How many tears does it take?
How many tears must you shed in order to clean someone’s feet? How many cups of tears does it take to wash the mud and feces of Nain’s streets from the soles of Jesus’ feet? How many gallons of tears must fall to make Jesus clean?
Today we hear the story of a woman who draws us into her life with tears, tears of a woman who recognizes that her body is out of sorts with the law, a body seeking a place to become fully herself.
“If this man were a prophet,” Simon the Pharisee chastises Jesus, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
She is a sinner.
Jesus refuses follow Simon’s logic. Jesus refuses to let the law determine what this woman can and cannot do. Instead, Jesus lets himself be drawn into her world, to be invited into her life, as she takes his feet in her hands, his body into her life.
Here, in Simon’s house, we see a conflict between purity and impurity, violation and reception—two worlds collide. On the one side, a moral code determines Simon’s table fellowship; on the other, a woman invites Jesus into the transgressive love of God.
The conflict occurs around the Pharisee’s table, where this woman decides to be who she is, because all she knows is that she wants to be near to Jesus. A Pharisee’s home, a shared meal, a site of ritual purity, of expectation, of law-keeping. She bursts in, weeping, grasping, touching him. She bathes Jesus’ battered feet in her tears.
Jesus receives her. He receives all of this – an act of lawlessness. It goes this way for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus does not often instigate transgression. Instead, he receives the lawlessness of others – their bread, their dead, their tears. Jesus becomes the judge over the law, a judge that calls into question the law itself, a judge that makes room for the law’s transgression.
The whole law against this woman, this sinner, and her footwashing. Luke’s version is the only of the four Gospels without the command to wash each other’s feet. Instead we have this story. It’s as if this absence, the absence of Jesus bending down before Peter, basin and towel in hand—it’s as if this story, this woman, as she anoints Jesus, she gives us the origin of the command “wash each other’s feet.” In our own footwashing, in our loving, in our chasing after one another’s tears we become re-enactors of the anointing, re-enactors of this woman’s transgression. We follow after her. We let her body shape our bodies. We take part in her reshaping of law’s possibility.
Jesus learns from the woman. Jesus re-enacts the anointing and teaches his disciples to do the same. “When you follow after God, when you live your life,” we can imagine him saying, “look for tears, look for the moment that overwhelms you with love, a love that looks like lawlessness—because that’s where God happens, that’s what God does to us and to our world. Learn it from one another.”
So we wash each other’s feet. We wash feet because we are always negotiating what love looks like, always testing among ourselves love’s lawlessness. This is what the Pharisees, the law-keepers, find most perplexing, most frightening about the woman anointing Jesus. She challenges the stability of the law. She challenges not just boundaries but the law’s purpose. I remember the words of Yehudah Amichai, “We begged you, Lord, to divide right from wrong, and instead you divided the waters above the firmament from those beneath it.”
We begged you, Lord, make it clear, give us stasis, give us history without disruption, a world without change, bodies that conform to our predispositions. We begged you, Lord, don’t let us lose our grasp. Give us control, a perennial word, passed down in the hands of men, the guardians of society. We begged you, Lord, divide right from wrong.
In Jesus we are not given the comfort of regulation. Those who approach Jesus take that from us. The ones who pluck grain on the Sabbath, the one who brings Jesus to the open mouth of the beloved’s tomb, the one who lays before him a dead child – all these lives are occasions for violation of the law. Instead of assurance we are given tears. Wash each other’s feet. Follow the path of tears, the flood of tears.
The woman draws near, the trembling hand carrying her precious oil, the hours of weeping, kissing his feet, the intrusion of her body, and in doing so she reconfigures the law. We’re often caught in a web of the law. We prefer to reinvigorate rules. Jesus and the new law, we often say, a new law to replace an old law, a new code to follow the Savior.
The woman takes this from us, too. She takes from us even this stability. Instead she shows us how the law is unraveled in a gradual rediscovery of its porous boundaries. Through this woman’s body, her life drawn near to Jesus, the law now placed in a new relationship, turned in on itself. The law now makes space for lawlessness; the law now as an arena for transgression, forgiveness as the undoing of the law. Jesus repurposes law, law that highlights how powerful love can be, the way an act of love washes away the power we thought the law had over our lives, washing away the law with a stream of tears.
At the heart of this lawlessness is the unnamed woman. So often we think of someone’s namelessness– the failure to give name–as an abuse of patriarchy, typical of first century Palestine. But, here in Luke, the absence of a name frees from the past, liberates this woman from a law that she has renegotiated, a legal framework that no longer defines her.
Today I need Jesus to be for people like this woman. I need for Jesus to be receiving into God’s eternal love 50 people who felt that their bodies and their lives and their sexualities collided with the world around them. I need a Jesus who follows after these beloved and tells us to do what he did, to follow after these beloved who witness to us the lawless love of the anointing woman.
I’ve been thinking more about transgender persons, queer people, those whose bodies are being loosed from what was predetermined, from stable categories, bodies more immediately making and remaking, The anointing woman, too, is a body in process. She is freed from our grasp, freed from the grasp of her community, from our moral categories, from our laws. Like bodies out of sorts with assigned biology, she is untethered, set outside the name given to her, the identity imposed upon her.
Simon the Pharisee, confined by his name is cemented into the text. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus says his name, roots him to the law he does not yet realize also holds him fast. “Do you see this woman?” But the woman – the woman remains nameless, outside of Simon’s grasp. He cannot see her; she is too far away. She is freed into the lawlessness of love she invites.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells Simon that this nameless woman has freed herself through violation of the law through love. She is becoming outside of her past, opened up to a lawless world. She is still here each time we wash each other’s feet, each time our tears flood one another’s lives, when we follow the tears that flow out of Florida, a river of tears. Footwashing invites us into the memory of this lawlessness, invites us to follow after the memory of this woman, freed into the law and freed from the law and for the law’s remaking, in our tears, with our hands, filled with love, with grace, with grief, filled with God’s life.