“Do you see this woman?” For some reason, the familiar question confronted me this time as if it were aimed as much at me as the guests around the table. Jesus was eating at the house of a religious man who had invited him to dinner. They were reclining at the table when a woman who is very easily remembered for her flaws came stumbling over the dinner guests, making her way to the feet of Jesus. Weeping over them, she broke a costly vial of perfume, wiping his feet dry with her hair. Who didn’t see her? Who didn’t notice her strange commotion? Who among them didn’t immediately recognize how out of place she really was? Yet he asks, “Do you see this woman?”(1) He was either speaking ironically or he saw something the rest did not.
The late seventeenth century poet George Herbert once described prayer in a detailed list of stirring metaphors. Among the first lines, prayer is described as “the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” At those words I cannot help but picture this woman lying prostrate at Christ’s feet. As she poured out the perfume, so she poured out her soul. Her prayer was one without words, her worship spilled out as tears upon his feet. Onlookers saw a fallen and foolish woman, an extravagant waste. Jesus saw a heart in pilgrimage, a prayer understood.
I remember the first time I was unapologetically honest with God. My head was bowed but inwardly I was somewhat closer to pounding fists against a divine chest. In silent reflection, I shouted internally. Everyone around me seemed to be experiencing the still, small voice, the gentle touch of a Father’s hand, the assurance of God’s glory and power, the confirmation of a hope and a future, answered prayers, even dramatic miracles. But I couldn’t sense God’s presence, or hear God’s voice at all. I had more questions and uncertainty than answers and assurance. It seemed as though I was relating to an empty throne. Like an attention-starved child, I yelled at God for existing, for forgetting to love me, for failing to understand or care.
In Herbert’s list of words, my prayer this day was perhaps more fitting “reversed thunder” or “Christ-side-piercing spear.” My words pled for the presence of God, for the love and will of a good creator in my life, for complete access to the loving Father I believed was real but just not to me. But what I was asking for sharply (and probably quite irreverently) required the wedge that stood between us to be obliterated, the chasm crossed—indeed, the human death of the incarnate Son to show how deeply the Father longs to gather us up like a hen gathers her chicks, whether we are willing or not. I likely spoke in ignorance and in anger, making claims like Job without understanding. I was likely not as interested in hearing at that point as I was at shouting. But God heard. Responding to my interrogation, God revealed my true question. I was tired of being the stepchild, and yet I had been keeping the Father in my mind as something more like a distant uncle. Seeing me, God showed me what I did not.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asked as the others were questioning her resolve and reputation. “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she has loved much” (Luke 7:47). In a story that calls hearts and eyes to attention, we find that the woman not only saw God when others did not, but far more significantly, God saw her when others did not want to see her. Pouring out all she had at the feet of the incarnate Son, weeping at the sight of his genuine presence, his human touch, his countercultural kindness, her silent prayer was interpreted, and answered. Then Jesus lifted her head and said to her what he had told the others, “You are seen. You are loved. You are forgiven.”
Fittingly, George Herbert concludes his grand description of prayer as “something understood.” At the feet of God, broken words and hobbling metaphors are translated. Whether we know what we mean or what we say, the vicarious humanity of the Son of God holds the promise that we are heard and known, lifted to the Father by the Spirit as children understood.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Story told in Luke 7:44.