It looked like another night of degradation, of providing sexual favors to men who’d preach her into hell the following Shabbat — men who enjoyed her presence at night but denied knowing her by day. Miriam hated her life and was beginning to hate herself.
As she walked to her usual spot, she saw two women rushing toward the home of Simon the Pharisee. She could just barely hear them talking. “Simon has invited Jesus of Nazareth to dinner! They say this Jesus can do miracles! Some say he’s a prophet,” the first one said.
“That’s nothing,” her companion said. “He even forgives sins. At least he says he does.”
“You mean, like John the Baptist? Will he baptize us?”
“No,” the second woman said, “you don’t have to go to the Jordan. He just looks you in the eye and says, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ like he’s God himself! Some call him a blasphemer. I heard that he thinks he’s the Messiah,” she laughed as she spoke, “but this Pharisee wants to hear him, so maybe he’s the real thing. At least it’ll be a good show!”
Miriam’s heart leaped at the sounds. “My sins could be forgiven!” she thought. She’d heard of John the Baptist but felt too dirty to see him and be baptized. And now John was in prison and she’d lost all hope of ever being right with God. Maybe this Jesus could really forgive! She knew it was impossible. Any man holy enough to forgive sins would never forgive a woman like her.
She hurriedly followed the women. The sun was setting over the Mediterranean and the houses along the main street were glowing from candles and oil lamps. Soon she saw the entry to the courtyard where Simon lived. And people from all over town were hurrying to see this miracle worker.
Miriam slipped in, pulling a shawl over her hair. She’d spent time with many a man with her hair uncovered. Among Jews, this act of intimacy was reserved for a husband and his wife, and she’d made a great show of letting the men see and even touch her hair. But in the home of a Pharisee, her hair would have to be covered.
She inched her way toward the center of the courtyard. As was typical for the wealthy, Simon’s home was built around a courtyard, which opened onto the street. The weather was nice, and Simon was serving his guests outdoors.
They reclined on Roman couches arrayed around a low table. Servants busily brought in food and drink. She could see the dinner companions speaking, but the noise of the crowd was too great for her to hear this Jesus. She pressed toward the dinner table, and soon found herself looking down at two very dirty feet.
Miriam thought to herself, “This just can’t be! How could anyone come to dinner with a man of wealth and education and recline with dirty feet? Just look at the couch!” Dirt caked on the feet from a day of walking the countryside was dropping onto the upholstery. Miriam had to clean up after the men who’d visited her, and she knew how hard this would be to clean!
But as she looked from the feet to the face of the man, she realized this was the guest of honor. She was horrified! Simon had been unspeakably rude to this man. If he was good enough to be invited to dinner, he was good enough to have his feet washed! Miriam certainly didn’t expect her feet to be washed, but a dinner guest —s omeone invited to eat with the owner of the house—well, Simon might just as well have spit on him.
She thought of the men she knew. If one of them had been treated this way, they’d have been angry. They’d have left, or they’d have demanded that they not be insulted in this way — especially in front of a crowd. Most would have created scene. What an unusual man this must be? Such … humility.
She could see the condescension in Simon’s eyes, the barely concealed sneer. She understood men very, very well, and knew this man thought Jesus to be beneath him. And yet Jesus was completely nonplussed. He very calmly and graciously spoke with all the dinner guests. My goodness, he even seemed to be enjoying himself … enjoying the food, the drink, the company, and completely uncaring about the contempt being shown him. How could a man be like this?
But he was clearly not stupid. You could see it in his eyes. This was a man of insight, even wisdom. And the dinner guests were increasingly fascinated by his words, and yet they seemed increasingly uncomfortable at Jesus’ teaching. This was no ordinary rabbi! Most rabbis spoke in long sentences, quoting from complex traditions, carefully quoting the great men of the past to prove their points. This rabbi was simple, direct, and spoke with authority. He had this amazing self-confidence, as though he feared nothing at all.
Lost in her thoughts, she was shocked when Jesus turned and looked at her. It was just a glance, but she could tell — this man knew her — REALLY knew her. That glance told her that he’d picked her out of the crowd, knew her heart, and — could it be? — loved her. And, she thought, maybe he had even forgiven her! But this was too much to believe. Was her mind playing tricks on her?
She bent to bury her face in her hands. This prophet — perhaps even the Messiah — had looked right at her and had known her, a prostitute, and she found herself in tears.
“This can’t be,” she thought. “I haven’t cried in years. I can’t remember the last time I cried! MEN don’t make me cry. I use men to make money. And men certainly don’t get to me. I’m tougher than that!” But despite her protestations, she found herself racked with sobs.
Now all the eyes in the room were on her. She’d thought herself hidden in the crowd, but this Jesus had made her cry and now everyone was looking at her. And many recognized her! And as the recognition appeared on the faces of the men, the women turned to her with hatred. Sinner!
They all saw her as loathsome. She felt like dirt and wanted nothing more than to crawl out of that room. She should have stayed back at her spot and made a little money. Why did she subject herself to this humiliation? She felt foolish and filthy.
And then he did it again. Jesus just turned, looked at her, and smiled — a smile that showed nothing but peace, acceptance, and love. A smile that said, “It’s going to be okay.”
As Miriam bent over, covering her face with her hands, she again saw those dirty feet. And she became angry. How could such a man be treated so badly? Well, she’d done worse things than clean a man’s feet! And everybody already was looking down on her. It couldn’t get any worse!
She’d may as well return this prophet’s kindness and scrub his feet. After all, maybe she should give up prostitution, and being a foot-washing servant was at least honest labor. It might even be a step up! Maybe the prophet would think she was one of the servants come to wash his feet late and not realize the kind of woman she was.
And so she bent over his feet, caressed them, and looked for bowl and a towel. But there were none to be seen, and no one was bringing any. And then she noticed — her tears were pouring onto his feet, and as they ran down toward the floor, they left clean streaks in the mud.
She reached for her shawl to help wipe his feet. As she pulled it off, her hair fell down. She heard a gasp among the crowd and saw Simon sneer in her direction. He seemed to ALWAYS sneer.
But, she thought, this is the shawl she’d worn while walking the streets. Men recognized her by this shawl. It just wouldn’t do. She couldn’t touch this man’s feet with this. She threw it on the floor to wipe up the dirt and tears that had fallen. She didn’t care that the crowd had seen her hair. They’d recognized her, and she couldn’t be MORE embarrassed.
And since she’d started to wash this prophet’s feet, she could hardly leave. He’d think she was as rude as Simon! Besides, the man’s feet needed to be washed! It just had to be.
She bent over to consider how she might wipe the dirt with her hands, and some of her hair fell on his feet and left a clean spot. She kissed the spot. She couldn’t help herself, and as she did so, her hair fell over the rest of his feet and made them a little cleaner. And so she kissed his feet again and began to scrub with her hair.
It was the most undignified, improper thing she’d ever done — in public, that is — and she just didn’t care. This prophet had been insulted, and he’d just smiled and taken it. How could she do any less?
Somehow she felt an intimacy and love for this man she’d never felt for another. He looked at her again and seemed very appreciative. Unlike Simon, there was no sneer, no looking down. He looked at her as a man looks at his mother or daughter — like family — and she suddenly felt comfortable. This unexpected and very different intimacy was right. She just knew it. It didn’t make any sense, but there was just something about this man.
And then she heard Jesus speak. He told a parable. She really didn’t follow it. She was so caught up in emotion, crying and holding his feet, just hoping that somehow this could turn out right.
She half expected Simon to have her thrown out, but Simon was talking to Jesus and seemed caught off guard. The sneer was gone and he looked embarrassed. No one had ever seen Simon the Pharisee embarrassed! At least she wasn’t alone in her humiliation!
And then Jesus pulled his feet toward himself and sat up. He turned his gaze toward her, and she warmed to see those eyes again — eyes that radiated goodness and love. She hoped he’d never stop looking at her.
“Your sins are forgiven!” he said to her.
She nearly fainted. It was as though her entire life of degradation had disappeared. The impossible came true, and she was so shocked, so relieved, and so thrilled she couldn’t even say “thank you.” She just grabbed at her shawl, stared at Jesus, and dabbed at the dirt on the floor. She felt she needed to do something!
And then he spoke again, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace!”
And then it hit her. She really was forgiven! Of all the people in the room, the dignitaries, the elders of the synagogue, the dinner guests, the servants, and all the onlookers from the streets, he’d forgiven her! What an unusual man! Surely, this was the Messiah! But not the Messiah they talked about in the synagogues – a better Messiah. A Messiah of sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness!
She stood, bowed, and muttered a thank you that he probably couldn’t even hear. She was so choked with emotion, she just couldn’t speak. But he looked at her again, obviously delighted at her reaction. He seemed to enjoy her forgiveness as much as she did. He just delighted in her joy, and this made her all the happier.
This man could see straight into her heart! She could tell, and she didn’t care. Her heart was clean. He could look all he wants, she thought, because there’s nothing there to be ashamed of. Nothing at all.