This is a beautiful and powerful story. We begin with Jesus at table in the home of a Pharisee. This is not insignificant.
At the beginning of the Gospel where Luke sets forth the agenda and program of Jesus, it is clear where Jesus’ focus lies. In the synagogue at Nazareth he defines his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61. He would be about restoring the sight of the blind, setting captives free, liberating the oppressed, announcing good news to the poor, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
This reference to the year of the Lord’s favor is an allusion to the year of Jubilee when financial debts were forgiven and land was restored to those who lost it, thus creating more fair and equitable conditions in the land. Luke makes clear that Jesus’ mission and ministry was concentrated on the poor and the oppressed. And yet here is Jesus sitting at the table of a Pharisee sharing a meal. In fact, on three separate occasions in Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus eating with Pharisees. Jesus’ table fellowship with all sorts of people became a primary image and symbol of the inclusiveness of kingdom of God.
Jesus excluded no one. The downcast and outcast, the marginalized and condemned found a friend in Jesus. But so did everyone else who wanted a friend in Jesus. The wealthy and the religious establishment had created a worthiness system that put them in and left others out. They had been instrumental in creating the conditions that led to a large number of impoverished and marginalized folks. Jesus critiqued and confronted that system time and time again. He spoke truth to power. And yet he did not separate or alienate himself from the wealthy or the self-righteous religious leaders. He provoked them plenty, but he always left the door open. Jesus was inclusive in the broadest sense.
The woman who is a key player in this story is identified by Luke as a sinner from the city, which is most likely a polite way of saying that she was a prostitute. She crashes the party. The dinner would have been in the courtyard probably next to a roadway. It was common for passersby to stop and listen to conversations taking place and even to participate in them. This woman, however, does more than listen or even talk.
She enters the courtyard weeping, overcome with gratitude. The implication in the story is that she had a prior encounter with Jesus where Jesus showed her great grace. She felt loved and accepted by God as she was. Jesus became the channel through which God’s magnanimous forgiveness and grace flowed to her freely. She had been on the receiving end of great grace and now cannot contain her thanksgiving and joy.
Luke says, “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” And if that were not outlandish enough, Luke says “she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment” (this was expensive ointment). Clearly this is over-the-top behavior and without question it would have had sexual overtones. And yet Jesus does not seem to be embarrassed in the least.
But the Pharisee sure is. And not just embarrassed. He is offended by her presence, but even more so by her actions. And he is offended at Jesus for allowing this woman of the city who was a sinner to express herself in this way without the slightest disapproval or reprimand.
Simon, the Pharisee says 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.” Simon makes a judgment based on his preconceived presuppositions and beliefs about God and righteousness. He assumes that a prophet would condemn this woman the same way he imagines God condemning this woman. Simon and Jesus obviously have very different images of God.
Unfortunately, churches like Simon abound. Simon is a stand in/a symbol for much of the kind of religion that prevails in society. The perspective and attitude of Simon is the perspective and attitude of many churches. And it’s the reason some people have given up on church.
Mark Wingfield is associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He, like myself, is a monthly columnist for BNG. He wrote a piece last month that went viral. Over a million people read the article. It was titled: Seven things I am learning about transgender persons. I am not going to go through the list. You can access it at the BNG website. It’s an excellent piece.
This month he followed that up with an article titled: Painful lessons from a pastor’s viral transgender post. In two week’s time, Rev. Wingfield exchanged correspondence with more than 400 people. Some people shared their struggles.
“Most transgender persons are not against God; many just fear that God is against them. Or, more specifically, they believe the church is against them. Many of them — a vast number in fact — have grown up in the church and are people of deep faith. But they are people who have been asked not to come back, have been removed from membership, have been shunned. And so have their families.”
He mentions a single mom with four kids who were kicked out of their church. Their pastor accused the mom of child abuse for letting her boy dress as a girl. A youth who had been a deeply devoted Bible study leader was asked not to come back after coming out with a non-conforming gender struggle. And so the list goes.
He said that people who shared his post would say things like: “I can’t believe I’m sharing something written by a Baptist pastor, but you’ve got to read this.” Wingfield observes sadly that the church today is most often known for what it is against rather than who God is for. He said he discovered that the transgender community was immediately kinder to him than the church has been to them.
This is why churche’s like ours – churches that welcome, accept, include, and affirm LGBTQ persons are so needed. The invitation to visit our church that went out in the State Journal today, I posted on my facebook page earlier last week. A gay friend who was a couple of years ahead of me in school responded, “I so needed to hear that Chuck. The next time I’m in town I will come to church.”
Wingfield concludes his piece by saying: “So as my 15 minutes of fame in the national spotlight fades, here’s the most important thing I want to say about all this: God loves you, whoever you are, wherever you are. Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, a traditionalist or a progressive, a Protestant or a Catholic, a male or a female, gay, straight, trans, whatever. God loves you. Now, what are you going to do with that love?’
That’s the great question isn’t it? What are you going to do with God’s love? We can restrict it and limit it and make it conditional the way Simon did, or we can trust that God’s love is much greater and larger than all the restrictions and boundaries we could ever impose. The woman believed (she trusted) in the largeness of God’s love and she was so overcome with gratitude she could not contain her feelings.
However inappropriate her response may appear to us, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind in the least. In fact, he draws a contrast between her actions and Simon’s lack of hospitality. As he turns toward the woman he asks 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.” Jesus contrasts the woman’s overt spontaneous expressions of joy and thankfulness, with Simon’s failure to demonstrate the customary hospitality.
Do you see this woman? Jesus asks. That question has great spiritual implications. The spiritual life is largely about our capacity to see. What did Simon see? Did he see a child of God who had experienced great love and forgiveness? Of course not. He saw only a sinner worthy of judgment. And because he could only see a sinner worthy of judgment and was blind to this woman’s experience of grace, he couldn’t possibly see his own sin of self-righteousness and his need for great love and forgiveness.
When Jesus says that those who are forgiven little love little he is not suggesting that there is anyone who only has a need for a little bit of forgiveness. Is there anyone who needs just a little grace and forgiveness? Of course not. There are only those who think they need just a little grace and forgiveness. These are those who can’t see.
Jesus affirms publicly what had already been given privately – namely, grace and forgiveness. “Your sins are forgiven,” he says. “Your faith has healed you,” he says. The text says “saved” but it is the same Greek word that is also translated “healed.” In the Gospels it is most often translated “healed” or something like “to be made well.” Jesus healed her, saved her, liberated her . . . from what? Her fear of judgment. Her low self-image. Her lack of self-worth. Her feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. All of these fears and insecurities were replaced by a great love, now expressed in great gratitude. She now is able to believe that she has worth, that she is a child of God, that God loves her and accepts her regardless of what the religious leaders say about her. That is the faith that has made her whole. It is the faith that claims our true identity and heritage as daughters and sons of God.
Former educator and UM Bishop Will Willimon, in a conversation with a group of seminary faculty, remarked what a bad book had been written by a professor at another seminary. He commented that he expected a bad book from someone who was such a jerk. After the group dissolved, one colleague lingered behind. He said to Willimon, “The person who you just trashed was the only person to stick by me in my divorce, the only person personally to offer me help and comfort. But I want you to know that I intend to forgive you for your boorish insensitivity. You are forgiven.” Willimon commented, “Until I got forgiveness for being an insensitive boor, I did not know I was an insensitive boor.”
There are a lot of Christians and a lot of churches who judge and exclude persons who are different, who do not know and cannot see just how ungrace-full and un God-like they are. They do not see. In their condemnation of others they are blind to their own need for grace and compassion. And of course, to some degree we are all blind are we not?
When Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” he is saying, “Do you see who she really is, what she has been through. Do you know how much she is loved and cared for by the God you claim to know?
Sisters and brothers, what do we see? When we look at the transgender person what do we see? When we look at a person with a different ethnicity what do we see? When we look at a person who has had a hard time in life, been beaten down in life what do we see?
Good God, teach us how to open our eyes so that we see what you see, so that we can love with your love, so that we can feel the compassion you feel, so that we bear your image and reflect the light of your grace in this place. Help us as a church to thrive because this community needs a church like ours to thrive. May we experience your forgiveness and love afresh as we join together to eat this bread and drink this cup. Amen.