Do you see this woman? (Luke 7.36-50) [Sermon 2-19-2017]

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February 17, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2017. From our ongoing series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”

Texts are Luke 7.36-50 and Psalm 130.3-6.

Resources used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 86-89.

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 305-15.

John Nolland. Luke 1 – 9:20. Word Biblical Commentary, volume 35a. (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 349-62.

A rough audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


A dinner invitation

The way our Gospel lesson began today is a little surprising. Shocking, really, if you think about it. Luke tells us: One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him.

You mean the same Pharisees who’d demanded to know: Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? (Luke 5.30) The same Pharisees Jesus had just been complaining about when he said: the Human One came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7.34)?

Yes, one of those Pharisees. Why would one of them all the sudden invite Jesus over for dinner?

Some have suggested that he was trying to trap Jesus in something. Invite him over to dinner. Let him get comfortable. And then catch him saying or doing something awful to discredit him with.

Maybe. But then again, maybe he was a little jealous. Before Jesus came around, the people looked to the Pharisees for spiritual guidance. Now they all go to Jesus. Maybe there were some hurt feelings behind the question, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Maybe what they really meant was: Jesus, why are you hanging out with all those rotten people, when you could be spending time with decent, clean-living, law-abiding people like us? Maybe that’s how they really felt, but were just too proud to let their insecurities show.

Then again, along similar lines, maybe this Pharisee just wanted to be seen with Jesus. Sort of a photo-op. Jesus had become a very important guy around Galilee. If everyone saw Jesus eating with him, at his house, that might raise his own social capital by several notches.

But there’s also another possibility, one I’ve hardly ever heard considered. Maybe this Pharisee wanted to believe Jesus was the one the prophets foretold. The one who would rescue Israel and make everything right again.  The people were all saying: A great prophet has appeared among us (Luke 7.16). But his fellow Pharisees were all saying Jesus was too strange, too radical, too unorthodox, to be a prophet. Much less the one who would bring God’s salvation. Then again, most of their ancestors had said the old prophets were also too strange, radical, and unorthodox. And their ancestors had been tragically wrong. So maybe this Pharisee who invited Jesus to eat with him was on the fence. Maybe he was really hopeful, deep down, that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. But he needed to find out for himself.

Whatever the case, that day, Jesus chose to eat with a Pharisee instead of tax collectors and sinners. And it turned out to be kind of a big deal.

A gatecrasher

Here’s why Jesus’ dinner date with a Pharisee turned into a big deal: Even though Jesus chose to dine with that Pharisee instead of the sinners that day, one of those sinners came to dinner anyway.

Luke says: a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. And she decided to become a gatecrasher.

Now, Luke said this sinful woman discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. That’s an important detail. Because it suggests she was actively looking for Jesus. She was seeking him out. She was asking around: Does anyone know where Jesus is? And someone had told her: Well, he’s having dinner with a Pharisee right now.

Luke doesn’t say what kind of sinner this woman is. Christians have historically been quick to assume she was a prostitute. Even if she was, most women don’t wake up one morning and decide, Hey—I’m going to be a prostitute. I’m going to engage in risky behaviors and sell my body. That’s not how it works. If this woman was a prostitute, probably it chose her, she didn’t choose it. Perhaps it’s best to be generous, and think of her sin not just as something she did, but something that happened to her.

If this sinner lady is actively seeking out Jesus, we can safely assume that she’s heard him preaching; or at least heard about him. She knows a prophet from God has come, preaching a message of forgiveness, release, and rest for weary sinners like her. She knows he’s the kind of person who will see her, not just her sin. Who will see her, and not judge her.

And she is so brave and so bold. Because she knows who she is, and what she’s done, and what’s been done to her. And she knows what this Pharisee and his friends think about her. But she doesn’t care. Because Jesus has already changed her life. Maybe she’s not all the way unstuck from whatever situation she’s found herself in. But just hearing the Good News of God’s salvation—release, forgiveness, homecoming, and rest—it’s enough to give her hope that things are going to be better. Sometimes that’s all we need, isn’t it?

And so, darn what anybody else thinks, she crashes this Pharisee’s dinner party. And Luke says: She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. She stood behind Jesus crying—oh, sweet release!—and she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. So intimate, her touch. But she knows Jesus is safe. It’s not just tears and hair and kisses and oil she’s pouring on Jesus. It’s her gratitude. It’s her love. It’s herself. She’s loving Jesus with all her heart and soul and mind.

I’m sure the dinner party descended into a chorus of horrified gasps, followed by tense, awkward silence. Jesus’ Pharisee host, I’m sure, was fuming. How embarrassing! His dinner was ruined. What’s worse, any hopes that Jesus might be the One the prophets foretold has been dashed. Luke says when the Pharisee saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

Now he’s just left with a hot mess on his dining room floor. His peers among the Pharisees will mock him. Say, We told you so! And the smell of that perfumed oil will linger for days, reminding him of his humiliation every time he sits down to eat.

Simon’s judgment

If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner. That’s not something the Pharisee said out loud. Luke tells us he said it to himself. It’s what he was thinking, in his heart. He assumes that if Jesus really were a prophet, he’d be grossed out by this women touching him like this. The Pharisee begins to think Jesus really is just a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

But we know Jesus really is a prophet. Back when Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple as an infant, to dedicate him to God, a prophet named Simeon said Jesus would be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2.34-35). Because Jesus is a prophet, he knows the Pharisee’s inner thoughts. And even though the Pharisee didn’t voice his objection out loud, Luke says Jesus replied to what he was thinking.

Jesus called the Pharisee by name. Simon, I have something to say to you. You know, in our culture today, we’re having an increasingly difficult time being civil when we disagree. We pin labels on each other: Libtard. CONservative. Snowflake. But when you do that, it’s obvious that you don’t want to hear the other person, or consider their perspective. Jesus is tired of labels. He’s been labeled a glutton and a drunk. This woman has been labeled a sinner. But that’s not really who they are. Jesus isn’t just trying to tear into this Pharisee and prove him wrong. He wants him to see things differently. This Pharisee needs release, forgiveness, and rest as much as this sinful woman did. And so Jesus doesn’t say: Oh, you nasty Pharisees are all bigots! He says: Simon, I have something to say to you. He doesn’t attack Simon or call him names. He addresses him personally.

Jesus tells Simon a story to give him a different perspective on this woman who’s crashed his dinner party:

A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both.

Here’s something you have to understand. In the culture in which Jesus, Simon, and this sinful woman lived, all relationships were based on who owed what to whom. It came right down to who you invited over for dinner. You didn’t necessarily host someone in your home because you liked them. You might do it because you needed or wanted something from them. Once they accepted your hospitality, they owed you a favor in return. So Simon probably would have been shocked that someone would simply forgive such large debts. If everyone did that, the very basis of the social order would crumble.

But Jesus doesn’t let him voice that objection. What we know as readers of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus has been connecting poor people being released from debt with forgiveness of sins from the beginning of his ministry. And that’s what Jesus wants Simon to see. So he asks him, Which of them—those two debtors—will love him more?

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Simon has to say, I suppose, because he can’t even imagine such a ridiculous thing happening.

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.” Maybe Simon needs to quit judging this woman and Jesus, and turn his judgment on himself, his heart, and his motivations.

See this woman

Simon said, and Jesus agreed, that the one who had the greater debt forgiven would love with a greater love. Here’s what Jesus wants Simon to see.

This woman was already considered a sinner by her neighbors. Now she’s pouring expensive perfume on Jesus. Kissing and caressing his feet. She’s let down her hair to dry his feet. In that culture, a woman letting her hair down had highly erotic overtones. Totally scandalous behavior. Simon and his dinner guests probably assumed she was making sexual advances.

But Jesus knows the inner thoughts. The woman is just loving him, the best and only way she knows how.

Luke says Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” That’s the problem. Simon doesn’t see the woman. He only sees the sinner. Jesus sees the woman. Her humanity. Her hospitality. Her grace. Her love.

“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks Simon. And then he contrasts the hospitality she has shown Jesus—this woman everybody knows is a sinner—with the hospitality Simon didn’t show him. When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet. The dirt roads of the time were nasty and harsh on sandaled feet. Making sure your guest could wash their feet was expected hospitality back then. Was Simon so busy making sure everything was just so for dinner that he’d neglected such a basic detail?

You didn’t greet me with a kiss, Jesus says. Back then, it was basic social convention to greet a guest with a kiss on the hand or cheek. Like a handshake today. Was Simon so busy greeting other important guests that he skipped greeting Jesus?

You didn’t anoint my head with oil, Jesus says. Okay, that’s extravagant. That’s what you did to welcome, say, a king. But that’s exactly Jesus’ point. Simon had somehow forgotten to extend basic hospitality to Jesus. But this woman, who Simon only saw as a sinner, had been extravagant with her hospitality. Do you see this woman? She wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair … she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in … she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. I’ve always imagined that she only meant to anoint Jesus with the fragrant oil. But then she saw his poor, neglected feet and just lost it.

Jesus wants Simon—and everyone else—to see this woman. Because she’s the proof of the parable he’s just told about the two debtors. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven, Jesus says. So she has shown great love. The extravagant love she has poured out on Jesus is a sign that she already knows she’s been forgiven. God has released her and welcomed her home. All she’s doing is showing her deep love for the one who unleashed that forgiveness into her life.

Poignantly, Jesus adds: The one who is forgiven little loves little. He means people like Simon. He’s not saying that Simon needs less forgiveness than this woman. Only that he thinks he does. But if he could overlook such basic hospitality as water to wash his guest’s feet—might there be other things he’s overlooked? In his own heart? That need to be forgiven?

What was true of Simon may be true for any and all of us.

Go in peace

And then, where Simon, the woman, and everyone else gathered for the meal could hear it, Jesus told the woman: Your sins are forgiven. This wasn’t just reassurance for the woman. Like Jesus said by way of the parable, she already knows she’s forgiven. She didn’t earn forgiveness by cowering at Jesus’ feet and pouring costly perfume on him. It’s Simon and his dinner guests who need to know this. The ones who know her only as a sinner. Her great love for Jesus is evidence of the great forgiveness she has received. It’s the same for us, you know. When we know we are forgiven, we are set free to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love our neighbors as ourselves.

I think Jesus was doing his level best to convince Simon and his dinner guests to see this woman, not just a sinner, but as a daughter of Abraham and a sister in God’s household. But they’re still not convinced. They just sit there with their mouths hanging open, huffing and puffing to each other: Who is this person that even forgives sins? Forgiving sins, after all, is God’s job. Who does this fellow think he is? They seem content to go on believing that they don’t owe anyone anything. That they have no need for forgiveness. And as long as they go on thinking this way, they will never be free to love as richly and extravagantly as this woman does.

While those gathered for Simon’s dinner go on being offended, Jesus tells the woman: Your faith has saved you. Go in peace. Several other times in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus uses this exact phrase, but it’s translated differently. In the very next chapter, Jesus heals a woman who’s been hemorrhaging for twelve years. He tells her: Daughter, your faith has healed you … Go in peace (Luke 8.48). In Greek, saved and healed are the same word. In both cases, Jesus lets these women know that they’ve been set free to go out and live their lives boldly. Go in peace doesn’t mean, Don’t rock the boat. It means, Go out and live without fear. That is the gift of God’s salvation that Jesus has brought into the world.

And way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist’s daddy Zechariah had sang about this. Through the forgiveness of sins, we are rescued and set free to serve [God] without fear, in holiness and righteousness … for as long as we live (Luke 1.73-77). That’s exactly what Jesus did for that woman. Knowing she was forgiven is what gave her the courage to crash that dinner party and love Jesus with such holy abandon that she wasn’t afraid of what anybody said or thought about her.

And that’s why Luke told us this story. To show us our choice. We can sit cold and aloof and judgmental, like Simon and his dinner guests. We can be scandalized by the wideness of God’s mercy. Offended by how freely he forgives. Embarrassed by by the sloppy and extravagant love of the forgiven. Or, like that woman, we can embrace God as revealed in Jesus. A God who cancels our debts. Who forgives our sins. Who heals our lives so we can be unafraid to love as boldly as she did. Like her, we can go in peace, free from our past and our reputation. And we can learn to love and forgive others as God has loved us and forgiven us through Christ.

I can’t make that choice for you. But Luke and Jesus would have you choose the way of that woman, and go in peace. And for what it’s worth, so would I.

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