Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
BCP – Proper 6 C - Sunday 17 June 2007
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15
I want to focus on the Gospel reading today because its such a wonderful and rich story. Luke never wastes details. So its worth examining all the things that are in the picture. And one of the most important details, of course, is this weeping woman at Jesus’ feet. But we’re not ready for her just yet...
First things first: Why on earth is Jesus dining with Simon the Pharisee? When Jesus encounters a pharisee its not generally a comfortable, social encounter. In the story leading up to today’s reading, Luke tells us that the pharisees have rejected God’s purpose. Yet here are Jesus and Simon sharing a meal. This has to be a tense meal. As a friend of mine used to say of such meals, forks on the left, knives in the back... This is where we start - its an uncomfortable situation.
And this woman, apparently a notorious sinner... what is she doing in the middle of everything. But as I said, with Luke, no detail is wasted, and the word sinner is one of those details. Employment opportunities for single women of her day were pretty limited - starvation, begging, or prostitution - or a combination of those. Sometimes she is described as a harlot - a prostitute. But Luke is more concerned that she is a sinner - in other words, she is just like us. She’s not here to represent prostitutes, or really bad sinners. She’s just your garden-variety sinner.
The fact that she is a sinner is important, but the fact that she has wandered into a private dinner party isn’t terribly important. There was something of public spectacle to an event like Simon’s dinner party. There would have been curious onlookers in the courtyards and doorways. She’s perhaps a little more brazen, but it isn’t remarkable that she is there. She’s not an intruder... she’s just a sinner.
But look what she does. Its OK for her to look, but not to touch. Yet here she is washing Jesus’ feet and massaging them with perfumed ointment. Now if you’re thinking this is a purely innocent act with no sexual overtones, think a little longer. And just in case we don’t get it, Luke turns up the heat. She lets down her hair and uses it to dry Jesus’ feet. Put these things together and it’s pretty scandalous.
Especially for our gracious host, Simon. Sensible, reasonable, people don’t have contact with this kind of woman - at least not in public. Yet here sits Jesus allowing himself to be touched... allowing her to rub his feet with her free-flowing hair. Simon the Pharisee must be furious - its like a guest at big fancy formal dinner party becoming extremely, loudly, gregariously drunk. It’s a nightmare.
Its also an opportunity for Simon the Pharisee. He, like his fellow pharisees, is just looking for a way to discredit Jesus and Jesus has just thrown open the window of opportunity. Jesus is supposed to be greater than a prophet - yet any prophet of any distinction at all would know enough not be touched by this woman. Yet here is this Jesus supposedly greater than a prophet being touched in a disturbingly intimate way. Obviously he’s not greater than a prophet - he’s no prophet at all.
Simon must be thrilled... But only for a minute...
Jesus lets all of us know that he knows exactly who this woman is... And he lets us know that he knows what’s on Simon’s mind. We can feel the rug slipping out from underneath Simon’s feet. In the foreground Luke is telling us a story about Jesus and Simon and this woman. But in the background he is putting a great big underscore under the fact that Jesus is greater than a prophet.
Poor Simon. Just when he though he was winning... But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Riddles were a part of dinner entertainment in the pharisee class and Jesus presents Simon with a riddle. Who is more grateful, someone who has a small debt forgiven or someone who has a great debt forgiven? The one with the great debt, Simon supposes. He has to be wondering what is going on, because this isn’t much of a riddle. Jesus, no doubt, has a reputation as a tough customer, so this riddle can’t possibly mean what it appears to mean. Its too obvious. It must be a trick.
And it is a trick in an odd sort of way. Simon the Pharisee thinks this is a riddle about being forgiven. But the woman at Jesus’ feet has already figured it out. Its not about being forgiven, its about having already been forgiven. Its already happened.
This is why this crying woman is so important in the picture. These are not tears of sorrow. They are tears of joy. She isn’t kissing Jesus’ feet as a condemned person trying to placate an angry god. She’s kissing those gracious feet in gratitude - for this is the God of love. Simon is looking forward to something that she knows is already in the past.
Simon could be weeping with joy as well if he weren’t so stuck in thinking that he has to think his way to salvation. And there, at least for me, is the message of the story. God’s grace is freely given. I have to get out of the way. When I can give up thinking my way to salvation then I can get on with living the loving and grace-filled life that God calls me to live.
I’ll be living that humble and grace-filled life along side prostitutes and other sinners. That’s a bit of a challenge. I want God’s Kingdom to be at least a little exclusive. I’d like to know I’m in and others are out. But that is not God’s kingdom.
It was a challenge for people in Paul’s day as well - particularly Cephas who we heard about in the letter to the Galatians.
Cephas was getting the Gospel message. He was growing into Jesus’ way. He was eating with the gentiles, the outcasts - just like Jesus who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors and other marginal people. He was living in the faith that this was OK, that all people are God’s children.
And then the ominous sounding “circumcision faction” put the fear into him. Suddenly he’s backsliding. He has to eat with the right people. He’s building up the things he once tore down. Its an odd thing, because normally when I think of a Christian backsliding, I think of someone hanging out with the wrong people. But that’s backward. Hanging out with the “wrong” people is what God calls us to do. Cephas is backsliding by hanging out with the “right” people...
Cephas is a sinner, like the woman at Jesus’ feet. But he’s rejecting Jesus’ plan and acting more like the Pharisee. He’s living in fear rather than rejoicing. Paul has no time for it - because its not the way Jesus calls us to live.
Now there was one more reading this morning - from the book of Second Samuel. I have to admit I’d just as soon ignore it because it ends in such a disturbing way. Nathan tells David that God is going to cause his child to die because of David’s wicked behavior. That just utterly derails me. I truly don’t believe God kills children as a way of punishing their parents. I just don’t believe it.
But when I stop fixating on the end of the story I see there are some other things along the way. God has richly blessed David - just as God richly blesses us all. But its not enough for David. He wants more and he takes more. More than he needs and more than God gives him. And for this God punishes him.
When I look at this through the lens of that weeping woman at Jesus’s feet what do I see? I see someone who is arrogant and greedy. And if I look hard enough I see someone who is fearful. Even in his great abundance he doesn’t have enough. He must have more.
So much of our relationship with God is driven by fear - fear that we are not good enough, or that we are hanging out with people who are not good enough. Fear of punishment and fear of failure. These fears spill over into all our relationships and do tremendous damage.
We need to look at that joyful, weeping prostitute as she caresses and kisses those gracious feet. She isn’t good enough. We aren’t good enough. Our friends aren’t good enough. And it just doesn’t matter at all.
It isn’t that what we do doesn’t matter. We can’t love God without loving our neighbors and ourselves. We can’t love God without loving justice. And that love will spill over into every aspect of our lives like the mighty river that Isaiah speaks of - which waters the whole earth.
God of all creation, make our hearts open so that we too may weep with joy at your feet and that our love may pour forth like a river.