Have you ever been around a couple who were so much in love and so outward in their shows of affection that you found yourself rolling your eyes or shaking your head or feeling embarrassed? Nothing else in the world seemed to matter to them and they didn’t care who knew it. Have you ever been so much in love and so overwhelmed by it that you were the one acting out this kind of extravagant love? If the answer is yes to either of those questions, then you are ready to jump into today’s story.
As I told you last week, this story is an illustration growing out of last week’s story in which John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus asking if he is the expected Messiah or not. As with most of John’s contemporaries, the problem is the image of what he expected a Messiah to be. Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and tell him of people being healed, the blind receiving sight, the dead being raised, and the poor having good news preached to them. You have to look beneath the surface of people to see who they are.
This leads Jesus into a teaching moment with the crowds gathered around him, which included common people, tax collectors, Pharisees and scribes. He speaks of how many have rejected John because of his ascetic lifestyle, separating himself from community and not eating or drinking. And he speaks of how many have rejected him because he does eat and drink and befriends people who are usually seen to be outside the faith community.
After he finishes, a Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to his home for a meal. I don’t think there are any instances in the Gospel in which Jesus turns down an invitation to anyone’s home. The menu is not mentioned, but I’m thinking fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans. And just as you know that would not have been the menu in first century Palestine, we have to remember that homes would have been different as well. They were very simple, open air with lots of ventilation for a hot, dry climate, no locks or alarm systems. Jesus would not have gone by himself, he would have taken his disciples with him, so there was a big crowd including the Pharisee’s friends.
I tell you this because in our world it seems odd that this woman would just show up with her jar of ointment and have access to Jesus in Simon’s home. Small town, everyone knew everybody, open homes, people come and go, big crowd, all this helps explain it. Simon knows her and does not act to have her shown the door.
Jesus would have been reclining at the table with his feet behind him, and the woman begins weeping and washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment. It’s an embarrassing display, there’s no other way around it. The fact that Jesus doesn’t put a stop to it proves one thing to his host, who was probably rolling his eyes and looking on with disdain. It proves Jesus is not a prophet, because if he was he would know she was a sinner and he would put a stop to it.
Jesus knows exactly what is going through the mind of this man whose life is bound up with law and obedience and righteousness, so he addresses his host: “Simon, I have something to say to you. A man had two people who owed him money. One owed him $25,000 and the other owed him $2500. He decided to cancel both debts. Which one do you think will love him more?” Simon said, “I suppose the one who owed him more.” Jesus said, “That’s right. Do you see this woman? You invited me into your house but showed me no welcome, not even water to wash my feet or a kiss of welcome. She, on the other hand, has not stopped showing me hospitality and love. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. But one who is forgiven little, loves little.”
There is lots of speculation about who this woman was and what caused her to be identified as a sinner, but neither of those things matter. What matters is that whatever it was she did had the power to ruin her life. Everybody knew about it. Everybody looked down on her and marginalized her. She doesn’t have a name, just a label. She’s a sinner. The question Jesus asks Simon is so telling. “Do you see this woman?” Can you look at her, can you see the potential in her instead of dwelling on the mistake she made in the past, have you just written her off?
I have no grounds for this, but I don’t think this was the first time this woman had met Jesus. I think she had already experienced his gracious acceptance and forgiveness and healing and was still so overwhelmed by it that she couldn’t stop thanking him. She didn’t care if it meant risking the ridicule and condemnation of the Pharisees in the house. That no longer mattered. She had been forgiven much and so she loved much. I wonder how long she had been burdened with that “sinner” label, how long her life had been dominated by the shame that came from everyone knowing her failure and continuing to taunt her with it. “Sinner.” “She’s a sinner.” “You’re a sinner.” “Stay away from her.”
Jan Holton writes, “The last thing the woman in this story wishes to do is find herself as the center of attention. Whatever draws her to Jesus must be stronger than what threatens to expose her. Even Simon’s snide mutterings cannot deter her. Imagine the courage it takes to walk into the center of ridicule to express her love and gratitude for Jesus. Before Jesus has even said a word to her, the tears tell us that something has happened. She already knows the power of his love and acceptance. It is an overwhelming moment of gratitude and freedom.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 144)
It doesn’t work to assume this woman was on the bottom rung of society. In fact, the people who really make the news when they mess up are the teachers, the preachers, the politicians, the movie stars, the famous athletes and musicians. How many have had to live the remainder of their lives under the cloud of that big mistake which overshadows all the good they did? If there is someone important to them who can quit bringing it up constantly and treat them like a real human being again, what a gift that is.
Michal Beth Dinkler says that “Jesus consistently chooses the ‘path of downward mobility,” (Commentary on Luke 7:36-50, Working Preacher, p. 1) and this passage demonstrates that clearly. Invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus has the chance to make some inroads with people who regularly oppose him. The way he could have done that was by rejecting this woman and her attentions, sending her away, proving that the law was important to him and he could be tough on crime like the Pharisees were. He knew that Simon was judging him as well as her as this scene unfolded. Jesus was never willing to sacrifice someone that way so that he could promote himself.
Luke says that Simon was judging whether or not Jesus was a prophet. If he was, he would know that this woman was a sinner. And there is no question in Simon’s mind about what Jesus would do if he did indeed realize that she was a sinner. He would have nothing to do with her. He would put a stop to what she was doing. It never occurred to him that Jesus might know she was a sinner and still choose to be kind and gracious to her.
Nor did it ever occur to Simon that God might choose to be kind and gracious to a sinner. God’s love had to be earned by righteousness and obedience, and people needed to be taught to fear the consequences of disobeying God. One way of doing this was by publicly shaming those who did so. Sinner! Untouchable! Stay Away!
Jesus came as God’s massive reclamation project, to reclaim the lost sheep of Israel and beyond. Jesus came to teach people that God is Love, Extravagant Love, Forgiving Love. God is as able and willing to wipe the slate clean on a $25,000 sin as on a $2500 sin. God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep, and when one strays and gets lost he leaves the rest to go find and restore the lost one. God is like a father who has been embarrassed, swindled, and abandoned by his son, yet is constantly watching out the window for his return so that he can welcome him back with unrestrained joy. Pharisees were like the older brother who watched this drama play out with disgust because they had been right there at home all the time, being good and doing right and obeying their father. If we are not careful, we find ourselves right there with Simon and the Pharisees, rolling our eyes over the idea that God is willing to accept and forgive some people that we just can’t see any value in.
But for anyone who has ever found themselves in the woman’s position, of not only having been confronted by our own darkness and sinfulness but having everyone else become aware of it as well, the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus Christ is new life, fresh start, freedom from past failures. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” wrote a former slave ship captain. “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” “O love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee…” “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be…” “Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve… Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down.”
A key question for us as we read a story like this from the Gospels is “Where do we fit in this story?” Are we Pharisees who think we are pretty good folks, pretty close to God, don’t have much we need to be forgiven for, and are tasked with calling out and excluding people who don’t fit our definition of godliness and obedience? Are we people who know that our sinfulness excludes us from salvation and without God’s forgiveness we are utterly without hope? Do we see ourselves as forgiven much or forgiven little, and does our gratitude reflect whichever one it is?
The proof of God’s amazing and extravagant love is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Even though we don’t deserve it, haven’t earned it, Jesus reaches out and embraces our broken selves and says, “You are loved. You are forgiven. You are redeemed. You are mine.”
Then Jesus calls his followers to model this extravagant, forgiving love with others. In the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When asked whether we have to forgive someone as many as seven times Jesus says, “Seventy times seven.”
I saw a quote from C.S. Lewis this week which says, “Forgiveness seems simple until we have something to forgive.” Until we have been hurt, betrayed, disappointed, we have no idea how hard it is to forgive. We have precious few models of forgiveness in the world to learn from, while we have countless models of how to hold a grudge and exact revenge.
If we want to enter into the heart of Christianity and how to be a Christian, the beginning point is to accept with gratitude the extravagant, forgiving love of God through Jesus Christ for each one of us. The next step is to move out of the culture which points fingers and blames and shames and excludes. The final step is to become a vessel for extravagant love and forgiveness to those around us, not once but seventy times seven times. The answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” should pretty much always begin here, with his extravagant, forgiving, accepting love.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 19, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church