a way that promoted penitence (hence penitentiary) rather than simply a place of punishment. Maybe we should go back and take a second look at such a creative effort.

Forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation are arguably at the very heart of our faith and what make us uniquely Christian. We are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus; God achieves reconciliation through Christ; and our God is a God of mercy, which is manifested in the ministry of Jesus. Yet there has been little effort to reflect on what forgiveness and mercy would look like as political values. Church people seem content to relegate forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation to spiritual or, at best, interpersonal matters, not to use them as raw materials for public policy.

Yet I can hardly imagine a riper domain or a better fit for faith-based social policy than the criminal justice system. Why, I wonder, would the church not raise its voice to advocate a system that is founded more on mercy and forgiveness than on punishment?

But in fact, many Americans who most fervently identify as Christians and promote Christian values in society are also among the most ardent “law and order” advocates, extremely tough on crime and opposed to any emphasis on rehabilitation. Perhaps at some level, we all intuit an unsettling truth: Radical forgiveness, as articulated and practiced by Jesus, might in fact be deeply threatening to the social order.

This notion has grown in me in part because of the famous story in the Gospel of Luke of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus (7:36–50). This story has long had a deep emotional hold on me for reasons I do not fully understand. Each time I read it the story reveals new textures of meaning to me. It is a richly provocative story, but one often ignored in the pulpit and the pews.

‘Do You see This Woman?’

The story appears to be linked to texts in other Gospels, but Luke’s telling offers very different details. It is a uniquely Lukan story, and it shares some powerful themes and motifs with other Gospel tales found only in Luke, like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

We are told, simply, that Jesus was at supper at the home of a Pharisee whose name, we eventually learn, is Simon. The sparse details are enough for us to know that this is not a simple church potluck. Simon appears to be a person of some social status and privilege, certainly recognized as a person of religious importance. He is hosting a formal dinner party. Luke reports that Jesus “took his place,” a loaded detail signifying what the New Testament scholars tell us are the cultural and social dynamics inherent in such a gathering: proper protocols, seating arrangements, rituals and sundry assumptions that undergird proprietary roles and relations. It is the very kind of “party” that Jesus—who must have attended several of them—will later address with a scathingly deconstructive agenda (Lk 14:1–24), precisely because he understands the potency of socially defined and regulated table fellowship.

Luke also drops a few hints that Simon’s motives in inviting Jesus are not necessarily benign. Are the mavens of religious sensibility testing this backwoods prophet? (Does he know which fork to use? Are his interpretations of Torah sound?) The Nazarene is given his seating (or reclining) assignment, appropriately positioned among the invited worthies—putting him literally and figuratively in his place.

Enter the uninvited guest. Luke reports her arrival on the scene quite matter-of-factly, but the reader knows right away that a social hand grenade has just been lobbed into Simon’s dining room.

For starters, before we learn anything else about her, this woman is violating an all-male social space, especially since she is not bringing a dish to set before the dinner guests. (Jesus will later take on the thorny matter of the “guest list” at formal parties in Lk 14:12–14.) One can imagine that a dutiful servant in the back room is already dialing 911, and it will not be long before we hear the sirens approaching the house.

In addition to the mere social impropriety of her presence, we are told that the woman was known to be a “sinner in the town.” The Gospel language is not reflecting a modern judgmentalism but rather a social and cultural reality: The “debt codes” of the times were religious rules applied to persons according to their situations and behaviors in society, formally adjudicated and proclaimed by recognized religious authorities like those at Simon’s party. The woman is wearing her cultural equivalent of a scarlet letter. While it is not stated directly, the text insinuates that the nature of the sin may be sexual. (In fact, a few commentators have wryly suggested that some of those at table may have had personal reasons to know of her sinful status.)

Luke ratchets up the scandal factor a few notches by describing the woman’s actions toward Jesus: anointing with oil, cleaning his feet with her tears and her free-flowing hair. It is extraordinarily sensual. The unclean sinner, who has already violated the boundaries of her social status, now further fractures good public order by an unseemly public display of affection.

But note the concern of the denizens of that good public order: It is this upstart rabbi who may be acting even more scandalously. This alleged man of God is putting up nary a protest; in fact, he seems to be accepting her shamefully overt sensuality.

Yes, Jesus is receiving her offering, even if it hints of the kind of carnal commerce that might be all she has to offer. He fully grasps the drama of this moment and the power of what she is doing. As I read this story, I am tempted to say that he is even awed by what is unfolding. This woman, undoubtedly burdened by social oppression, is defying the law and religious propriety, taking an enormous risk, throwing all caution to the wind—because she has been touched by divine love and mercy. I imagine her having stood at the margins of the crowds listening to this prophet and miracle worker from Galilee, hearing a message that is unlike anything she has ever heard before, words that bore into her heart, liberating this captive. So, “when she heard that Jesus was there,” she just had to act, consequences be damned.

Between her passionate outpouring and the internal derision of the men, Jesus begins to interpret the scene with a parable. (I imagine the Pharisees saying to themselves: “Oh, no! He is about to tell a story! That usually means trouble.”) It is a parable about debt, with an embarrassingly obvious moral, which he elicits from poor Simon. But, in fact, the parable is not a randomly chosen metaphor. Jesus is very slyly making the connection between what might be termed “economic debt” and “moral debt”—in the same way the two versions of his core prayer of the reign of God speak respectively of God forgiving literal debt and forgiving sin (Mt 6:12 and Lk 11:3). By spinning a yarn about debt relief, he is evoking the ancient covenantal economic vision, with its sabbatical year and jubilee year provisions for periodic debt relief, land redistribution, gleaning and protection for certain classes (recurring themes in Luke’s Gospel), and he is shedding light on the moment of excess at hand. 

If in fact the woman has turned to prostitution, Jesus is insinuating that her “sin” is likely one from economic necessity: She has defaulted to the sex trade out of painful need for survival, no doubt because she has been impoverished by (undoubtedly male) forces that have victimized and economically marginalized her. This is an old and sad story. For the vast majority of women in every culture who have engaged in the sex trade, it is rarely a choice, and usually a desperate measure of survival, entailing no small measure of social stigma and even deeper marginalization and powerlessness. At the very least, if this party-crashing woman was pushed to such extreme measures, it was because the community failed in its moral obligations to ensure the economic viability of all its members. Was she a neglected widow, forced to earn money on her own in the only way possible to her? Well, then, these very religious leaders and scribal authorities should have been among the first to call for covenantal protections for her, precisely so that she would not have to experience economic desperation. Instead, they were content to brand her a social sinner and let her live with the oppressive consequences.

Jesus snares Simon in a rhetorical and even theological trap that begins to shift the sands of “religious order.” Having softened them up, he now ropes Simon and the other guests in. In a brilliant tableau of body language, Luke tells us that Jesus speaks to Simon while he is looking intently at the woman. He asks, “Simon, do you see this woman?” A fairly dumb question, one might say: From the moment she burst into the room, she has sucked up all attention with her appalling behavior. But in fact, Jesus is pushing the point: “Do you see her?” He realizes, sadly, the answer is no; Simon does not see her. Nor do the other guests. They see a sinner. They see a label. They are blinded by a rigid social and religious world of strict rules, order, boundaries, definitions—a world they consider themselves responsible to adjudicate.

What they do not see is a woman, a person experiencing amazing grace that has saved a wretch like her. She is passionate, reckless in her response to a radical grace that has overturned everything for her. She has been freed from oppression not merely by a priestly absolution or a scribal decree, but by love, a love that is profligate, breaking all bounds, bursting out of all theologies and codes (see Lk 4:18–19).

Even Jesus is astonished by what he sees. And he yearns for these very religious men to also see this miracle of grace. Finally, in what could be seen as cruelty but is really poignant sadness, Jesus compares her love with Simon’s failure to enact even the most rudimentary expressions of social hospitality.

Then, his coup de grâce: “Your sins are forgiven.” In this powerful narrative, such a statement is probably not so much Jesus enacting the forgiveness as proclaiming what has already happened—which only serves to further enrage the religious authorities. How dare this no-account country hick declare her sins forgiven, independent of the imprimatur of the religious heavies.

They perceive (here and elsewhere in the Gospels) that Jesus is seeking to usurp their power. But Jesus is simply declaring, in classic evangelistic testimony: Look at what God has done. Look at what divine mercy is capable of doing when it does not have to be channeled and mediated by human systems. Look at some real spiritual power, proven authentic in that it liberates, not oppresses.

“Simon, do you see this woman?” Maybe a variation on this theme might be: “And do you see what fruit is born of God’s merciful, reckless, passionate love?”

Competing Religions

The more I read this story, the more it strikes me that it ultimately depicts the clash of two radically different religious worlds. Simon’s religious world is one of rules and regulations, of appropriate adherence to clear moral codes and accompanying approbation in cases of violation. Simon’s religion is very moral, with strict and clear standards. It is also formal, rigid, austere and cold. It is primarily legalistic, with appropriate hierarchies of power to adjudicate the laws. It evinces little mercy or love. It eschews relationality.

The woman’s religious world is thunderous and chaotic. When God’s love breaks through, it upsets all social decorum and defies all orderly proceedings. It is profligate, passionate, relational, even sensual. It is not devoid of morality, but it operates by loving mercy to heal the brokenness at the heart of sin. It is a religion of grace and gratitude, of power and fearlessness. It embraces, caresses, pours forth like expensive ointment.

Two religious worlds, two Gods. The more I see this clash in this text, the more I see it at work throughout much of Luke’s Gospel. And make no mistake: It is a clash that will cost Jesus dearly and, in time, his followers as well.

A few chapters later, Jesus will weave another tale that is also unique to the Lukan text and also about, to put it simply, mercy. The story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11–32) also carries a subversive sting of social scandal that is usually missed in the traditional readings. Perhaps more powerful than the tale of the father’s profound mercy is the challenge of the dutiful but disgruntled older son. He is a citizen of the world of Simon the Pharisee—a world of rules and obligations, of proper social and religious order, of clearly delineated moral calculus where obedience is rewarded and iniquity punished. Jesus challenges the older brother’s world with another vision of reckless and socially outrageous mercy.

In a bit of my own personal midrash, I speculate: Could it be that Jesus came away from the encounter not only profoundly moved by the party-crashing woman, but also deeply frustrated with Simon’s recalcitrant religiosity? Perhaps Jesus mulled over what it would be like for someone in Simon’s social and religious world to be likewise touched by this grace, this love. Maybe he eventually spun the tale of the Prodigal Son as an effort to imagine a person like Simon, cast as the wealthy father, being so liberated by love that he understands and practices the same amazing, rule-breaking, decorum-smashing, socially scandalous mercy and forgiveness.

A real embrace of Gospel mercy and forgiveness would upset the social order. It would overthrow the cold but well-regulated religious and cultural systems of Simon the Pharisee and the morally upright older brother. It is said that we are a Bible-based society—and so we are—but of the Ten Commandments variety. Chaos would ensue if a reckless youth can squander the family fortune on crack and whores, sully the family’s good name, make a mockery of all decorum and tradition and hard work and proper living—only to receive a party in return. Like poor Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, we might find it utterly impossible to inhabit such a moral world, in which all the clear lines have been blurred and the rules discarded.

Authentic Gospel forgiveness is not innocent piety; it is revolutionary. It betokens the collapse of one form of social order and announces a new one: the reign of God. It proclaims that the structure of human community based primarily on rules and regulations must die, like the grain of seed, to give birth to something new. It belongs to a religion where all commandments are fulfilled in love, a love that defies our efforts to control or manipulate it. It is the expression of a God who lavishes such love on us. In experiencing such forgiveness, we are moved to lavish love on one another.

Are we willing to take the risk and join the revolution? 

William O'Brien is the special pro- jects coordinator for Project HOME, an organization that develops solu- tions to homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia. He also coordinates the Alternative Seminary, a grassroots pro- gram of biblical and theological study.