Fourth Sunday after Pentecost C
June 12, 2016
For five long years, my mom was a single parent. As I look back to that period of our family’s history, it seems that those five years were my entire childhood. I was eight years old when my father went to prison. He urged my mom to divorce him and “find those girls a decent father.” I was thirteen when my mother re-married. A lot can happen between the ages of eight and thirteen. Five years can be an eternity.
During those five years, my mom worked her fingers to the bone to keep us fed and clothed and sheltered. She often worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. Mom’s work required her to be on her feet all day, and when she got home from her day shift, we four girls had a routine. Mom would collapse on the living room couch. One of us would bring her a fresh cup of coffee. One of us would brush her hair. And two of us would sit at her feet, remove her shoes, and give her a foot massage. We’d run a warm washcloth over each tired foot, then rub lotion into it, slowly massaging away the aches and pains of the workday. During this daily routine, we’d talk about our experiences of the day and listen to mom’s stories about the factory where she worked.
My mom was faithful to make sure we got to church, that we read our Bibles every day, that we prayed at bedtime and before every meal. But I think it was this holy moment we spent together every workday afternoon that really held our family and our faith together. Rubbing mom’s feet, brushing her hair, bringing her coffee – these were ways we could thank her for the sacrifices she was making for us. But the time it took to do these things was the real gift. This was time spent staying connected to her and to each other. As I pondered today’s gospel lesson about a woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, I couldn’t help thinking about rubbing lotion into my Mom’s tired feet, and what an important lesson of love I learned from that simple act.
This woman we read about today has something in common with the centurion and the woman whose son had died, that we met earlier in the seventh chapter of Luke. She is yet another person whose name we will never know. Some have claimed she was a prostitute, but the Bible never says that about her. Luke uses a different word to talk about prostitution (15:30). Here he only calls her a sinner, and it’s the same word Luke uses to describe Peter (5:8), a tax collector (18:13), and others (Luke 5:30-32; 19:7). We don’t know what her sin is, but it is one known to the rest of the community. She has a reputation. Maybe she eats pork, or has been caught lying or cheating or charging interest on loans. We don’t know. But she knows. And Jesus knows. And Simon the Pharisee does, too.
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 canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then turning toward 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.”
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, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. – Luke 7:36 – 8:3
How would you feel if a woman you didn’t know came up to you, took off your shoes, and started weeping over your feet? The tears would roll down between your toes, as she wiped them with her hair. And then she would suddenly pull out a beautiful jar of salve, and start rubbing the fragrant ointment into your feet, as she continued to weep. Would you be surprised? Uncomfortable? Would you push her away and ask what on earth she thought she was doing?
It’s one thing to rub your mom’s feet in the privacy of your own living room, but what if this happened in someone else’s home, at a dinner party they were giving in your honor? Would you be embarrassed for your host? For yourself? Would you be embarrassed for the woman?
I’m sure that Simon the Pharisee and all his other guests were appalled when this party crasher let down her hair and started kissing Jesus’ feet. Her behavior was scandalous. It was shameful. And I have to wonder what prompted her to behave the way she did. Had she known Jesus before? Had he already shown her mercy that others did not show? Had she already met Jesus, talked with him, expressed a desire to be cleansed of her sin, and been forgiven?
I wonder if she had, because later in this story, when Jesus speaks directly to her, he says “Your sins have been forgiven.” The Greek verb here uses the perfect tense, and that means the action has already been completed in the past, with effects that carry forward into the future. So, what had already happened to her that brought her to this room, carrying a jar of ointment? It must have been something amazing, to have prompted this very public and scandalous display of devotion.
But Jesus doesn’t flinch. Instead of condemning this woman for interrupting a meal to which she had not been invited, Jesus asks the host for permission to speak. “Speak, Teacher,” the Pharisee says. And Jesus launches into a parable.
At first, this story about two debtors seems innocent enough. Which one will have more love for the person who forgives a debt, the one who owed fifty, or the one who owed five hundred? “I suppose the one who owed more,” Simon shrugs. “Right,” Jesus answers. And then he asks the real question:
“Simon, do you see this woman?”
Keep in mind that this woman has entered Simon’s house without permission and has behaved in a scandalous manner from the moment she came into the room. Simon would have to be blind not to see her.
Keep in mind that this woman is a known sinner – whatever her sin, it is public knowledge, and Simon has already judged her, just as he has already judged Jesus for not recognizing her obvious sinfulness. Simon has been thinking, “If this guy were a real prophet, he would know who is touching him, making him unclean right here in my own house!”
Keep in mind that this woman, any woman in that time and culture, would have normally gone politely unnoticed, completely invisible to the men reclining around this table. Yet, Jesus asks:
“Simon, do you see this woman?”
“You did not offer me any of the normal signs of hospitality, but she has gone above and beyond normal. She has shown extravagant hospitality, even anointing my feet. At best, you might have put oil on my head after greeting me with a kiss and giving me water to wash my own feet. But this woman, because her many sins have been forgiven, shows greater love than you do.”
It’s easy for us to look back at Simon and smirk a little bit. “Gotcha!” we might be thinking. We see how Simon the Pharisee thinks he is better than others, how he judges another’s worth only in relation to the value he gives himself. We snicker and think, “Obviously he wasn’t paying attention back in chapter 6, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Plain and spoke these words: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
But then it hits me. When I judge Simon for judging others, I am no better than Simon. When I look down my nose at someone else’s sin, I am just as guilty as they are, no matter what sin they carry. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes (Romans 3:23). My sin isn’t any nicer or less offensive to God than the sin of someone who steals, or murders, or commits sexual sin. When I judge others for their sins, I am sinning, too. When you judge others for their sins, you are sinning, too. We are all guilty.
But here is the good news: Guilt does not equal shame. Our guilt may make us feel ashamed for our sins, but Jesus does not shame us, and he asks us not to shame each other. Jesus did not shame this woman, who was behaving in an extremely shameful manner. Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness when we repent, and he asks us to forgive much, and to love much.
Jesus reminds this woman that she has already been forgiven, and that her forgiveness extends through all time. Jesus tells her, “Your faith has made you whole; you are no longer broken. So go in peace.”
And then Jesus leaves. But he doesn’t go alone. Just as he called a dozen men to follow him, he also calls women to be his disciples. This is no less scandalous than the woman kissing his feet and wiping them with her hair. Jesus invites women to travel with him, to be with him. They are women from all walks of life. Some have been cured of diseases, some have been released from demons, some are married to influential men, some have come from the lowest rungs of society. All are like this woman, who has just been sent away in peace after Jesus has made her whole by forgiving all her sins.
Jesus offers you the same forgiveness. No matter what you have done or thought about doing, Jesus is ready to forgive you. No matter how you have judged others or thought yourself better than someone else, Jesus is waiting for you to let him speak into your heart in love, to make what is wrong in you right. No matter what guilt you carry, Jesus is ready to take away your shame, and invite you into his presence. You need no longer live in your brokenness. Christ offers you forgiveness that takes away all the sins of the past, and gives you a new future, a future of wholeness and peace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.