“Where shall wisdom be found?” (Job 28:12)
“Lady Wisdom cries out in the street ‘. . . they will call upon me, but I will not answer, they will seek me diligently, but will not find me!’” (Prov 1:20, 28)
The Hebrew Scriptures contain a tradition of wisdom’s hiddenness, a tradition that the New Testament picks up; for example, in the opening chapters of 1st Corinthians, Paul speaks of the “secret and hidden” wisdom that has been revealed in Christ (2:7). In the gospels, Jesus speaks in parables so that “they may look but not perceive, and may listen but not understand.” (Mark 4:12)
The story of the “sinful” woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 participates in this theme of hidden wisdom.
Right before the story begins, Luke has Jesus proclaiming, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But Wisdom is justified by all her children!”
Two things in that last sentence should strike us: 1) Wisdom is female (remember, she is personified as a woman in the Hebrew Scriptures); 2) Jesus is a child of Wisdom.
After this proclamation by Jesus, Luke jumps right into the story of the “sinful” woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet:
Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for dinner. A woman “of the city” comes in and starts washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and then kisses them and anoints them with ointment. The host – along with, probably, his all-male guests – is scandalized, so Jesus tells a parable, a story that either reveals or conceals wisdom, depending on where one stands, i.e. depending on one’s social location
Now it must be noted that the host of this dinner party and the “sinful” woman who crashes it, occupy two very different social spaces. He is a relatively wealthy man in good social standing. She is a socially poor woman, an outcast, a “sinner,” if not also economically poor (the ointment may have been too expensive for an economically poor person to afford).
In Jesus’ parable, there are two debtors. We learn later, if we haven’t already figured it out, that one of them represents the host and the other the “sinful” woman. In this parable, they occupy, categorically, the same social/economic space; they are both debtors. It is doubtful that the Pharisee would have thought of himself as a debtor, but the parable levels the social order by making them both debtors.
The parable levels the social order and then goes even further, flipping the tables, declaring the woman to be the superior person, the one who loves more. The first is made last and the last first.
Jesus proceeds, in his explanation of the parable, to expose his host’s lack of basic hospitality (love): In the first century Mediterranean world, a wealthy host would welcome a social equal into his home with a kiss, providing him with a means to wash his feet and then anointing his head with oil. Apparently, this host does not think Jesus worthy of this basic hospitality. The “sinful” woman, on the other hand, shows Jesus abundant love.
In response, Jesus pronounces her forgiven, i.e. he justifies her. The perceptive reader recalls that “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” Could this woman be, for Jesus, the incarnation of wisdom?
The Pharisees were the wisdom movement; theirs was the tradition of the sages. Luke, however, subtly reveals that this “sinful” woman, not the wealthy Pharisees, embodies true wisdom. Wisdom is found among the outcast, the poor (whether socially or economically), those who are marginalized in the dominant economy and culture.
Jesus justifies her by pronouncing her forgiven . . . but she also justifies him, by giving him the honor denied him by his host. Exactly who justifies whom and who embodies Wisdom can get pretty confusing.
The New Testament identifies Jesus as Wisdom incarnate (e.g. 1st Cor 1:24), but here in this story, a “sinful” woman personifies Wisdom, and we saw earlier, in verse 35, that wisdom has many children, including Jesus and “sinners” like this woman.
Jesus lacked the honor of the elite in his society. He was really much closer to the “sinful” woman than to the dinner party host. It should not surprise us then that Jesus and the “sinful” woman find each other and give each other the honor that has been denied each of them. Together they create a new economy and culture of honor and love. Luke’s message to us in this story is that this new secret society is where Wisdom hides herself, and she is justified by all her children.
Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Widsom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel