A little survey to begin: When it comes to engaging an interesting story, would you rather read the book or watch the movie? There’s often a clear line of demarcation between the two. Book lovers tend to approach this in a condescending way: “Oh, the book is always better than the movie” (I know, because I am one of these people). Comedian Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, responds, “O really? You know what I liked about the movie? No reading!”
But seriously, why is the book always better than the movie? (It is, of course). There are a lot of reasons, from using the imagination to the fact that the book isn’t limited by screen time. But one of the main reasons, I think, has to do with the window it gives us into the characters’ thought process. When we read a book we get to hear some of their internal monologue, which is rare in a movie where, most of the time, thoughts are displayed via facial expressions, leaving you guessing a little bit: Is he working the problem, confused, annoyed, or just constipated? We don’t know!
We know we all have our own inner monologue going at any given time, so it makes sense that we like to be let inside someone else’s head for a bit. We always talking about “picking someone’s brain” or “getting their thoughts” but until they’re verbalized we really have no idea—and even then we’re not exactly sure we understand the whole story. Take marriage, for example. I actually think that 90% of marriage is trying to figure out what your spouse is thinking. After several decades sitting across the table from one another we might be able to tell something from their facial expression, but wouldn’t it be great to have a print out of their thoughts like a novel might give us? Then again, maybe not!
Reading a book gives us a glimpse of what having a kind of mind reading superpower would be like. Authors grant us that power for a bit—think of a classic like Hamlet which reveals Shakespeare as the master of the inner monologue—“To be or not to be?” But literary conventions change over time and, in the ancient world, the inner monologue was pretty rare. In the Greek classics, authors like Homer and Ovid reserved inner monologues for heroes when they needed to solve a problem.
Luke happens to be one of those rare exceptions as well, but his internal monologues aren’t applied to heroes. You don’t ever hear Luke say, for example, “Jesus thought to himself…” Whatever Jesus is thinking becomes apparent by his actions. Instead, Luke reveals the thoughts of those who are not noble or heroic by any means. In his Gospel, we only read the inner thoughts of those who are self-centered.
There’s actually a biblical precedence for this. In the Old Testament, internal monologues are generally reserved to reveal the thoughts of the wicked. Psalm 14:1, for example, reveals that “A fool says in his heart there is no God.” Or Deuteronomy 29:19, where the wicked “bless themselves thinking in their hearts, ‘We are safe even though we go our own stubborn way.’” When a person’ thoughts are revealed in the Bible, they are almost universally negative.
And that’s what’s going on in this week’s passage in Luke. While the story is ostensibly about the woman who crashes the party, it’s the thoughts of the host that Luke lets us in on that are the crux of the story. In a way, Luke is inviting us to approach this story by paying attention to our own inner thoughts and responses and ask, “What are you thinking?”
The scene is a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee named Simon. We’ve already seen Jesus in opposition to the Pharisees, but we have to remember that of all the different sects of Judaism in that period, Jesus had the most in common with them. Like the Pharisees, Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, believes in the resurrection of the dead, and sees the temple as a corrupt shell of what it was intended to be. The difference, however, is in their views on how that kingdom of God will come to be. The Pharisees saw it coming through strict obedience to the law, while Jesus sees it coming through suffering love and care for the least, the last, and the lost.
Simon invites Jesus, perhaps to learn more about this itinerant rabbi and ask some clarifying questions. It was considered virtuous to invite a teacher to dinner and banquets were often settings for instruction, as we will see again later in Luke’s Gospel. Table fellowship was a big deal in the ancient world, and eating with someone meant that you valued them.
The setting was a low table called a triclinium, where the diners reclined at the table on low couches with their feet splayed towards the wall. It was customary for a host, particularly a wealthy one, to open the fringes of the banquet to the poor. While they couldn’t sit at the table, they could sit quietly by the wall and listen to the discussion and maybe partake of the leftovers.
It’s in this context that a “woman from the city, a sinner” enters the banquet. Luke doesn’t give us the details of her sin, but we can infer a few things from her appearance and her actions. She carries perfumed oil in an alabaster jar and her long hair is uncovered—signs indicating she may have been a prostitute. Religious women kept their hair covered, and exposing her hair to public view was a sign a promiscuity. That she has perfume with her may indicate that it was a tool of her trade. But rather than coming to the banquet to market herself, she has come for a different reason—she stands behind Jesus at his feet, outside the table, and begins to cry, wetting his feet with her tears, wiping them with her unbound and uncovered hair, and anointing his feet with the perfume.
It’s an intimate gesture and it gets Simon thinking. Luke reveals his inner monologue to go something like this: “I invited this rabbi to see if he really is a prophet, but if he really was one he should be able to know that the woman touching him is a sinner.” In his inner monologue, Simon sees himself as the righteous one who knows and sees all; on the other hand, he thinks of Jesus as a bit clueless; an empty-headed charlatan.
But it is Jesus who speaks out loud. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Jesus won’t keep his inner monologue hidden. He puts it on the table for Simon, who invites Jesus to speak. Jesus then tells a story about the inner thoughts of two different debtors who owe their master. One was in debt for 500 denarii (more than a year’s wages), and the other owed 50. Neither one could pay the bill, but then the lender does something incredible: he simply forgives both their debts. Now, Jesus asks, which one of these debtors will love the lender more? Which one will think most about the debt from which they have been released?
Simon’s reply is a bit sheepish, as though he’s been caught thinking badly. It’s a question with a no-brainer answer: “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Good answer, says Jesus.
Then Jesus probes further, getting at Simon’s thoughts and revealing his motivations. When a guest, particularly an honored guest, arrived at a banquet, it was customary for the host to arrange for foot washing to remove dust from the feet; it was customary for the host to greet the guest with a kiss and also anoint the head with perfumed oil. Simon had done none of those things when Jesus arrived, even though he was supposedly the guest of honor. What was Simon thinking? You’ve got to earn your way to my table? It’s an intentional lack of social convention that sent an unspoken message to Jesus that he clearly received. Simon’s thoughts were busted, and busted cold.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks. “She has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You didn’t anoint my heard with oil, but she has been lavish in pouring it on my feet. This is why I tell you that her sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
Jesus doesn’t need a book to read the thoughts of Simon or this woman. Remember what old Simeon had said about him when he was just a baby? “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). He hears the inner monologues of a man who believes he is so righteous that he doesn’t need much forgiveness; and he hears the inner monologue of a woman with a dark and troubled past who knows she needs all the forgiveness this teacher can possibly bring her. She has risked everything, poured out her former livelihood, exposed herself to public shame by coming to the table, her inner monologue desperate. And she receives what she has come for:
Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The guests question Jesus’ motivation. “Who is this person that even forgives sins?” Who is this? Who do you think you are? These are questions constantly being asked by others Luke’s Gospel. But we need no inner monologue of Jesus to know who he is. It has already been proclaimed to us at his baptism; it has been proclaimed to us by angels in a shepherd’s field, by an old man in the temple, by a voice at his baptism, and even by a Legion of demons who fear him. This is the one who has come to do what he promised—to preach good news to the poor, to liberate prisoners, give sight to the blind, and proclaim the jubilee year when all debts, especially the heaviest ones, will be forgiven.
The people at the table thought that sins could only be forgiven with a sacrifice in the temple. Jesus said that granting him hospitality and having faith enough to bring our brokenness before him is enough. It’s that kind of faith that saves this woman. And now, Jesus says to her, “Go in peace.”
It’s no coincidence that, in the next passage, Luke reveals that there were women who followed Jesus as well—women with pasts, like Mary Magdalene who had seven demons cast out of her. It was scandalous to those who whispered about Jesus in dark corners, but for Jesus it was a sign of the kingdom. Forgiveness is offered to everyone who will receive it—the old boundaries don’t apply. The question is whether our own inner monologue will allow us to do so and, perhaps even more, allow us to extend that forgiveness and grace to others.
I think that’s what Luke is getting at here in telling the story in this way. What are you thinking? What would I do in this situation? What would I say in my heart but might not speak with my lips? Am I too comfortable in my own security, thinking I’m a pretty good person and certainly better than those other sinners at the table? Or am I more aware of my brokenness, the debt of sin that I’ve piled up, and will do anything to get at the feet of Jesus?
Like with Simon and the woman, Jesus knows our inner monologue. We can’t hide them from him. As Psalm 139 says, “You discern my thoughts from far away…even before a word is on my tongue you know it completely.” In the presence of Christ, everything on our minds gets put on the table. He reads us like a book, regardless of the self-promoting movie we pretend to act out on a daily basis.
The invitation, then, is to transform those inner monologues to focus on Jesus. Are you harboring secret thoughts about your desires or your past sins? Jesus invites us to put them on the table. Do you lie awake at night imagining what you might say to someone who has wronged you? What if you turned your monologue into a dialogue with Jesus instead? Do you feel like you are too far gone to be forgiven, or too righteous to forgive someone else? It’s time to rethink those lies we tell ourselves. It’s time to open our minds and allow Jesus to teach us the truth. The one who is forgiven little, loves little. The one who is forgiven much, loves all the more.
Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he told us to “pray without ceasing.” Rather than an inner monologue, we’re invited to engage in a running dialogue with God in our thoughts and prayers. It’s an invitation to turn our self talk into God talk and allow him to not only pick our brains but transform them, changing the way we see ourselves and others. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul also says in Romans 12, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
See, friends? That wisdom you can only get from the book!