Micah 7:18-20 and Luke 7:36-50 (NRSV)
There were not a lot of rules in my house growing up. My mother was not particularly heavy handed.
But my mom did insist on several core principles that were foundational to our identity as a family. These core principals were to be taken very seriously and were not to be transgressed.
One of the core principals of our family identity was that “one must never make a scene.” That was not to say that one must always agree or go along, disagreement and discord were fine. But it was to say, that it was never, never OK to act out. To make a scene — especially in public – was forbidden.
So, given my upbringing, I have always found the actions of the woman in our Gospel passage today rather alarming, embarrassing even. For she is making a scene. She is acting out. And so it may not be surprising to you that when I have read this passage, I tended to always locate myself somewhere alongside Simon the Pharisee. I tended to locate myself there at the table, with a platter of judgment before me, ready to start dishing it out.
But before we go any further, let us pray.
Holy One, Who is like you? You see our fallibility and forgive. You do not stay angry when we fall down or fall away but instead delight in showing us your mercy. In your compassion you make room for us at your table and fill us with your goodness. Help us, Holy One, to do the same. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The Gospel passage this morning is a remarkable one. But before we enter it more fully it is worth noting that variations of this same story are told in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John. Unlike our passage today, all of the other Gospels place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time. In this way the anointing of Jesus is seen in Mark, Matthew and John as pointing to and preparing for Jesus’ death.
Interestingly, in the Gospel of Luke places this passage while Jesus is still living in the thick of his ministry of healing, and teaching. He is drawing big crowds and he is creating a stir. Everyone is trying to understand who he is, what he is about, and who he is for.
In the passage just before the one we read for today, Jesus lifts up some of the mutterings that he has overheard people saying about him. He says, referring to himself “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7: 34). Everyone is trying to understand who Jesus is and what he is about and the Pharisees, those thoughtful, disciplined lovers of Torah and seekers of what it is to love God and love one’s neighbor are no exception.
The passage today opens with Simon the Pharisee inviting Jesus to dine with him. Now this is not a private dinner party. This would have been something more akin to the Salons of the 17th and 18th century France where notable people would gather to share in important conversation. Jesus is being invited to Simon’s house so that they can have a conversation and delve deeper perhaps into the theological and political questions of the day. There would have been many other prominent people at the table with Jesus and Simon, and the room would have been open for others to discretely stand in the back out of the way to listen to and learn from the conversation that was to transpire.
It is also important to note that to share in the hospitality of table fellowship was a big deal and not to be taken lightly. Simon, by bringing Jesus to his home and to his table, is making a powerful statement of welcome. Sitting down around a table together was to welcome one in as kin. To eat together was to be family. When we gather around the communion table, we remember that Jesus is our host and invites us to take up our place as his kin. That powerful sense of being welcomed in and embraced is at the heart of table fellowship. That is why people at the time were alarmed that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with sinners. To say that Jesus was a man of God and that he sat at table with sinners was an oxymoron to the religious establishment of his time.
So while Simon has welcomed Jesus to his table, there is still a degree of ambivalence that Simon feels about who exactly Jesus is and what he is all about. Perhaps this ambivalence is why Simon has seemingly neglected to extend to Jesus all the gestures of hospitality of washing the feet, a welcoming kiss and perhaps even anointing of the head with oil that would have been rather customary.
But while Simon and the other notables gathered around the table may be wondering about Jesus, there is one in the room who has no doubt whatsoever. This is, of course, the woman who steps into the scene. She steps out of the shadows and up to the table and bathes Jesus feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them with ointment. Simon may have overlooked these gestures of hospitality but this unnamed woman, known only by her sin, could not stop herself from extending them in ways that for many in the room must have seemed over the top if not downright embarrassing.
This woman though does not seem to care a lick that not only is she making a scene, but that also in doing so she is transgressing multiple social norms and boundaries. She is literally a bull in a china shop here and does not seem to be troubled in the last by it!
What made her think that acting like that was OK? What enabled her to see Jesus not as exclusion and judgment, but instead as a place of radical welcome that transcended social norms and customs?
That is actually a question that is debated quite a bit in the commentary on this passage. One way of answering that question, is that the reason the woman today acts so boldly was because she is so desperate. Like that other desperate woman in the Gospel of Luke, the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, who defies social norms and touches the hem of Jesus cloak so sure is she that by doing so she will be healed, so too does this woman act out of desperation. That is one way of seeing it. (Luke 8:42-48)
Maybe, but I don’t really think so.
I think we are seeing something else, something other than desperation.
I think we are seeing something that one commentary on this text helped me to see so beautifully. David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia imagines that this story actually has two parts and that the passage we read today is the second part. The first part, he imagines happened without witnesses. It was a tender encounter between Jesus and this women, perhaps not unlike the encounter in the Gospel of John tells of the Samaritan woman at the well who talks with Jesus and in doing so finds forgiveness, new life and meaning. (John 4: 1-26). Or that quiet conversation between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, when after her accusers leave and she is alone with Jesus, he looks on her with compassion and love and sets her off in new life. (John 8:1-11).
President Lose imagines that Jesus encountered this woman at some point previous to the passage today and that in their encounter there was an outpouring of forgiveness that flowed out the source of Jesus’ being which is the compassion and Love. And that the woman’s actions we see today in the Scripture passage are, therefore, her reaction to what she has already received from Jesus.
I think that is right. I think what we see in the passage for today is not desperation but love. I think that what we see in the passage for today is the outpouring of gratitude by a woman who comes to Jesus not seeking forgiveness but already assured of it. It is because she knows she is forgiven, knows that she is loved, knows that the space around Jesus is a place of radical hospitality where the broken and beleaguered can find solace, it is because she knows a love that transcends social norms and boundaries and sets one free. Because she knows all of this, she comes now to give thanks and to pour out her gratitude and love for the one who has shown love for her, and who in that love has forgiven her.
When we see the story in this way, then the object lesson of the story turns out to be the woman at all. Turns out that the spotlight should really be on Simon (and me) sitting at that table, with that big plate load of judgment in front of us.
That is why, while the eyes of those gathered may have been on the woman, Jesus does not turn his gaze from Simon. It is Simon that is the focus of Jesus teaching that day. Not the woman. Simon is the one who has something to learn. Something that the woman clearly has already mastered.
And that is what Jesus is revealing — a Way of living that brings healing and wholeness and the reparation of relationship. You see it is impossible to fully love if one cannot also fully forgive. We human beings are fallible. We are broken. We fall down and fall away all of the time. To walk in the way of love is not to be perfect but it is to learn to perfect the art of forgiving and asking for forgiveness. This is what the woman knows now deep down in her soul and it is what has set her free.
If we are to live in the light of God’s love, and let that love flow through all we do and all we are, then we must, we just have to learn what it is to forgive and be forgiven.
That is what Jesus came to show us.
So what does that mean for us? I think it means a couple of things. First it means that this beloved community that we share in is to hold as a core principle and a key piece of our foundational identity, the radical, inclusive hospitality that has at its core God’s love and forgiveness. Here we create with God and share in together a place that welcomes everyone in their fullest, most authentic selves. Here we create a place where people do not need to hide but where we learn to embrace our brokenness, our pains and our deepest yearnings. Such a community of love and inclusion is only possible where forgiveness too is practiced. For forgiveness is the mercy filled corrective that restores ruptured relationship and enables the flow of God’s love unimpeded.
And second it means that I, (and perhaps you too?) really do need to push away that plate of judgment and take up the feast of mercy and forgiveness that is being offered. Not so much for the woman’s sake, for she is fine, actually she is more than fine. But for our own sake so that we too, each and every one of us can know the gift that she has received and that is offered to us all, the gift of a life of freedom, the joy, and being caught up in the great outpouring of love that flows out of the wide open gate of mercy and forgiveness.
Can I now say for the record, you have my permission, when you come into this place on Sunday morning or anytime really, if you feel so moved, you go ahead and make a scene! Go ahead and weep and let down your hair, and kiss and hug and do whatever it you feel moved to do as you as an expression of your gratitude for knowing the sweet mercy and forgiveness of the one who cancels the debt of every willing heart. For be assured, it is only the blindness to our own need for forgiveness that keeps God’s forgiveness from us. The door is open. All we need to do, like that woman did so long ago, is step through it.
So thanks be to the radical, hospitality of a God that eats and drinks with sinners like us. Thanks be to a forgiveness that heals our brokenness and restores us to right relationships. Thanks be to Love, the well spring of our being and the very heart of God. Amen.