The Bible gives us only fragments of lives. Characters drop into the narrative without backstories and disappear without descriptions of their futures. We are challenged by the drama that is told but are mystified by what remains untold. What brought the people to the Bible stage? What pains and disappointments did they bring to their brief appearances? What was the result of their few minutes with Divinity? Was their journey like ours? How were the characters in the Bible accounts different from us?
Since the Bible provides details for only a few, we are left to wonder. Or to speculate. None of us is authorized to declare the backstory. But maybe God will forgive us if we try to humanize those people who show up in His story by imagining stories that seem plausible—or at least possible. Perhaps, more importantly, we will better appreciate God’s goodness as we see ways that their stories might be like our own.
The story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50) provides a beautiful contrast between the small, shriveled stinginess of the Pharisees and the infinite graciousness and love of the Savior. With this story, Jesus invites us to see others more as He does, and less like the Pharisees did.
But we are not just local dignitaries. He also invites us to see ourselves as those desperately in need of His grace. We also are travelers who come to His feet with tears.
Consider an imagined backstory that might help us understand what brought a broken woman to Jesus to be made whole.
Sarai stumbled from the dirty dwelling feeling empty. Empty? Maybe the feeling was closer to trashy. She felt like a filthy rag that was tossed aside after outlasting its usefulness.
She couldn’t decide whether to rage or despair. Once again she had been used. The sullen stranger did not even look in her eyes. He did not talk to her. He took what he wanted and pushed her out of his bed, out of his grim place. The pay surely was not worth the humiliation.
She sagged onto a crude wooden box in the alley. Emptiness yielded to hopelessness and battled with the cold embers that once were rage. She really had no place to go. “Home” was nothing more than a ramshackle place that no one wanted on the edge of town.
She might have sat there for a long time if she hadn’t heard voices. She roused from her lifeless reflection, straightened her posture, and dusted her robes. With fixed resolve she marched toward her home on the far side of the market and the growing crowd.
Villagers babbled excitedly about something. She tried to hear their words. But, when they saw her, they either turned away and whispered or stopped and stared at her. She was used to the staring and their accusations.
She turned the corner into the market and stumbled into the center of a drama. Just in front of her was Thaddeus and, crouched down talking to him, holding his hand was a Rabbi. She froze. She herself had talked to Thaddeus when no one was around. But she had never touched him. She had figured that it was bad enough to be seen as a sinner without being known as a friend of lepers.
The crowd watched Thaddeus and the Rabbi. In some faces there was horror. How could a teacher of the people embrace one who was unclean? How could he violate such a sacred law and absorb personal defilement? Was he a lunatic or foolish?
On other faces in the crowd was puzzlement. It was clear to even a casual observer that Thaddeus was a leper. But they had heard about a Rabbi who cured infirmities, plagues, evil spirits, and blindness. Were they witnessing a miracle or a travesty? They watched in wonder. The crowd buzzed and stared.
She noticed that the Rabbi looked warmly into Thaddeus’ eyes. He gently lifted his chin and spoke quietly to him. Thaddeus seemed to quake beneath the glare of attention. The Rabbi paused, and spoke distinctly. “Be thou clean.” Thaddeus convulsed, fell toward the Rabbi and wept. His warm and gentle arms encircled the leper. It seemed like time stood still. The Rabbi stood over Thaddeus. He reached down and took the leper by the hand. Only Thaddeus was no longer gnarled and fusty. He was whole. He stood straight, strong, and incredulous. He could not take it in!
Sarai was aware that some in the crowd were dividing their judgment between the Rabbi and her. Her discomfort was growing—but she wanted to understand what she was seeing. She had long ago given up any hope of kindness for herself—and yet she hungered for the grace she had just witnessed. She couldn’t leave.
The Rabbi looked past Thaddeus and directly into her eyes. His gentle gaze studied her face. She found herself yearning to run to him. He had healed Thaddeus. Could he somehow heal her of loneliness, filthiness, and despair? She dared not believe it was possible. She dared not believe there was anything special enough about her to warrant his attention. She had made too many mistakes, too many foul choices. Even this great healer could not heal her.
She turned and walked away. Yet she was haunted. This Rabbi wasn’t like other men. His look was not greedy or dismissive. He was filled with compassion. He offered hope. She ached to run back to him and ask who he was and why he was different. But her hunger to be out of the public eye and avoid further humiliation was stronger than her prospect of hope.
As she hurried homeward, the streets were quieter and emptier. She arrived at her hut and threw herself on the mat. Her cold indifference was under assault from both desolation and hope. Finally she wept angry tears. What hope was there for her? Why had she let her feelings be touched by a strange Rabbi? What could he do for her? What could anyone do for her?
When there were no tears left, Sarai wiped her face. She sat cold and empty. After a long while, she turned to the corner of her hut and reached into a recess in the wall. Carefully she removed an alabaster box of ointment. Wearily she stared at her one token of respectability. She had invested much of her ill-gotten gains in this emblem of decency. She had gone without eating to buy this perfume. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath.
She opened the box to anoint herself with the sweet smelling ointment, but somehow it didn’t seem to be enough. Her soul was weary. She no longer had the energy to defend herself against the world’s insults. She sat pondering.
Then the thought came. Was it a thought or an impulse? Whatever it was, it was unexpected. She would go to Him. She would anoint the Rabbi with the only thing she had of value. She held the alabaster box to her breast and filled her lungs with fresh resolve. She pushed out of her hut toward her future.
She hurried down the street toward the market. Somewhere in the back of her mind nagged the unrelenting concern: What do I think this Rabbi can do for me? How will my life be any different after I anoint him? Why am I risking disappointment and humiliation yet again? But the background noise could not divert her from her resolve.
Sarai arrived in the market and was surprised to find that it appeared to be a normal day with people going about their business. The Rabbi was nowhere to be seen. She scanned the market desperately. She ran to the fish seller and begged, “Where is the Rabbi?” He grunted and turned away.
She ran to the beggar with the same question. His sad eyes looked at her. He nodded down the alley. She hurried in that direction. As she walked she spotted a group in the alley.
Sarai pushed through the group that stood as mute spectators of the Rabbi at meat with several of the leading Pharisees in the home of Simon.
She pushed her way to the entrance of the courtyard. Did she dare to intrude on the Pharisees? One of the men in the crowd seemed to read her thoughts and leaned to block her path. She had imagined an encounter with the Rabbi like the one she witnessed between the Rabbi and the leper. Now that seemed impossible. The Rabbi was the guest of the Pharisees. No woman was welcome and certainly not a woman of her reputation.
Sarai sagged. Tears began to fill her eyes. Her only hope was just beyond reach. She could not wait. Suddenly she pushed past the men and into the courtyard. She stumbled to the Rabbi’s feet and poured the ointment on his dusty feet. Her tears blended with the ointment as her soul poured out accumulated pain.
The gasp of disgust that radiated from Simon and his friends did not even matter. She was focused on the Rabbi. Would he pull away from her? He did not. He placed His hand on her head and she felt the warmth of His love. A holy touch! The tears poured from her years of shame. For the first time in her life, she felt loved without being exploited. She felt cared for rather than judged. She felt a peace she had never known. The dusty feet that trod the hills of Galilee carried her soul to a place she had never known.
She was oblivious to a scandalized crowd, the appalled Pharisees, the conversation between the Pharisees and the Rabbi. She only saw the Rabbi. Then He turned to her and she flinched. Would He, having accepted her gift, now push her away? Would He demand that she put her life in order and become the person she had never been able to be? Would He rebuke her?
No. He turned His warm face full to hers, took her face in both hands and spoke words she never imagined possible: “Dear Sister, your sins are forgiven.” He poured goodness into her soul with His gaze.
Forgiven? The ugliness of her life could be removed? Her sense of humiliation could be taken away? He was seeing possibilities and worth in her? It didn’t seem possible.
Jesus stood and turned to Simon and his fellow Pharisees. She heard Him pronounce a blessing upon them. “May your home be filled with the goodness you grant to those who are lost.” The Pharisees sat impenetrably before Him.
Jesus turned back to Sarai. “Come.” He lifted her from the ground. She followed Him as He walked from the courtyard into the crowd of onlookers who parted before them.
They walked some distance before He stopped and turned to a humble couple advanced in age. “Nathan and Martha, one of my children has need of your help. Will you take her in and make her your own?” They trembled an answer, “Gladly, Master.”
He took Sarai by the arm and pulled her forward. “This is your new family. This is your new life. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Peace. When was the last time she had felt peace? She could not remember. But as Jesus was swallowed up in the crowd, she felt it. She was changed by it. Jesus had taken away her dead soul and replaced it with new life.
She didn’t know what the future held. But she wanted to always remember the gift the Rabbi had given her in return. Hope. Possibility. Compassion. Love.
She thought of others she knew who still lived in the despair and hopelessness she had experienced. She hoped one day that she could be a messenger of His love and goodness to them. She hoped that her new life would give hope to others who were lost.
Of course we do not know anything about her fate. Did she become a faithful saint in the local Church? How many members accepted her and how many looked down on her? Did she follow her new family to a new community where she could start anew? Was she ultimately blessed with a loving husband and children of her own? Did she serve her small congregation as a Relief Society president? We do not know. But I look forward to the day when I can sit at her feet and listen as she tells us the rest of her story.
Sometimes we become so familiar with scripture stories that we reduce them to recorded events with tidy lessons. We all know the story of the woman who washed and anointed the Savior’s feet. We have studied the description of her action and the Savior’s response. We have discussed it in Sunday school classes and have been instructed by the story.
Yet do we ponder the real woman involved? Do we consider the richness and personal meaning of her life story? Imagining her backstory makes the little we know even more meaningful and cherished.
Can some of us relate to her experience? Do we know what it feels like to be dismissed, ignored or judged by others? Do we feel defined by our sins and mistakes? Do we wish it were possible to change ourselves or our circumstances?
His invitation to her is also available to us. Have we run to Him with broken hearts and thrown ourselves on His mercy? Have we looked into His eyes and been shocked by the love we feel? Have we sagged into His goodness and felt lifted heavenward?
His invitation is offered to all who seek Him. It is offered not only to me and to you but to every member of our families, wards, and communities. As we receive His love, we will rejoice to spread the good news. We will invite all to come and receive as we have received. We will be emissaries of His love.
This is startling good news. When we come to His feet brokenhearted and tear-stained, we can be embraced with His loving assurance: “Your faith has saved you. Travel life’s journey in peace.”