Stephen D. Jones writes that “the Gospels reveal that Jesus was an active learner” in his book Learning Jesus.
He notes that Jesus “learned from the Syrophoenician woman, who insisted he take her seriously … from the Samaritan woman at the well … from his mother, Mary.”
I would add the woman with the alabaster jar to this list.
At a dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured oil on them (see Luke 7:36-50).
We do not know this woman’s name, background or story. The Gospel of Luke describes her as “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37, NIV). That is how Simon, the host of the party, sees her and treats her. We do not know what her sin was.
In Luke’s Gospel, a sinner is someone who regularly violates the law of Moses and that everyone is considered a sinner who needs “to change their hearts and lives.” (Luke 5:32)
Jesus saw this woman as a person, received her hospitality gratefully and gracefully, stood up for her when Simon sneered at her, praised the way she was living out her forgiveness and sent her on her way with a reminder of her new identity.
And as he did from most of the challenges he faced and people he encountered, Jesus learned something from her.
He learned that what he likely was first taught by his mother – that people are more than the labels they carry – was true.
We get the sense that while the guests gathered at the dinner may not have known the woman’s story, they viewed her with enough disdain to, in their minds, justify their whispers, unapproving glances and outright rejection.
Yet, Jesus saw her as a person. He did not reject her touch, shun her kisses or impugn her motives.
If the teaching that people are more than the labels they carry had been an abstraction to him, in that moment, as the woman’s tears mingled with oil from her jar, Jesus learned that this teaching changed lives.
Further, he learned that the forgiveness of which he preached was more than a spiritual transaction. He learned that it was a life-giving force.
Being forgiven meant that the woman could walk the streets of the city with her head held high, with her priorities in place and with her spirit whole. It meant that she could go to dinner and not have to grovel when the self-righteous told her she didn’t belong.
Jesus saw this forgiveness shining in her.
Finally, from this woman with the alabaster jar, he learned that it was not only the religious scholars, the high-ranking officials or those able to provide lavish banquets who could contribute to the well-being of others.
Those who were willing to take risks and extend radical hospitality to the weary could contribute as well. Indeed, as in the case of the woman who anointed Jesus, they often do their part when those who should know better fall short.
Let me make a modest proposal. This Women’s History Month, let’s recognize all the women who taught us and teach us still.
Let’s honor the women who taught Jesus. The women who helped him find his path and encouraged him on his way.
Let’s give appropriate respect to those women who helped him learn the true power of respect, forgiveness, hospitality and hope.
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).