Good evening, sir. You look surprised. I can imagine I’m the last person you would have expected to see here. I’ll admit these aren’t the sort of surroundings in which we usually meet, but I’m not the woman you knew, not any more. Don’t look so worried, sit awhile with me and I’ll tell you my story. Come, you may as well sit, the teacher is resting and you’ll not get any closer to him in this crowd.
It’s two months now since I first heard the teacher speak. He spoke of many things that day, some of what he said I didn’t understand, and I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake coming to listen to him but then he started to speak of hope. That drew my attention. You see, I didn’t have any hope, no hope for now, no hope for ever, but he offered it to me, in his gentle assuring voice. There were hundreds of people there that day and I was right at the back of the crowd but I swear he was looking at me as he spoke of love and forgiveness.
I can see you’re thinking ‘what right has she to expect forgiveness?’ I didn’t. When you’ve lived my sort of life you soon learn that forgiveness is not for you, and as for love, well. The men who bought my body for their pleasure despised me as much as they needed me. They thought more of their donkeys than they did of me. You ask why I did it then? For money, of course. But do you think I had a choice? Do you think that’s the life I would have chosen? Of course not. But I had no choice — I was damaged goods. If I wanted to survive I needed money although there’ve been plenty of times when death seemed preferable. You’re a wealthy man, sir, respected by your peers, they seek your opinions, can you imagine what it’s like to be looked down upon by everyone? From your friends in high places who treated me as a commodity to be used and forgotten until the next time my services were required, to your servants who spat on me and shunned me. When I was pushed over on the street, not one person came to my aid or asked if I was all right. I believed there was no-one in this world who cared one jot for me, no-one who thought that I had any value or worth, except the going rate for today. And even that got less with the years. All I had to look forward to was the day when I would discover that I was truly worthless and I would have to resort to begging on the streets.
But the teacher told me something different. When he spoke of love, it was not just for everyone else but for me too. He promised me forgiveness. I could have sat and listened to him forever. But all too soon the darkness of the night came and the crowds began to disperse. I tried to make my way towards him but there were too many people all going the other way, and he had gone before I could reach him. I made up my mind then that some day I would tell him how his words had touched me, how I wanted to believe his promises.
Then a few weeks ago, a Pharisee came to our house to hire women to wait at table. He liked to hire the prettiest, the ones who would entertain his guests if they wanted. When I heard him say that the teacher would be at the banquet I quickly adjusted my dress, hurried over and gave the Pharisee my most alluring smile. He hired me on the spot.
I don’t earn much but over the years I’ve been working, I’ve saved some money, not a lot but I hoped it would help me when the time came that men would no longer pay me for their pleasure. I kept my bag of coins hidden away in my room. But on the day of the banquet I took it all and bought a jar of the best perfumed oil I could afford. I hid it under the robe I wore that night. All evening I served food, poured wine, and tried to avoid the hands that reached out to grab and stroke me. I didn’t want the teacher to see me in that way. And all the while I looked for my chance. At last it arrived. The teacher was lying on a couch and amidst the bustle I crept up and knelt at his feet. He looked down at me and I wanted to say something, to tell him what his words had meant to me, but I couldn’t speak. His face was full of love but there was a deep sorrow there too, and I suddenly thought of my mother. The last time I saw her, when I was just a small child, before I was taken away. She’d looked at me with that same mixture of love and sorrow. I began to cry. The tears fell from my eyes and dropped onto his feet. I was embarrassed to think that the dirt from me was running over him. I undid the braid and let my hair fall forward so I could dry his feet. Then I remembered the oil I had brought. I broke the bottle and let the oil flow over his skin while I rubbed it in with my hair. By now, of course, the room had gone silent and everyone was watching. Some people were laughing; some were angry; one exclaimed at the waste. The Pharisee was the last one to notice. As soon as he saw me he came rushing over and grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me to my feet. ‘I’m sorry, master,’ he said, ‘this girl should not be bothering you. I’ll send her away.’ ‘No, Simon,’ the teacher said. ‘She may sit at my feet as long as she wants.’ ‘Do you not know what she is, master?’ the Pharisee said, and the teacher said, ‘I know everything about her.’ Then he turned to me and he said, and you’ll find this hard to believe, he said, ‘Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.’
My sins are forgiven. Can you understand what those words meant to me? The years of shame and guilt that he was taking away. Have you ever sinned? No, of course not, you’re an upright honest citizen, a pillar of the community, you wouldn’t possibly understand the joy of being washed clean when you’re so dirty that you can’t remember what it was like to be clean.
I’ve been travelling with the teacher and his friends ever since. His mother found me some better clothes to wear and they all share their food with me. It doesn’t please everyone though. You see the one leaning over, whispering in the teacher’s ear, that’s Peter, oh, you know him, well, he doesn’t like me. He never speaks to me if he can help it and when it’s his turn to share out the food I always get a smaller portion than everyone else. But it doesn’t matter. As long as I can be near the teacher and hear his words. And be there when he walks by and puts his hand under my chin and says, ‘Lift up your head and look at me,’ and I can feel his purifying love pouring straight into my heart.
Look, the teacher is about to start again. And Peter has found a seat for you — well away from me. Go, listen, hear the teacher. Don’t look so worried, I won’t tell anyone where we met — I’ve already forgotten. Can you forget as easily?