This is a controversy with deep roots in the Church. It had deep roots in Jesus' time, too. Women in 1st century Palestine, even wives in their own homes, could not be in the company of men to whom they were not married. A wife who entered the room where her husband was entertaining guests, would be considered a whore. This notion of separation didn't begin with Christianity, then, but it certainly was continued by it. I've pastored churches where the members could remember the days when men sat on one side during worship, the women and children on the other.
Which brings us, abruptly, to Luke 7:36-50. There are four anointing stories in the Gospels, as there are four Crucifixion stories. It is one of the few stories common to all four gospels. Jesus doesn't establish the "Last Supper" in John's gospel; Jesus isn't baptized in John's gospel; only Matthew and Luke have versions of Jesus most famous sermon; and only Matthew and Luke have birth stories of Jesus. But all four gospels include some variation on this anointing story. And there is a clear influence in the transmission of the stories between the four gospels, one that helps establish a time-line for their respective composition.
Here is the story:
One of the Pharisees invited him to dinner; he entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. A local woman, one who was a sinner, found out that he was having dinner at the Pharisee's house. She suddnely showed up with an alabaster jar of myrrh, and stood there behind him weeping at his feet. Her tears wet his feed, and she wiped them dry with her hair; she kissed his fee, and anointed them with the myrrh.Luke 7:36-50, SV
The Pharisee who had invited him saw this and said to himself, "if this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching him, since she is a sinner."
And Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Teacher," he said, "Speak up."
"This moneylender had two debtors; one owed five hundred silver coins, the other fifty. Since neither one of them could pay, he wrote off both debts. Now which of them will love him more?"
Simon answered, "I would imagine the one for whom he wrote off the larger debt."
And he said to him, "You're right." Then turning to the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I walked into your house and you didn't offer me water for my feet; yet she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn't offer me a kiss, but she hasn't stopped kissing my feet since I arrived. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with myrrh. For this reason, I tell you, her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven, as this outpouring of her love shows. But the one who is forgiven little shows little love."
And he said to her "Your sins have been forgiven."
Then those having dinner with him began to mutter to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"
And he said to the woman, "Your trust has save you; go in peace."
The scene is one straight out of 1st century Greek erotic literature. There are numersous attributions of "feet" as a euphemism for genitalia, and foot-washing was such a demeaning act (and so is still John's "sacrament that wasn't"), and yet an intimate and humble one, that it quite naturally became a subject of erotic imagination and even activity. We who are accustomed to women's unbound hair (and still misunderstand and revile Paul because of it) can no more grasp the eroticism of a woman letting her hair down than we can the Victorian obsession with a well-turned ankle, but we can imagine the effect. Tears, of course, have always had a sense of intimacy to them, related as they are to our weakness, our vulnerablity, and our willingness to be exposed, to feel safe enough with one other person to show our pain in such a physical way. So it isn't hard, upon reflection, to imagine this is a sexually-charged scene, even if it hardly seems to so us today.
But examine the scene in that light, and Jesus's statement about "love" being shown is practically ironic. Who says Jesus doesn't have a sense of humor? The men at that table all understand that woman's actions in only one way: the heart may be deceptive above all things, as God told Jeremiah, but that only reaffirms that actions speak louder than words. What we are willing to enact physically always means more than what we are willing to say, and here she says a lot without saying a word, and the message cannot be mistaken.
Imagine a woman walking up to your pastor or priest at a dinner party in a restaurant, and giving him a lap-dance, and you understand the scene in Simon's house that evening. Then imagine the pastor or priest, rather than being embarassed, thanks the woman for her attention; and you understand why everyone is grumbling about what Jesus has to say to her.
The fact is, must as we talk about the bounty of God's grace, and how we cannot pay for God's redemption, how Jesus had to be the sacrifice with atoned in blood for our sin in some cosmic scheme of economic salvation (the gift that is not a gift but merely part of a cycle of exchange), we still cannot grasp the idea of gift, and insist some exchange must be made, some acknowledgement must be offered, some contract must be formed. Basic contract law is that consideration is given in exchange for the offer; it is this consideration which "seals the deal" and makes the contract enforceable. An unenforceable promise is no contract at all. The consideration can be almost beneath consideration, but it must be something, or there is no binding the offeror to the offer. We have to have boundaries to our actions, certainty, something which marks a beginning and a reason for a change in circumstance, and so we look always to some kind of exchange, however insignificant, to conclude the transaction.
But Jesus refuses to work that way. We insist all those who were healed or blessed repented of their sins, or at least showed their faith by coming to the teacher. But we strain the stories to reach that conclusion; we twist them out of shape to continue that perception, and we insist on it because it puts us in control, gives us permission to judge who is, and who is not, with in the charmed circle of those whom God has smiled upon. (Notice, in that story, that Jesus says her "outpouring of love" shows her sins have been forgiven; but she can't know that until he tells her, and he doesn't speak the offensive words until he's through explaining his parable to Simon.) Rather than reflecting on the first being last and the last first, we continue to insist that we must be the one who do the inviting to the basiliea tou theou, that we must validate the tickets of others before they can be permitted entrance to the cosmic Disneyland of God. And the more Jesus refuses to work that way, the more we insist that we must do it for him.
"Do you see this woman?" Indeed, Simon has been struggling hard not to, and ever since Simon, we have refused to. Luke goes on, in Chapter 8, to name the women who traveled with Jesus (it's in keeping with his narrative, not a direct connection to this story), and the first he mentions is "Mary, the one from Magdala." Legend and custom have it that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute ("I Don't Know How To Love Him," Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber had her sing); that legend undoubtedly began with this scripture, as many an interpreter of the final story of Luke 7 have decided that unnamed woman was the woman named a few verses later. And why was she a prostitute? Well, because she was a "sinner." And what did "sinner" mean to Luke? Not the generalized "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" forumlation that would come about centuries later, but the specific label of a notorious woman, a woman beyond the pale of her society, indeed of almost any society (my daughter's friends, who are almost all as innocent as lambs about the real ways of the world and as inexperienced as kittens, regularly call other girls "whores" who seem to flirtatious, who go beyond the accepted boundaries of social behavior established by 14 year olds. 'Twas ever thus.). This was clear to Simon when she walked in the door, soliciting business, as was the common practice of the day, and probably the very practical reason why women did not consort with men in public or even in private. Today we can't imagine anyone walking into our house uninvited. Even in the days of open doors and open houses, crossing the threshold was an act so unimaginable that only children and thieve would do it. In 1st century Palestine, however, it was far more common, and social mores arose to control such uninvited visitors. But with no sidewalks to stand on, prostitutes had to do what they could to attract a customer's attentions. So Simon and Jesus and everyone at the table, knew what sort of woman this was.
And she proceeds to solicit business from Jesus. Is she, indeed, showing great love? Perhaps; but clearly not the love we think of as spiritual. That would fit the stories in Mark, Matthew, and even John, where the woman is finally named as Mary, sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from death (she is unnamed in the synoptics). There Jesus' feet are anointed, but with a towel and ointment, not hair and tears; and it is clearly meant to be a sign of her love for her Lord and the savior of her brother. In Mark and Matthew, the woman pours myrrh on Jesus' head, a clear foreshadowing of his coming death, as both anointings take place in "the upper room," and myrrh was commonly used to cover the stench of death decaying bodies quickly gave off in the Palestinian climate. No, the erotic intention of her action is clear in Luke's account. He doesn't hide it for a moment. Having taken this story from Mark, as Matthew did, or having gotten it from some other source, Luke clearly has his own intentions in it. But still, it is one of the stories every Gospel tells; it is one of the central stories of Jesus. So there can be no question Luke thinks it important, and isn't just tweaking it to outrage his audience, or perplex them; this story is central to Luke's understanding of Jesus' ministry, as it was central to all four Gospel writers.
And it is central because the story is about the basiliea tou theou, not about salvation. Salvation is a later church doctrine, not a teaching of the gospels. It is an inescapably Platonic notion that "true" life aims at reconciliation with the "Good," except in Plato's philosophy the Good has no will and does not draw us to it because, being perfect, it has no need to add to itself. The very idea of God as "perfect" is a Hellenistic gloss on Hebraism. God's perfection, in the Psalms and the scriptures, simply sets God up as far superior to humanity. God's perfection in Hellenistic thought must be measurable, and the truly perfect is arguably so complete that any addition to it would mean imperfection. The very notion of "salvation" as being invited to live with God in heaven for eternity is taken, not from the Gospels (where you'll never find a detailed working out of this scheme, and really on a mention of "many mansions" in John's gospel, in many ways the most Greek of all four gospels), but from Plato's Phaedo. Socrates, before he dies, elaborates on the afterlife, establishes by argument the immortality of the soul, and from that establishes a theory of reincarnation (since the soul is immortal, it is not "born," otherwise it would "die." This would become a central issue of Christology, too, hence the elaborate language in the Nicene Creed about the nature of the Christ: "Begotten, not made; being of one being with the Father; light from light; true God from true God.") which leads to the soul slowly recovering its perfect knowledge until it is purified enough to dwell eternally in the presence of the Good. Read Dante's entire Divine Comedy to get the Christian picture of this Platonic cosmology. Salvation, then, is a later addition, a graft on the trunk of the tree, at best. To read a soteriology into this story is to retroject an anachronism into Luke's narrative.
What Jesus gives her is not life into the ages, but life here and now; he offers her the invitation into the kingdom of God where it will do her the most good: in this life. He does not offer her peace in the bye and bye, which would be a cruel reinforcement of the system she lives and suffers under. He tells her that her faith has saved her, and while she wonders, perhaps, "What faith?", he tells her to go in peace. I cannot help but think those simple words from a truly holy human being would mean more to her, and do more to give her peace and even change her, than any theory of christology or soteriology, or any schema of explanation and justification, ever could.
But maybe that's because I'm a hopeless romantic and sentimentalist.