**Good friends, this week has been filled with sorrow and anger, and I confess that I am still trying to wrap my heart and mind around the events in Orlando. I don’t want to simply add more of the same to the conversation, though I am working my thoughts out in a possible future post. For now, please accept this Sunday’s sermon on forgiveness and inclusivism. Perhaps these are both things that we need to hear now, more than ever.
This is a story that is told in all four gospels. However, each telling frames it in a slightly different way. Matthew, Mark, and John all place this story in the last week of Jesus’ life, before his death and resurrection, and “feature a woman who anoints either Jesus’ head” in Matthew and Mark, “or feet” in John, as in Luke (Petty).
Much has been made of this unnamed woman- unnamed in three of the gospels, that is; John identifies her as Mary of Bethany. “In the 7th century, Pope Gregory said that all these women were, in fact, the same person, and that person was Mary Magdalene. This would mean that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were the same person, in which case Mary Magdalene would have been the sister of Lazarus and Martha” (Petty).
Whoever she is, we are simply told by Luke that she is “a sinner.” For some reason, whenever we read that a woman in the bible was a sinner, our minds immediately jump to the conclusion that she was a prostitute. But this isn’t necessarily true; it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but when we “assume she’s a prostitute, as if that’s the only sin of which a first-century woman is capable,” we do her, and ourselves, a great disservice (Lose, emphasis mine). By assuming what she has done to be known as a “sinful woman,” we show our own unwillingness to unstick ourselves from the cognitive scripts we find ourselves so entrenched in.
“Instead,” as David Lose encourages us, “let us assume that whatever she has done, others- including this Pharisee- know about it” (Lose). In fact, I think it’s quite possible that we focus so much of our attention on this “sinful woman,” that we miss the larger point that Jesus was trying to make.
Call it the “gossip fault.” We hear some titillating whispers about the woman down the street that it takes up our entire presence of mind. So instead of focusing on her courage- she doesn’t just sneak into this dinner party, she disturbs the conversation boldly in order to serve Jesus- we are caught up in the question of “what did she do?”
In Matthew and Mark, as we find here in Luke, Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Jesus has been invited into the home of this Pharisee, “whose guests are likely as prominent in the community as he is” (Lose). Jesus is here at the center, “the young prophet about whom everyone is talking. Expectations, no doubt, are high. For this is more than simply a dinner; it is, in a sense, a gathering of the respected and respectable to discuss important matters” (Lose).
The careful reader will find Simon’s motivations in inviting Jesus to this dinner to be a bit suspect. Now, first of all, Luke wants to make crystal clear that Simon is a Pharisee. In the first two verses, he identifies Simon as a Pharisee three times. Just in case we missed it the first time!
John Petty points out that “Luke takes a slightly more gentle view of the Pharisees than either Mark or John, and especially Matthew. For Luke, the Pharisees were most dangerous when in cahoots with the scribes. In Luke, it is the scribes and Temple bureaucrats who are most responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, not the Pharisees. (At the time Luke was written, c. AD 85, the Pharisees were the only major tradition within Judaism to survive the destruction of the temple in AD 70.)” (Petty).
But we need to remember that Jesus found himself in constant tension with the establishment traditions- Pharisee and Scribe alike. They were constantly challenging and questioning him on his teachings, his actions, and especially the company he kept.
So when Simon, a Pharisee, invites him to dinner, we wonder if he might have ulterior motives. Might he be hoping to be the one who catches this young prophet and teacher in a heresy? Could he be hoping, at the very least, to create an embarrassing situation for the itinerant from Bethlehem? We’ll come back to Simon in a minute.
The woman who disrupts the gathering is showing “extravagant hospitality and extreme devotion” (Lose). As she is weeping, kissing and anointing Jesus’ feet, her actions prompt whispers and accusations. The scandal, in the minds of Simon and the others gathered, is that Jesus would allow such a woman to come near him, let alone touch him and anoint him.
This is simply a continuation of accusations we’ve heard time and time again: this man associates with sinners! Tax collectors, thieves, prostitutes! And he claims to be a man of God?! Really, “The woman’s intrusion provokes a religious and social crisis. She has just barged into the home of a Pharisee, yet that Pharisee will consider her impure and unclean.” In their minds, there is “no doubt [she has] consorted with gentiles. Her presence contaminates the gathering. She clearly has crossed a significant social and religious boundary. From the pharisaical point of view, she does not belong here” (Petty).
Jesus, hearing the whispers (though let’s be honest, Simon and his buddies probably weren’t taking a lot of care to keep their voices concealed). In response, he tells a parable.
“Who do you think would be more grateful, Jesus asks, a man whose debt of five hundred denarii was canceled or the one forgiven fifty? A denarii was the value of about a day’s wages for labor, but for the point of this short parable that’s almost beside the point. All that’s required here is a basic understanding of math, as the first man is forgiven ten times the debt that the other is.
“Simon knows how to count, and so answers that he supposes (“supposes”?- really, Simon, you only suppose?) it would be the man for whom the greater debt was canceled” (Lose).
I confess that I have always read this story as Jesus looking at the woman anointing his feet, and forgiving her for all that she has done that is sinful. But in reading it like this, I have missed the entire point of the story.
This woman does not make this huge show of devotion because she is seeking forgiveness, but because she has received forgiveness. She probably encountered Jesus before this meal even began, made new and whole in the Spirit through God’s love and mercy, and her response is this amazing show of humble devotion. For this woman, forgiveness is everything! She shows this radical act of devotion to Jesus because she has received forgiveness; her response is an act of joyful thanksgiving.
Think about it: “forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable” (Lose). If you have ever been forgiven for something you have done wrong, no matter how big or small, you know the powerful affect this has.
And just to make sure the message has sunk in, and probably a little bit for the benefit of the crowd around that meal, Jesus repeats it: “your sins are forgiven.” Just to make sure she knows how loved she is. So Simon’s hard-heartedness is put on full display, called out by Jesus for what it is.
It is important to note that this story takes place at a table, at a shared meal. In this time and culture, a shared meal was not only a place where a person took sustenance, but it was an intimate gathering where conversation, laughter, and fellowship was had.
In Simon’s home, as at many other homes of the affluent and powerful, there were certain rules for who could have a place at the table. It was very clear that the unclean, the impure, the sinful, were not permitted.
But Jesus erases those boundaries. By proclaiming this woman forgiven, she is welcomed to the table. By washing away the crimes of the past, Jesus opens up a place at the gathering. And not just a small place at the back; a place right there next to him, next to the seat of honor, which makes that seat, a seat of honor.
At this table, where we gather, we meet Christ in the shared Spirit of God. There are no exclusions. All are welcome.
If you desire fellowship with God and with one another, you are welcome.
If you find yourself yearning to deepen your relationship with the community, and even within yourself, you are welcome.
If you have ever found yourself on the outside looking in, positive that your past excludes you from the love and grace of God in Christ, hear these words: “your sins are forgiven.”
You are loved. Come, taste and see. Come, partake in the goodness of the Lord. Come, for all things are now ready. Amen.
Lose, David. “Forgiveness & Gratitude.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 9 June 2013. Web. 11 June 2016.
Petty, John. “Luke 7:36 – 8:3.” Progressive Involvement. N.p., 7 June 2010. Web. 11 June 2016.