Fr. James Searby on the Woman Who Washed Jesus’ Feet

I mentioned earlier today about Alexandria’s Theology on Tap Program. During my free time last summer, I caught up on a bunch of the speakers I’d missed. One of them was Fr. James Searby no the subject of, “Lights, Camera, Faith!: A Catholic At the Movies.” I thought the priest speaking was a good speaker, but the subject was a bit lighter than some of the other talks. Fr. Searby’s major point was that Catholics interested in acting, directing, etc., shouldn’t run from Hollywood, but should transform it. Since I’m not particularly inclined that way, the talk wasn’t really up my alley, but I was interested to learn that Fr. Searby used to be the circus announcer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I decided to look him up, to see if he any homilies posted online, to get more of a feel for his theology and orthodoxy. Sure enough, he has a collection of his old homilies online, and some of them are just fantastic.

Of all of them, this is probably the one I’d suggest the most. It’s his homily from Father’s Day 2007, and the Gospel was Luke 7:36-50,

A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The homily is in two parts. First, he addresses what’s going on in the Gospel, and then transitions to the importance of fatherhood, before tying the two together. On the first part, he says:

It’s almost impossible to hear this Gospel, I think, and not be emotionally overcome by it. It’s such a poignant, beautiful, in-depth scene. Jesus goes to the house of this Pharisee. Now, Pharisees, as we know, were hostile towards our Lord in many ways. They were men of culture, men of learning, men of the law, somewhat hostile to the Truth. They were looking for an angle perhaps on Jesus’ teaching, trying to figure out how they could listen, maybe get something out of it, but not really get it. They were a bit cold: perhaps they weren’t always looking at the individual, but rather at the collective: they were looking at “the followers of the law,” “the people of Israel,” rather than the human being that was in front of them.

But he obviously, Simon the Pharisee, did not pay very particular attention to his guest, and ignored some of the customary pleasantries that went on when someone came to your house, because his mind was elsewhere. It was as though he’d invited our Lord into debate and to win. He wanted to hear what he had to say, but it wasn’t quite an openness to the Truth. And so there he is. And our Lord comes to his house, and He sits with him to dine, to speak, to listen, to teach, and to love. […]

And so our Lord is reclining at table, and in comes this woman. And we can just imagine her: tattered, depressed, her hair disheveled, her makeup – because makeup was very common then, coming from the Egyptian culture – her eye makeup running down over her face. And she was crying. Sadness beyond sadness. Because she had been given a great gift by God. It had hit her that her sins were as bad as they really were. She had true sorrow. She comes into our Lord, and doesn’t even walk in front of Him: it says she walks up behind Him. She couldn’t even face Him face-to-face, she was so ashamed. So she comes up behind Him and begins to wash His feet, and dry them with her hair.

Think about it: she acts. The woman acts. She doesn’t just say, “I’m sorry.” She shows her sorrow by not neglecting Jesus, as the Pharisee did. She takes the very symbol of her beauty, the very symbol of her feminine dignity, her hair, and puts them at service to the mystery of Christ, she serves Him. She kisses His feet, showing Him the affection that He deserves, the love that He deserves. She anoints Him, to show the authority of Jesus Christ, because a Priest, a Prophet, a King is anointed. She anoints Him, to show her helplessness, by showing His power. He looks at her, with tenderness, with compassion, with mercy. This is God Himself. He didn’t have to do that. God is a God of Justice; Jesus Christ is God. He could have turned as the God of Israel, the God who wiped out the Egyptians, the God who smote down all of those who stood in the way of Israel as they took the Promised Land. He could have easily turned and been just only, and said, “You are a sinner, and you Simon, are a sinner as well, the whole lot of you are sinners.” But He gives mercy, and He turns towards the woman and He forgives her much, because she loves much.

But it doesn’t end there, because He doesn’t just forgive her of some sins. All of her sins, all of her past, all of her present, the muck and the mire of all things that she had ever done. He doesn’t stop. He continues: “I heal you, I forgive you, I love you.” And this woman followed Him for the rest of His days, because tradition has it that this was Mary Magdalene.

But He doesn’t stop there, either. Jesus turns His gaze towards Simon, and He looks at Simon and He wants to teach Simon, to teach him through action, to teach him by example. He counters Simon’s call of justice to this sinner with an act of mercy, teaching him by example what He must do, and He corrects him: as a friend, as a brother, as a teacher. He corrects him, and He longs for Simon to do the same thing. How wonderful it would have been if Simon had turned and embraced this woman and invited her into his home, and washed her feet. But he didn’t. We hope he learned.



  1. In a course I took about 8+years ago, I learned of a particular tradition of women in that culture. I found it very interesting and makes this Gospel story all that much more poignant.
    It wasn’t uncommon for women to either wear around their necks on a chain, or carry with them a small bottle, especially for special occassions, ie. weddings, funerals, births, bar-mitzvah, etc. When they were overcome with the eomtions of the event and began to cry, they would catch their tears off their cheeks in this bottle.
    So this container would hold all the tears shed from joy, sorry, disappointment, and broken heartedness in this woman’s life. It would be as priceless as today’s photo albums.
    Now picture this woman in the Gospel, literally pouring her life out to Jesus as she “bathe his feet with her tears”.
    It is a beautiful foreshadowing of the sacrament of pennance. In fact Jesus words at the end of the story are remarkable similiar to what the priest say today during absolution: “Your sins are forgiven, Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

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