16 June 2013

A Woman in the City, A Sinner

Proper 6, Year C
Luke 7:36-8:3

What are you ashamed of? What is your biggest sin, your greatest weakness, your deepest failure? What is there about you would horrify the person sitting closest to you? What would get you kicked out if only people knew? Now imagine that people did know, and you can imagine yourself as the unnamed woman in today’s Gospel story.
Today’s Gospel reading takes place in the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It is surrounded in the text by miracles and parables. Jesus had just talked to the messengers from John the Baptist. His ministry was getting attention, but he had not yet angered people enough that they wanted him dead. He was a pop star at the top of the charts.
Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to a banquet at his home, both to find out more about Jesus’ teaching, and for the cachet of hosting a popular traveling Rabbi.
At a formal banquet, the guests would have been lying on their left sides, propped up on their left arms, supported by cushions, leaving their right arms free for eating. Their heads were in toward the center of the room and their feet were toward the walls, with enough space between feet and walls for servants to move around the room.
These feasts were public events, which explains how the unnamed woman got in. There wouldn't have been security checking invitations at the door.
The text tells us that the woman was “A sinner.” I was taught, I think most of us were taught, that she must have been a prostitute, but the text doesn't support that. The Greek word here translated as sinner is hamartolos, which appears seventeen times in Luke’s Gospel, including in Chapter Five, Verse 8 when the Apostle Peter says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  As far as I know, no one has ever accused Peter of being a prostitute. Whatever this woman’s sins, we can be sure they were grievous, and they were public. Simon knew who she was, and what she had done, and no doubt most of the rest of the city did as well. She had much to be ashamed of and she would have carried that shame like a weight on her back.
The banquet cannot have been the first time the unnamed woman came in contact with Jesus. She must have heard him preaching, or at least have heard about him. My guess is that she had somehow heard Jesus teaching, perhaps even gotten a glimpse of him in the city, maybe a moment of eye contact, and something, a word or a look told her that Jesus saw her, not just a sinner, but a woman, a human being. It was a moment of Grace and whatever the risk it meant she needed to find him and thank him.
She came with an alabaster jar of ointment, and she probably intended to anoint his head, which would have been the usual way of honoring him.
Imagine what that trip from her home to the banquet must have been like for her. Her sins were grievous and they were social. Walking into the home of a Pharisee meant risking being seen, being recognized by people who thought they knew her heart because they knew her sins, enduring the silent, and maybe not so silent condemnation. At any time Simon the Pharisee or a head servant might have recognized her and escorted her out, no doubt making a bit of scene and causing her disgrace, and possibly physical harm. It’s likely that a servant throwing a sinful woman out on the street wouldn't bother about being gentle or discreet.
Whatever the risk of further humiliation, the unnamed woman was willing to take it because it meant a chance at being near Jesus, and she was able to take the risks because the burden of her sins had been lifted by that moment of Grace.
With her jar of ointment held close to her body she walked into the home of Simon the Pharisee with every intention of anointing Jesus’ head, but when she got to him she was overcome with relief and gratitude and she fell at his feet and began weeping. And here is where the story gets a little crazy. She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears. And she unwraps her hair and dries his feet with it, even though a good Jewish woman would never have uncovered her hair in the presence of a man who was not her husband. Touching his feet would have made her unclean by touching an unclean part of a man’s body, and it made Jesus ritually unclean by being touched by a woman who was not his wife. Not only is the scene stunningly intimate and a huge violation of social norms, but it must have taken a while, because even the most prolific of criers would need a few minutes to produce enough tears to wash a man’s feet.
It’s no surprise then, that Simon the Pharisee was shocked by the scene, and thought Jesus must not be a prophet at all.  The word Pharisee means separate. Simon’s whole idea of righteousness was defined by being separate from unclean things, and there in his banquet hall was possibly the most ritually unclean thing he could have imagined. Frankly I’m surprised he didn't call for his servants to remove the unnamed woman and Jesus at the same time. But he didn't, and in the midst of this Jesus engaged Simon in a bit of traditional Rabbinic teaching. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And Simon replied in the same way “Teacher, speak.” Jesus then went on to tell the parable of the two debtors and asked Simon a question about the story. When Simon answered correctly, Jesus replied “You have judged rightly.” All of this could have happened in a synagogue, but it didn't, it happened at a banquet with a weeping woman kissing Jesus’ feet. And Jesus, referring to the woman said “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, hence she has shown great love.” Then he turned to the unnamed woman and said “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Notice the order of cause and effect. Her sins were forgiven, the burden of shame that she carried had been lifted, hence she showed great love. The forgiveness was there all the while. It didn't happen when she was weeping at Jesus’ feet. She didn't earn it with tears and ointment. Her sins were already forgiven when when she came to the banquet with the jar of ointment. She had already accepted the forgiveness in a moment of Grace and was so overwhelmed that she could do nothing less than go to Jesus and show her shocking, outrageous love. The forgiven sinner loved much, and  that forgiveness and love brought her the peace of God.

It was good for the unnamed woman that Jesus was an Emmanuel, a God with us, instead of a Pharisee, separate. And it’s good for us, too, because the forgiveness that she accepted in her moment of Grace is available to us as well. Whatever our sins, whatever our shame, small or large, private or hugely public, the forgiveness is ours for the taking. We don’t have to earn it. It is simply there waiting for us to accept it. And just as it did for the unnamed woman, our forgiveness comes with the lifting of the burden of shame, with the promise of shocking, outrageous love, and peace.

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