Luke is a master story-teller. He sets the scenes as if ready for a camera shot. A wary host, an A list of guests, a social misfit and a lesson to be learned. Forgiveness, love, social intrigue, all the elements of a great movie.
Simon, a Pharisee, is pictured as rather judgmental and conservative. This particular Jewish sect looked to outward adherence to standards of behavior to identify those inside the house of God and those waiting to get in. Luke might have been one of them or from the same social standing, so his frequent criticism of the Pharisees throughout his Gospel is a telling self- mockery. Another metaphor runs throughout Luke’s gospel.
In the ancient tradition there is a Jubilee year. Every 50 years, seven cycles of seven Sabbath years, debts owed to anyone are cancelled and forgiven. In terms of land management, fields would lie fallow to regenerate the soil, land sales and deals would be cancelled or exchanged. It was a year of resolving debt issues, recharging the land and relationships, returning to wholeness in God’s name. This Jubilee year was active and present in Luke’s mind as he wrote all the stories of release from debt and forgiveness of our Lord. Jesus came to us to be the incarnation of forgiveness, liberating all the oppressed so that they can fully enter the Kingdom of God, unfettered by debt of any kind. This theme will recur and we have it in today’s story as well.
Back to our movie. As the camera pans around the room, we notice a striking looking woman with a jar of scented oil anointing the dusty feet of Jesus and she is weeping, mixing her tears with the fine oil. Our host Simon gasps at several breaches in etiquette before him. This woman is known as a sinner locally, variously described as a harlot, a fallen woman, there is little doubt that she has had a troubled and public past. How did she get here? It seems this woman is touching, a terrible taboo for one unclean, touching one of Simon’s guests who seems to be untroubled by her attentions. And now, this woman, is unbinding her hair in public, and using that to help in the washing of feet. Simon might be realizing too late, that as a host it was his job to provide foot washing for his guests and in this case he missed the mark. But the woman, unnamed, is publically humiliating herself and him by her devotions. What can Jesus be thinking to permit this display of behavior in front of the host, Simon, who invited them here in the first place?
Having painted this backdrop, Luke moves on to the meat of the story and the telling of the parable of forgiveness. Our host determines to confront his guest on the impropriety before him . More than likely Simon’s displeasure and stern opinion of the woman and Jesus’ tolerance of her, was plain to see in his demeanor and actions. Jesus chooses to respond to Simon’s outward dismissal of the devoted woman by telling him a story. At this point in Jesus’ ministry he was known and had some influence which is why he was invited to the dinner in the first place. He chooses his moments to speak up , not in reproach, but certainly all those around could sense that the conversation was going to change the dynamics of the evening.
In the telling of the parable, Jesus gives Simon some space to make up his mind anew. Hear the story, interpret it for himself and then apply it to the scene before him. Jesus is offering respect to Simon that his mind could be changed, that he could repent of his past and present judgments and move on.
Simon gets it partly right. He understands that the greater the debt forgiven, the more gratitude. But he is unable to translate that lesson to the woman in front of him, this unclean disturber of his universe, this affront to his dinner party.
So Jesus has to fill in the blanks. Simon, don’t you get it? As a host, you ought to have provided means for me to wash my feet, anoint me with scented oil after my journey and embrace me in welcome to your home. You did none of that but this woman has not stopped doing any of those things since she arrived. So much love and gratitude because so many of her sins were forgiven. Forgiven totally, a jubilee year set up for her and release from her past.
Simon and the other Pharisees felt that forgiveness of sins could only come from God. Now in the home of his host, Jesus is forgiving people from debts and thus claiming the authority of God on earth. Can you imagine how Simon and the others felt?
But what about our anonymous woman? There are three versions of the story in all the gospels with differing accounts of when and where. What is common about the anointing story is the largesse of the woman. The oil would have been costly, but more costly to her is the risk she takes by entering the room of host and invited guests in the first place. Here she is, tainted from some past misdemeanors, smudged with a bad reputation, unclean by many standards, unwanted by most. Somehow she has an understanding of forgiveness of her debts that allows her to approach our Lord with no hesitation. Believing in his power of redemption, she can be his servant. It is as if she has no lower to sink, no name to reclaim, but knowing the possibility of forgiveness of her past, she wants to show her love to the epitome of this pardoning in gratitude. Whoever is forgiven much, loves much.
Who would not be grateful for the chance to be reborn and cleansed? It is not clear what happens to Simon. Does he get the message? Does he change his mind and stop making snap assessments? Is he able to forgive, or even allow himself to be forgiven and move on?
For us today, how often do we use past behavior to identify ourselves, but more dangerously to color someone else? People in twelve step programs can define themselves as failures to their loved ones, or they can opt to be positive for the choices they have before them and make the best of that day. We can let the past rule us or we can be grateful for the mercy of God who can change our hearts and let us move on to help others.
Ironically, tomorrow Bishop Roskam will be preaching on this same text. She is visiting our service at BHCF on our first anniversary of our Episcopal communion service and the women are very excited. I will be interested to hear her preach. A further irony, of course, is the setting. In the eyes of society many of these women have become their crime. They are forced to live out their mistakes, to be locked into a definition of themselves that does not allow for growth and repentance. The light of the gospel shines brightly in such a setting and Bp Cathy will enable that.
We all carry around some lingering baggage from our past. We know for ourselves that errors of our ways in the past are still scars in our memory, but for the most part they are not borne outwardly, so that a new person meeting us would say oh yes still shoplifting lipsticks are you? Still picking up that golf ball when you don’t like where it lands? Either we have learned from these blips in our life history or we have received forgiveness, most of us are living in a jubilee year, fully living into our present having overcome our past.
Meanwhile back at the dinner party. Simon has been challenged by Jesus to explore for himself the extent and nature of forgiving. Did he wake up the next morning and say, wow what happened here, am I right in my strict observance of the law and not wondering where the heart is?? Can I change? What would it take? Does the past always define the present? Certainly the woman of the story was able to grasp the healing power of forgiveness, the unleashing of potential and love that ensues.
Sometimes I find myself thinking like Simon, making assessments and snap judgments and acting on them. Jesus would have me take a deep breath and look through the lens of my own sins, use the prism of my own brokenness to see the wonder and love of God in the person I am rushing to judge. I want that person to be merciful to me as they size me up. What does the lord require DO justice, love mercy, walk humbly.
We all have the chance to be agents of change rather than agents of the status quo. Luke today, invites us to forgive greatly, love much and open our eyes to the possibility of grace entering in any shape, even an uninvited guest.