There are a few stories in the Gospels which feature rather prominently...sinners. Not average, run-of-the-mill sinners like most of us consider ourselves to be, not sinners that we label ourselves, as readers, when we discover their hidden motives or secret stories, but sinners as declared by their own reputation - usually women of some kind of ill repute.
There's the woman at the well, who has had a handful of husbands and is not married to the man she is sleeping with now. There is the woman caught in the act of adultery. There is the woman who comes into the home of Simon the Pharisee and makes a spectacle of herself by falling at the feet of Jesus. (Off-hand, the only male "sinner" I can think of in the Gospels is the one who stands in contrast to the Pharisee in prayer.)
The woman at the well is no mystery; her encounter with Jesus tells us plenty about her. It tells us almost as much about her as everyone else seemed to know. The same is true of the woman caught in adultery; it's pretty clear from the Gospel stories what she's guilty of, and many a sermon has been preached about the woman dragged naked before Jesus while He just doodles in the sand.
But much theological energy has, for some reason, been expended on uncovering more about the sinful woman in Luke 7, the one who comes uninvited to the party at Simon's house. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what her sin was.
And what her name was.
The general consensus is that this woman was a prostitute, although you might not get that from just a plain reading of the Scriptures. It might be easy to assume that "a woman who lived a sinful life in that city" is code for "the town whore," but does that mean it's necessarily right to do so? And what do we really care?
It doesn't change the story much if the woman is a thief instead of a prostitute, does it? Maybe it does. If she's a prostitute, when she pours out her perfume, she is pouring out the tools of her trade. If she's a thief, she's pouring out her bounty. It's a subtle difference, but important maybe. Or maybe not. What if she's the town liar? I think we have all come across one or two of these individuals in our lives, who can't seem to let truth touch their lips at all. You can't trust anything they say. All of a sudden, she does this one powerful, very true thing...and people don't know what to do with themselves. Maybe that changes the story. Or maybe not at all.
Then we took it one step further and someone, somewhere, determined that this sinful woman in Simon's house is probably Mary. Not Mary of Martha fame, but Mary of Magdalene. It's weird, right? At one point, we're given the names of several women who traveled with Jesus, and to my knowledge, we haven't invested much time in trying to figure out where the others might pop up in His story. Was Salome also the bleeding woman? Who was the one caught in adultery? Nobody knows, nobody cares. But we're pretty sure Mary was the whore.
Because it's oh, so important to know who the whores are.
I don't know what our obsession is with the details, with figuring out the nitty-gritty of the non-essential elements of the Gospel, especially when we aren't getting the big stuff right. Nobody's asking about the prostitute because they want to love her better. We aren't asking about the naked woman because we intend to clothe her. We aren't planning on befriending the wife of many husbands, even though she could probably use a stable relationship in her life. We just want something to talk about besides Jesus, I guess. So we talk about the women, the sinners, and the sin.
Maybe they shame us. I don't know. I think they probably should. Jesus said this sinful woman's story would be told everywhere, that everyone would know what she did. And He was talking about the scene in Simon's house. He was talking about her act of devotion. He was talking about her grand gesture of love. He was talking about the scandal of a woman who, living in shame, was unashamed to be at His feet.
And we're talking about a prostitute. As though that's her story.
We took Jesus at His word. Her story is being told. It's being told everywhere, used in sermons all the time. Oh, we know her story. But we tell it our way. We tell it through our eyes. We aren't looking at a woman in tears at the feet of her savior. No, that puts us to shame. We're looking at a prostitute who crashed the party. We're talking about a woman of ill repute, gossiping about her 2000 years later. Jesus gave us her story, but we've given her one of our own, and that's the one we're telling.
Why? Because it's easier.