Last week’s post discussed how Jesus managed the tension from eating with tax collectors and sinners. The gospels report three different times Jesus was anointed. The three anointings took place in three different houses and two different cities. Two anointings occurred before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and one after it. In two cases, the anointing was in preparation for Jesus’ burial. In the third, the reason was probably worship and repentance. Jesus’ feet were anointed in two cases, while his head was anointed in one.
The first anointing occurred in the house of Simon the Pharisee, who invited Jesus for a meal. A sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with an ointment (Luke 7:36-50). The second anointing occurred at supper with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus at Bethany. Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-8). The third anointing occurred in the house of Simon, the leper. An unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head with an ointment of a very costly pure nard (Matthew 26:6–13andMark 14:3–9).
Today’s post focuses on the first anointing. The lesson from the story of the first anointing is often about repentance and appreciation for God’s deeds. However, the story also shows how Jesus managed the tension between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman.
The story is recorded only in Luke’s gospel. The event occurred possibly at Nain (cf. Luke 7:11-16) before Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem. Simon was a Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for a meal. As they were at table, a woman in the city, who was a sinner, came in with an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind Jesus at his feet, bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. When the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). The conflict here is the tension between Simon and the woman. Simon did not consider the woman worthy of coming to the table where he hosted a great man like Jesus. The woman was delighted that Jesus was around that area, making it easier for her to pour out her heart.
The response of Jesus
The tension between Simon and the woman was obscured, yet it could affect their lives in the future. Jesus intervened to douse this tension so that both could positively get on with their lives. Hence, he chose the way he responded.
First, in line with his mission of saving all and as a conflict resolution strategist, Jesus did not condemn Simon for despising the woman who came solely to seek Jesus. One may argue that the incident occurred at Simon’s house, so he had the right to regulate those who came to his house. However, this incident is different. Jesus was popular, and large crowds followed him wherever he went. Simon knew about this before inviting Jesus, so he only mumbled his comments to himself. Moreover, the situation was not about entering the house but touching Jesus. Of course, Simon lacked the right to impede one from accessing Jesus or touching him.
Second, Jesus began cordially, which disposed Simon to positive listening. Jesus said: “Simon, I have something to say to you”. Simon answered, “What is it, Teacher?” (Luke 7:40).
Third, Jesus began his comments with a parable, further disposing Simon to positive listening. Jesus told him of a creditor with two debtors, one who owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. The creditor forgave the two. Jesus then asked who of the two would love the creditor more. Simon responded that the one who had been forgiven a greater sum.
Fourth, Jesus then turned to the woman and, while addressing Simon, compared Simon’s actions to the woman’s. Simon did not provide water for Jesus to wash his feet, but the woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon did not offer Jesus a kiss, but the woman kept kissing Jesus’ feet. Simon did not anoint Jesus’ head with oil, but the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Therefore, she showed much love because her many sins have been forgiven. By adopting comparative criticism, Jesus helped Simon reflect on his attitude of denigrating sinners to help Simon understand that sinners have equal access to God and that God appreciates their effort to repair the damage caused by their sinful behaviour.
Fifth, Jesus did not commend the woman in a way that would offend Simon. After the comparison, Jesus simply told the woman that her sins had been pardoned.
Lessons from Jesus
(a)Focus on the issue and not the person:
The ego is an important commodity of every individual’s self-esteem and emotional stability. Its importance is so much so that people face mental health crises once their ego is battered or deflated.
No matter one’s status, people often fight back when their identity tied to their ego is touched. Jesus applied this in his response to Simon. He carefully responded to him in a way that would not deflate his ego as a Pharisee through a predisposition to positive listening and comparative criticism. We recall that Pharisees did all to safeguard their ego as righteous people—a reason for their hypocrisy. This also explains why Nicodemus had to visit Jesus at night.
(b)Let’s not denigrate people because we believe we are better:
Simon denigrated the woman because he believed he was better. Such denigration, even if nonverbal, fuels conflict. This is because denigration also batters one’s ego. It is irrelevant if the party was objectively wrong. The interest is to resolve the conflict or prevent escalation of existing tensions. Jesus avoided this in his response to Simon. Hence, rather than dismissing Simon for not appreciating God as much as the woman did, Jesus adopted a comparative criticism that focused on highlighting the similarities and differences in the actions of Simon and the woman.
(c)Positive listening and comparative criticism:
A mediator in conflict should be neutral to maintain the trust of the conflicting parties. Maintaining the parties’ trust is essential in keeping the communication lines open to find ways to resolve the situation.
Positive listening is a response to how Jesus approached the issue. He began cordially to ensure that Simon believed all was well, thereby disposing him towards listening. Comparative criticism in mediation focuses on the similarities and differences of the actions of the conflicting parties to help each party self-identify their contributions to the conflict.
(d)Know that everyone has equal access to God:
Jesus came for the salvation of all, and this principle guided him throughout his mission. Consequently, he allowed everyone access to him, irrespective of their status. Understanding that everyone has equal access to God and that God desires mercy for all is essential in conflict prevention and management. This is because it helps us realise we are just part of God’s big equation and that the mercy to be granted is not ours.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.