Gospel: Luke 7:36 - 8:3
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. 37And 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. 38She stood behind him at his feet,(reclining to eat) 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.
39Now 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.’
40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’
.44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
There is a TV ad which begins with much rejoicing as the new mother welcomes four or five friends into her nice clean and shining house. They have come visiting to see the new baby. There is clucking and cooing- all is bonhomie- until one woman asks if she can use the toilet. Then, as can only happen in TV land, the face of the hostess freezes in horror, until she remembers- O relief!- that she is using some brand of toilet cleaner I can’t remember and, on principle, would not buy if I could. I hate and despise this advertisement with its predatory woman anticipating catching out the new mother with a less than perfect bathroom. I sneer at a woman who lets herself be saved by toilet cleaner.
My contempt is born out of my own experience of pain and rejection. It is born from the experience that this is rarely accidental. It is built into the structure of society, so that we are all invited to collude. It sometimes seems to be planned with vicious deliberation. In the generation of my grandparents, the ladies of the town would hold afternoon teas, to which they issued tickets. Not to receive a ticket was a devastating experience. It was a sign of exclusion. We do the same thing now with Facebook and SMS.
When I let myself identify with the new mum in the commercial, I cease to sneer. I feel sorry for. Angry though I am, I even feel sorrow for the woman who thinks she is superior because of her cleaner toilet. But each time that commercial shows, I have an unbidden surge of anger, contempt, and condemnation. Exclusion is incredibly destructive, and sometimes almost indelible in its effects.
The story of Jesus this week is an uncompromising rejection of exclusive behaviour. It completely re-casts our personal and religious politics.
For health, and power, and happiness we need to belong. We need to be part of community. This is a foundational fact of our humanity.
Currently, as I sit in my recliner, under a warm blanket and laptop, the dog is down on the floor. She has abandoned her highly prized place on my feet, at the end of the blanket, and is fretting anxiously next to her bag, and a couple of folding chairs.
We leave for my brother-in-law's 50th birthday weekend in two days time, and since Wendy began to accumulate stuff for the van yesterday afternoon, the dog has been unwilling to move. Even for food! She does not want to miss out. She does not want to stay home. She knows the only way to stop us sneaking off is to stay with the travelling gear!
Acceptance and inclusion are animal needs. They are basic, primitive requirements for security, rooted deep in the biological foundations of our being.
What the woman in the TV commercial fears, is that she will be judged by the state of her toilet, and found wanting. That fact that a toilet can be used as a dramatic symbol to instantly wipe out the joy of new life and celebration, is a clear indication of the visceral nature of our need to belong.
The malice which leaks through the fake-friendly veneer on the face of the woman who wants to see the toilet, is a potent symbol of all that is wrong in our relationships. She is showing us sin. She is showing us how we seek salvation, health, and happiness through the misuse of power. We seek to gain advantage by excluding, by building ourselves up at the expense of others. Real power, in contrast to this comes from inclusion; that is, from giving and sharing the power to be.
Let me slow down, now that I have vented some passion, and take you back to the text. In the first two verses of this reading, it is three times stated that Jesus is visiting with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the good people. Jesus is not visiting with the often lonely, very rich and powerful who suffer their own exclusion, but with the good, decent people. Jesus is with the nice, respectable folk of the town.
Understand this. He is not at the home of the gentleman farmer, or the squire of the parish, who we may suck up to, but secretly despise. He is with a pillar of the church. Simon the Pharisee is not a bad man. People who seriously aspired to the good, will have likely admired Simon. I cannot escape the sense that Luke, in part, is telling this story against ourselves. We are the good people.
Into this nice environment--
I'm overusing the cliché “nice”, on purpose. So much of what we do is about creating “nice.” Nice homes, nice friends- nothing so crass as keeping up with the Jones's- but everything proper and in place. In a sad parody of Jesus' words elsewhere, we say, “Let all righteousness be fulfilled.” That's what “nice” is about. Saccharine and easy provision of salvation, by ourselves, for ourselves.
Into this nice, righteous environment, comes its antithesis. The woman is “from the city,” and in case we are too polite to acknowledge the allusion, Luke rams it home. She is a sinner.
The story is loaded with irony. She is not nice, but actually, in the real sense of the word, she is righteous. She has already met Jesus. We do not know where or how, but she has already been “forgiven much.”
Whether or not Simon knows of this previous meeting, he can only see her as a sinner. He can only see her gratitude as “not nice,” and one more occasion for sin. What the woman does is wrong in his eyes.
For our part, we often forget she is already forgiven. I was about to write this: “We do not read carefully....” On reflection, it is obvious from the story that there has been some other contact. Careful reading is not the problem. We too, are discomforted by this woman. (We also constantly need to be reminded that forgiveness is given, it is not a payment for some service rendered to God.)
We too easily hear Jesus say “Your sins are forgiven” (verse 48), as though he was imparting forgiveness at that moment. The context clearly implies she was already forgiven. He is affirming her display of emotion, and he is re-affirming her sense that she is forgiven.
In the face of Simon's disapproval he says to her, “Remember, despite this man, you have been forgiven your sins.” He repeats the same affirmation a verse or two later: Remember, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ In each case, his affirmation is not only a rejection of the criticisms of himself, but also an affirmation of the woman and a rejection of those who criticised her, and wished to maintain her exclusion from the life of the city.
I am especially interested in the emotions which embroil Simon in this story; Simon whose name means one who has heard. He judges the woman, to be sure. She is a sinner, not worthy to be in the presence of God, corrupting others with the same uncleanliness, and invading his house. But that is all peripheral, the occasion for something deeper!
What is really happening is profound embarrassment and discomfort. These verses link it all together.
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.’
This is not condemnation of a woman over a breach of the law. This is disapproval, and great discomfort with Jesus, and the way Jesus accepts the absolutely inappropriate adulation (not nice) of a scarily emotional woman.
Her behaviour is that of the differently abled folk in my wife's congregation who fawn over the ministers and others who have accepted them, constantly being “not nice” with their comments and requiests throughout the service.
She is the wannabe gamer who delights in being allowed to be part of my son's party meetings, because he has been shown a rare acceptance.
She is the theological student so saved by the acceptance of a lecturer that they get the same haircut and wears the same clothes. And the lecturer, despite the embarressment, despite the scorn and discomfort of others who suspect the student is so besotted that the makeover is unconscious, still loved the student, and still accpeted the student, and still built them up.
Simon is greatly disconcerted. Like me, when certain emotions are shown on TV, he has to get up and leave the room! Or, failing that, he makes a snide comment; “If this man were a prophet...”
Jesus is not nice to Simon. But he is compassionate. He addresses him by name. (Petty)
Compassion smiled from Jesus’ face;
He still confronted wrong;
He spoke for those who had no voice;
Was peaceable yet strong. George Stuart
He did not criticise the woman, or ignore her. That would be to exclude her all over again so Simon could maintain his position and comfort. Instead he affirmed the woman, three times over. And he injected a potent story into the tumour of Simon's own diseased being.
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.’...
Simon is not “supposing” in the sense that he is tentative or unsure which person will love more. He is “supposing” in the unwilling, even sulky, and deeply embarrassed manner of someone utterly exposed by Jesus' question. He does not need Jesus to say ... you gave me no water for my feet... “I suppose” is a disconcerted, struggling-for-time-to-assimilate-the-insight response. It is the response of a person who is suddenly realising they are seeking security and acceptance in the wrong place. And unwillingly, they own up to it.
The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. Simon's world is turned on its head. We are left to wonder what he will conclude. Interestingly, he seems to have assimilated or accepted Jesus' critique. It is others at the table who miss the point and try and reject the challenge of compassion, acceptance and inclusion with arguments about who may forgive sins.
Neat doctrine seeks to make a nice world. It seeks to give security by excluding what is different or frightening as "wrong." It ceases to be a guide and indicator in a messy world, and becomes law.When we are reminded that some people wanted to call Jesus a glutton (7:34), one of those alleged gluttonies immediately confronts the lie with the messy message of inclusion and compassion. But it seems inevitable that some people will “worry about theological correctness while ignoring loving action.” (Petty)
I've said Luke is telling the story against us. He is also appealing to us. Brian Stroffregen quotes Fred Craddock's Interpretaton commentary, Luke,
Where does one go when told by Christ "Go in peace"? The price of the woman's way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her. The one place where she is welcome is the street, among people like herself. What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. The story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, "You are welcome here." [p. 106]
Will we be Simon, the one who has heard, or will we be those who are impervious to salvation?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
© Scots Church Adelaide Ph. 08 8223 1505