June 13, 2010
We’ve heard this story before.
A woman of questionable character crashes the Jesus party and dares to douse him in expensive perfume, all under the watchful eye of the religious police who call her out for her obviously boorish and scandalous behavior. Then Jesus turns the tables by showing the accusers that in reality they are the ones who are behaving boorishly.
We’ve heard this story before because all four gospels include some version of it;
in fact we heard John’s version of the story only a few months ago, when it appeared in the lectionary in March.
But while all four gospel writers tell this story there are differences,
and Luke’s version is the one that differs the most.
Matthew, Mark and John place the story in Bethany.
Luke says it happened in Galilee.
In Matthew and Mark the host of the party was Simon the leper.
In Luke, the host was Simon the Pharisee. That’s quite a leap in social standing.
In Matthew and Mark, the woman pours the costly ointment on Jesus’ head.
In Luke, and John, she pours it on his feet.
In Matthew and Mark the woman is not identified.
In John we are told she is Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
In Luke she is not named, but she is conspicuously labeled as being a “sinful woman,”
and while later in the text Luke mentions Mary Magdalene as being a follower and supporter of Jesus, he in no way implies that Mary Magdalene and the “sinful woman” are one and the same, despite the tendency many have to conflate the two.
So we have four different writers, writing at four different times for four different communities, who each tell a story that was passed down orally for 30-60 years before it was written down.
It’s not hard to understand why the Gospel writers were a little fuzzy on the details.
But Luke’s story is a different animal all together.
Back in March, during Lent, Pastor Cindy preached on John’s version of the text, which had Martha’s sister Mary pouring the expensive oil on Jesus’ feet while Judas stood by and chastised her for wasting money that could have been spent on the poor. Jesus’ response was, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
This is the gist of Matthew and Mark’s versions as well, as all three writers place the story just before Jesus is arrested and killed. The woman, whoever she was, was being prophetic by anointing Jesus with oil just prior to his death.
Luke, however, places the story long before Jesus’ death, because the story for Luke is not about the oil. It’s not about the cost of the oil, the prevalence of the poor who would have benefited from its sale, or the prophetic action of a woman who foresaw Jesus death when the others did not.
For Luke, the story is about forgiveness.
It’s about grace.
It’s about living one’s life in the belief that there is nothing that we can do that will keep God from loving us.
And it’s about not judging the sins of others as somehow being less deserving of God’s forgiveness and grace then our own.
I prefer Luke’s version of the story.
While Matthew and Mark take less than 7 verses to tell their version of the events, Luke needs 18 verses to tell his. Luke is a storyteller and he likes to flesh out his scenes with details that that will grab the attention of his readers, and allow them to place themselves in the story as it is happening.
Luke tells us that Simon is a Pharisee who has invited Jesus to a dinner party at his home.
Right away we can sense the tension. We know from other gospel accounts that the Pharisees kept a close eye on Jesus, because although he was an observant Jew he did not always keep the law in the manner that they deemed appropriate.
So right off the bat we’re wondering, what is Simon’s motive for inviting Jesus to his home? Is it to confront him? To get a closer look at this rebellious rabbi and his practices? To perhaps question him with the hope that he will humiliate himself in front of the other guests?
We know Simon does not buy into the whole ‘Jesus is a messenger sent from God’ routine, we know this even before Simon accuses Jesus of being a false prophet for not shunning a sinner as any self respecting messenger of God would.
We know this because of what Jesus points out about Simon’s behavior. Simon does not greet Jesus at the door with the customary kiss, an anointing of oil, and a jug of water for him to wash his feet. The equivalent today would be offering a newly arrived guest the chance to freshen up or have a drink before dinner is served. Simon did none of this, so right away we’re alerted to the fact that Jesus was not exactly a welcomed guest despite the fact that he was invited to the festivities.
While we as the reader are setting ourselves up for whatever dastardly deed the Pharisee has planned, Luke tells us that a woman from the city, a “sinful” woman, has heard that Jesus is having dinner at Simon’s house, and without a second thought she rushes off to get an alabaster jar of expensive ointment and walks into Simon’s home uninvited.
Now mind you, this was not unusual at the time - When religious leaders hosted dinner parties and invited special guests, especially guests as controversial as Jesus, the public was allowed to mill about on the edges of what was likely a large banquet room, listening in on the conversation.
What was scandalous was that the woman exited the segregated crowd of onlookers and approached Jesus as he reclined at the table.
It was then that Luke tells us she began weeping, and her instinct was to use her tears to wash the soles of Jesus’ feet, and to dry them with her hair.
We don’t know what sin this woman has committed.
Many have assumed that since she is a woman who has the means to afford expensive perfumes, and the audacity to let her hair down in public, and touch the feet of a man, that the sin that she has committed is sexual in nature.
She is a woman of loose morals, perhaps a prostitute or an adulteress.
But others have suggested that as a rich woman perhaps her sin was related to money – perhaps she had failed to give to the poor, or pay her fair share of taxes, or pay a living wage to her staff. Any of these actions would have been labeled as sinful in the eyes of a law abiding Pharisee like Simon.
Luke is intentionally vague about the nature of the woman’s sin because it is not important.
This is not a story about a particular woman who committed a particular sin, that’s not meant to be our focus.
Our focus is meant to be on why this sinful woman is weeping at Jesus’ feet.
At this point, we as the reader have gone from questioning the motives of Simon the Pharisee to feeling sorry for this unnamed woman, while we also admire her bravery.
We assume that her tears are tears of contrition, tears of sadness and shame for whatever it is that she has done, and we relate to her desire to fall at the feet of Jesus and ask for his forgiveness.
But the catch here is that she is not asking for his forgiveness,
her tears are not tears of contrition but tears of joy.
Because she knows in the deepest core of her being that she has already been forgiven.
We know this because of what Jesus says to Simon.
After Simon objected to the woman’s scandalous show of affection, and chastised Jesus for being a false prophet because he was obviously blind to the fact that this woman was a sinner,
Jesus said to Simon, “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; HENCE she has shown great love.”
In other words, the woman was not forgiven BECAUSE she had shown great love for Jesus by anointing his feet, but rather she was showing great love and was anointing his feet in gratitude because she knew she had already been forgiven.
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you,” but her faith in God’s love and mercy had saved her before she even set foot in Simon’s house.
She did not earn God’s grace by washing Jesus’ feet. God’s grace was hers for the taking the moment that she turned away from whatever caused her brokenness and she instead turned towards God.
This is a distinction that many of us miss.
When we hear this story we get the fact that we’re supposed to identify with Simon, and be conscious of and remorseful for the times when we judge others more harshly then we judge ourselves.
And we get the fact that we’re supposed to identify with the sinful woman, and throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet in an act of contrition as we ask for forgiveness.
But we miss that fact that Jesus has acknowledged that the woman’s sins are already forgiven, and it is her loving gratitude and hospitality that we are meant to emulate.
This is a woman who recognizes that she is broken, but who also recognizes and BELIEVES with her whole heart, that God is a loving and merciful God, and that there is nothing that she can do make that not true.
She believes this in the core of her being, so much so that she doesn’t give a damn about Simon’s dinner party, or proper decorum for uninvited guests. She doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation.
All that she has on her mind is getting close to Jesus and allowing her gratitude to burst forth in tears of joy; to return the hospitality that God has shown to her.
In contemplating the actions of this unnamed woman, I’m reminded of a quote from the late John Wooden, the celebrated UCLA basketball couch who passed away last week.
Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."
Unlike the woman in our gospel story today, many of us don’t find it so easy to not give a damn about our reputation.
We ARE concerned about what other people think.
Not only because we want others to like us and to treat us with respect, but because when influential people pass judgment on our character or our behavior it often has a large bearing on how the rest of the community treats us.
In an age when those accused of crimes are often tried and convicted by public opinion and the media before a trial even takes place, we know how important, and fragile, a person’s reputation can be.
Even if the reputation we’ve earned is based on some truth, and we did commit some sin that has caused others to judge us – we lied, stole, cheated, coveted, overindulged or broke some other commandment, written or unwritten; the shame that we carry around inside of us is often more debilitating then the scornful looks of others.
Even if we’ve admitted our sin, asked God for forgiveness and moved on, we may still emit shame through our reluctance to talk about our infraction and our desire to keep others from finding out what we once did.
Because unlike the sinful woman, we have difficulty believing in our heart of hearts that God has truly forgiven us. As repentant as we are, we still believe that our sin exists as a mark on our record somewhere and it will come back to haunt us in the end. We have trouble comprehending that God’s grace wipes away the mistakes that we’ve made in our lives.
We may accept it on a cognitive level, but we don’t embody it like the sinful woman did.
Often the shame that we carry is not be related to something that we’ve done personally. It may be circumstances or an event that happened TO us but we still feel somehow responsible for its occurrence.
Losing a job, experiencing a failed relationship, having a child get in trouble with the law, or a relative who is struggling with addiction.
One modern day badge of shame that many of us are dealing with in this economy is the appearance of a foreclosure sign on our front lawn, or the front lawn of our friends, family members, or neighbors.
For many of us losing our home, losing a job, or losing a loved one to addiction or the prison system is like having a giant flashing neon sign that appears above our head that says, “I failed.”
I failed as a parent, I failed as an employee, I failed to live up to the societal expectation that I be a financially solvent, responsible adult who is capable of pulling myself up by my own bootstraps while caring for those around me.
In this case, we assume the role of Simon the Pharisee, pointing fingers at ourselves for having committed the sin of not living up to our own expectations or the expectations of others.
To counteract this, we need to step into the role of Jesus, to call out the Simon that is within us and say, “Sorry, buddy. You don’t get to decide who is sinful and who is not. Because regardless of what you think, or what the neighbors think, or what those in power think, this part of you that you have labeled as sinful, this part of you that has caused you shame, has already been vindicated by the grace of God.”
Oh, if we could only be that woman with the alabaster jar of oil.
Not because she didn’t give a damn about her bad reputation or because she threw caution to the wind and approached Jesus when others believed she had no right to do so.
I wish we could be that woman because she didn’t hear stories about God’s unconditional love and grace and file them away somewhere under religious concepts that may or may not be true, she felt it, she lived it, she had it pouring out of her in tears of gratitude.
She kissed Jesus’ feet not to get him to forgive her, she kissed his feet because she was overflowing with joy and the peaceful bliss of knowing that no matter who was pointing fingers at her the blame and the shame would melt away in the presence of God’s love.
And God’s love does not appear in some ethereal mist that we have to shut our eyes tightly to imagine.
That love is embodied in communities just like this.
God’s love is poured into us from our friends, our families, all those who stand by our side and offer us their support no matter what brokenness or shame has entered into our lives.
We stand by each other and fill each other with God’s love because brokenness happens to all of us.
We all have some misstep in our past that we’d like to forget.
We all have at some time been misjudged or labeled as something that we are not, and we’ve all at times been the one doing the misjudging and labeling.
We’ve all at some point felt like we have a giant failure sign flashing over our head.
May we learn to hold each other, and ourselves as Jesus held both the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee in his care.
Without passing judgment on their individual sins.
Seeing each as deserving of God’s love and grace.
Seeing the need not the label.
Responding with compassion and not prejudice.
Being able to hold opposing energies in one room and minister to people on both sides, according to their needs.
This is not an easy thing to do.
We like holding those failure signs over each other’s heads, because it keeps us from noticing our own failures.
But once we understand that God’s love and grace are not limited commodities, that they are not doled out based on the level of our brokenness or the nature of our sins, then we can stop holding up those signs.
We can shake out our arms and use them to hold each other instead.
God’s grace is ours for the taking, right here, right now.
All we have to do let it in, and then pour it back out in gratitude, as Jesus calls us to do.
Even if we have to crash a few dinner parties to do it.