Monday, June 14, 2010

That Woman! Luke 7:36-50

Last night Beth and I went to dinner with the Dooleys at the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant. I have eaten food from across the globe but had never eaten Ethiopian before. While I have always trusted William’s palate, I must confess that I entered the restaurant with some trepidation. I did not know what to expect. The end result was better than I had imagined. The food was great! While it may have been my first trip to the restaurant, it is certainly not my last. This morning’s passage invites home for dinner with Simon. I imagine that when Simon found his place at the table he probably thought he knew exactly what they would eat and what would happen. The dinner was the same old fare with the same old friends, just with the addition of this radical rabbi named Jesus. But what he did not know is that when Jesus is at the table one should get ready to have their world turned upside down.

Simon is one of the seemingly endless nameless faceless groups of Pharisees that dot the Jesus story. The Pharisees are an interesting lot. They are blue collar religious conservatives (1) passionate about keeping the Law of Moses – every jot and tittle. They were self righteous and were admitted to sect by pledging the strict observance to the Law in front of three other Pharisees. These are rule driven folks. They played by the rules and expected everyone else to play by the same rules – no exceptions.

As you would expect, we find Jesus at the table. He and the other guest are reclining at a floor height table; eating and talking. I can almost hear the chatter and the occasional burst of laughter. The table was probably lined with the closest friends and family of the Pharisee. In fact, probably several others at the table would have been Pharisees as well.

Luke sets the scene quickly and then adds the one who would have stopped the casual conversation at the table and turns all eyes on Jesus. A woman hears that Jesus is eating in the Pharisee’s home and makes her way to the household. Without invitation and or announcement she enters the dining area. The only thing we really know about her is that Luke tell us that she had lived a sinful life. If you have heard this passage preached before the proclaimer probably tried to explain that she was women of – well how shall we say this - a woman of questionable reputation? They probably contended that since she had a jar of alabaster perfume and would let her hair down, that this had to be the case. But, to be honest, there are many, many other ways we could explain these two parts of her story. The reality is that the word chosen to describe the woman is not the one most often used to describe those in a particular profession. No, all we really know is that her life was defined by sin – what kind of sin really did not matter. But, her identity was shaped by her sinfulness. She knew it. Everyone one from that community knew it. She was the one people probably pointed at when she walked by and whispered harsh words for “that woman!” But there is no mistaking it. There was standing behind Jesus. Now all at the table froze, waiting to see how Jesus would respond.

“As the woman stood weeping behind Jesus, she began to wash his feet with her tears. In a spontaneous act, she let down her hair and began to wipe the tears from Jesus' feet and then anointed them with the perfume. The woman's act expresses love and gratitude, but it also violated social conventions. Touching or caressing a man's feet could have sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair, so a woman never let down her hair in public. Moreover, the woman was known to be a sinner. Assuming she was unclean, she would have made Jesus unclean by touching him.” (2) 39When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

Some scholars would like to suggest that this event might have staged by the Pharisee to try to trap Jesus. I believe this is highly unlikely, because the Pharisee’s house would have been deemed unclean by this moment and his reputation in the community would have been impacted by the mere presence of this woman. No, he was just as shocked as everyone else and now found himself sitting in comfortable judgment of Jesus. The fact that Jesus let her touch his feet with her hair violated a host of social norms and religious regulations.

I imagine that you could have felt the tension rising in the room. Jesus looked at his Pharisee host and offered a parable40Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. 41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" 43Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

It is one thing to say you understand a story, a parable, or a sermon. It is something very different to bring it to life in your way of life. Simon faces that moment. Simon can proclaim the right answer to the parable but has no idea what this means in his life and in this moment. Jesus wants Simon to make the leap of faith required to change his heart. He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Then Jesus tells Simon and the others gathered in that room something that would shake their worlds. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." 48Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Those gathered in the room tried to understand this great act of divine grace, but for those locked in the prison of a legalistic faith had little room for God to color forgiveness outside the lines.

This is a simple but remarkably powerful story of unexpected mercy. The woman understood her deep seeded need for mercy and grace. She knew that her life separated her from God and others. Her heart was broken and she offered Jesus the best gesture of love and gratitude she could muster. Way too much energy has been given to trying to trying to paint the depths of her sin, but Jesus looked beyond her past and saw her repentant heart. She is the easy character to focus on because most of us gathered in this room are not defined to our community for our sinfulness. We understand that those who are broken need healing. We can see people like this woman needing God. But ultimately this story is not about “that woman.”

Instead this is Simon’s story. It is Simon’s home and it is to Simon that Jesus directs his parable and commentary. I think we have a harder time focusing on Simon because we are much more like him that we might want to believe. He would be one of us. He might be a part of our Sunday School class or sit at the table with us on Wednesday dinners. He might sit on the pew nearby or maybe in your or my very seat. It is easy to so caught up in being religious – righteous…..maybe even self- righteous – that we miss our own need for grace. Simon was clear in his religious status. His church resume’ of committees and seasons as various committee chairs would have been irrefutable. But, when he saw a grand act of contrition and gratitude that did not fit in his box he responded with quiet judgment. It seems that sometimes we forget that it is not our standard that people are supposed to meet. It seems sometimes we forget that it is not enough to claim an intellectual faith of the mind, but that Jesus calls for us to claim a heart of faith that makes the way for others to find grace. It is not enough to understand what it means to follow Christ, we are called to step out and follow. Our words of our lips and the practice of our lives need to be the same. Too many have lived lives of lip service when the call of God was for life service.

The story summons us to take one more step. Jesus asks Simon a terrific and terrifying question, “do you see this woman?” Sometimes we become so caught up in our own religious expressions and obligations we become blind to those who need to be invited to the table. The very woman that Simon worried might besmirch his reputation is the one who finds grace at the feet of God. Maybe instead of worrying about how people would react to the woman – and maybe instead of wondering why Jesus would allow the woman near, he should have invited her to the table to meet Jesus – regardless of the cost – regardless of the risk. The problem is that while the passion for a fundamentalist faith burn hot, the embers of his compassion had long since grown cold. I wonder, have we become like Simon and are so settled with our own friends and so settled into our religious way of life that we miss inviting people who need Jesus to the table with us? As Simon sat only feet from Jesus in self-righteous judgment, he missed his own need for grace. We, as people of faith, like Simon, come with blind spots to our own sin. For Simon it was religious arrogance. For others, their spiritual blind spot is born in is a heart of selfishness or self centeredness, or anger, or greed, or….well, anything that breaks our relationship with God or others. We have subtly decided that we are good enough on our own. It seems that it is tempting to forget that the parable teaches that whether the cost of our sin is the 50 or the 500 denarii, the need for grace is just the same. Have you become so comfortable in your way of life that you have forgotten your own need for God and God’s grace?

You sit at the table with Jesus. Don’t miss the moment. Hear the good news! Grace is available to everyone, even people like ‘that woman!” Hear that God’s forgiveness is big enough, bold enough, and powerful enough to the depth and breadth of our sins. Whether our lives look more like Simon or the “That Woman,” let our song ring out; Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me. Jesus stands ready to say into your life, "Your sins are forgiven."

(1) Available online at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/sadducees_pharisees_essenes.html on June 12, 2010.
(2) R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter's Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 170.

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