Rev. Teri Peterson
19 February 2017, NL3-24, Epiphany 7 (Listen Up!)
Last week we heard about Jesus’ answer to those who wondered if he was the One they had been waiting for: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. He ended the conversation by reminding them that when John the Baptizer fasted and separated himself from society, they thought he was demon-possessed, and now Jesus feasts and they call him a glutton who socializes with sinners—their expectations obscured their ability to hear his message of grace. Today’s reading, in Luke chapter 7, beginning at verse 36, picks up at the end of that conversation. It can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Picture this scene…a house with big front windows, shutters open, and no glass in them of course. The front door stands open to a large courtyard, and the first doorway goes into a front room, with its wall of open windows and a long, low table surrounded by pillows and low benches. This is the room where it happens—where the powerful master of the house entertains his important guests, so everyone can see how well they live and how scrupulous they are about keeping the religious laws, and often even hear what they discuss.
The room was full that day—mainly men, important men. Pharisees and scribes, perhaps rabbis, or members of the royal household, or of the Sanhedrin, the council of elders. They reclined towards the table on the cushions, leaning on their left arms, with their feet out behind them, away from the table. There may have been women there—wives, perhaps, seated on stools or benches, or slaves coming and going with dishes and food and jugs of wine.
It is not a quiet dinner party as we think of them today, secluded and enclosed in flickering candlelight. There’s bustling in the room, and outside, as people walk by, or stand outside and talk about what they are seeing and hearing, or even talk through the windows at the people inside. There’s movement, and probably more color than we usually imagine in the ancient near east, and side conversations, and food coming and going.
Then a woman entered the house—it was easy to do—and stood behind Jesus as he reclined at the table. At first, probably no one gave her a much thought, as people came and went, except perhaps to avoid her touching them. But she stayed, rooted to her spot, weeping so much that she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair—her unbound, uncovered, loose, long hair. Soon a different scent filled the air, overpowering the smell of roasted fish and fresh bread and new wine with its pungent sweetness, reminiscent both of love and of death.
By now she had everyone’s attention.
How could Jesus not know? What she was? In addition to everyone squirming away to be sure she didn’t accidentally touch them, they were squirming inside too, suspicious that this man was not who he claimed to be, since he seemed to not understand about this creature that was ruining everything, right there at the dinner table.
No one said a word but Jesus. His story was straightforward, and even those startled at having their inner thoughts addressed out loud could understand his point about those being forgiven much showing great love. But then he asked a question that likely made them all wonder again about his sanity, his intelligence, and his call as a prophet:
Do you see this woman?
She has spent many minutes creating a spectacle of herself, making a scene, making everyone uncomfortable…of course they see her.
Or do they?
Simon had said to himself that a real prophet would know what she was—a sinner.
Do you see this woman?
Or do you see a sinner?
Do you see this woman?
Or do you see “the homeless” and “the needy”?
black, and dangerous?
Hispanic, and illegal?
Asian, and smart?
hijab and long sleeves?
loose hair and a low cut top?
Do you see this woman?
or do you see a teenage girl sold into sex slavery by her father, desperate for cash?
Estimates are that up to half of teen girls in Roman occupied Palestine had been sold by their families, and fathers got the best price if they allowed them to be used as prostitutes.
Do you see a young woman whose body is for the pleasure of the occupying army,
a young woman whose lifespan is likely less than five years?
do you see poverty, desperation, abandonment, betrayal, fear?
or an embodiment of her own bad choices and natural consequences?
Then, as now, she knew perfectly well that they did not see her. And yet, she persisted.
She knew the rules. She’d heard them talking about her. She knew what people said, and what they believed, and what they expected. She knew the life she was living, and its danger, and its harsh reality so easily hidden behind the label “sinner.”
And yet, she persisted.
And Jesus persisted, too. He began a litany with Simon:
*you gave me no water for my feet—you neglected basic hospitality, failing to keep the law to welcome the stranger.
but she has bathed my feet with her tears.
*you gave me no kiss—you held the peace of our house back from me, failing to love your neighbor as yourself.
but she has not stopped kissing my feet.
*you gave me no oil for my head—you judged with human eyes, failing to learn from the lessons of our ancestors the kings and the prophets.
but she has anointed my feet with her most precious possession.
Unrelentingly, Jesus held up a mirror to Simon, essentially asking him: do you see yourself? Is there anyone who is without sin? He knows the answer—Simon sees neither himself nor the woman clearly. He sees only through his lens of assumptions, that he is better, because of his position, his gender, his religion, his education, his family. He thinks “I wonder if Jesus knows what she is”… and the answer is that Jesus is the only one in the room who knows her, who sees her for who she is—and who knows and sees Simon for who he is, too. Jesus sees through the lens of God’s love, which gives him insight and clarity that reveals the image of God, and the grace of God, underneath all those layers we get hung up on.
Then Jesus speaks the reality that is behind all those masks and mirrors and labels…the reality that many do not wish to hear, even as we desire it with all our hearts:
She has been forgiven, and therefore she shows great love.
The grace of God has been at work in her, she has experienced God’s goodness, and it overflows in gratitude, in service, in the gift of her precious ointment, in her persistence in pursuing Jesus in the face of overwhelming odds.
At no point does Jesus tell her to repent, or to go and sin no more. He knows perfectly well that would be impossible, and also that the main sin in her life is not hers, but that of the men who sell and buy and use her. He simply states what is already true: grace is something God does, not something we earn or bestow. Grace is entirely God’s action, and we see its evidence in her response of generosity. She sought him out not because she needed to be forgiven, but because she was forgiven and needed to give thanks, to worship, to offer herself. She sought him out not to beg for mercy, but to pour out her own spirit at the feet of the One who could see her. She persisted, because her experience of grace meant she had no choice but to challenge the systems that kept her in her place.
Jesus’ question to Simon is the same he asks of us: Do we see this woman? And do we see ourselves? Will we persist as she did, pushing boundaries that obstruct justice and grace, or will we add more layers until we are trapped in our own echo chamber?
Jesus’ answer is also the same to us: I see you. God sees you, and has made you well. God’s grace is for you, and will never give up…now go, and in the same measure that you have been loved, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
May it be so. Amen.