Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday After Pentecost + June 12, 2016
We’ve got three main characters in today’s gospel story: Jesus (I’m pretty sure we all know who he is); a Pharisee named Simon, who’s hosting Jesus for dinner; and a woman. She doesn’t have a name. Well, presumably in real life she had a name, but in the story she doesn’t. In the story the only details we are given to identify her are: “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”
If we look at this from up on the Christian high road, it seems odd. Don’t we believe that everyone is a sinner, that everyone is in need of God’s forgiveness?
But if we look at that description – “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” – a little more honestly…of course we know what it means. She is one of those special sinners. One of those offensive sinners. The kind that are so obviously sinful that’s its okay to judge them, to identify them as sinners. She is one of those sinners we get to put in a special category and treat differently than all us regular sinners: we can avoid them, or openly shun them; we can turn them away and refuse to help them; we can hold them up as particularly bad examples. The story doesn’t tell us what kind or kinds of sin this woman is so well-known for, but, whatever they are, they are public knowledge, and polite society is not willing to make excuses for her. Polite society is openly offended by her.
In the history of the Church people have tended to assume that this woman was a prostitute. But, like I said, that’s not written anywhere. And there were so many different people in Jesus’s time that could have been placed in the category of offensive sinners. Often, it was assumed that people with long-lasting disease or blindness or the inability to walk were especially sinful. You might remember that tax collectors often got thrown into the lists of especially despicable people in the gospels. Then, as now, there were some sins that stood out in common society more than others did. And of course there are certain sins that are just more obvious or more fun to talk about – but you could probably do those things and still not be labeled “a sinner” if you were wealthy or powerful enough. Getting thrown in with the offensive sinners often had less to do with the grievousness of the sin or legal matters or religious obedience and much more to do with what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. Little has changed when it comes to that.
So this “woman…who was a sinner” slips in to the dinner party. Simon the Pharisee sees her and immediately recognizes her as one of “those” sinners. When she touches Jesus, Simon is obviously deeply offended.
The woman must have known that this was the reaction her presence and her touch would give – that she was offensive. So what inspired her to come in to this dinner? And what gave her the boldness to reach out and touch Jesus – this well-known teacher – to touch him over and over again, intimately: to anoint his feet with oil, to weep on him, to dry him with her hair?
The only answer we get from the story is: she had heard that Jesus would be eating at this Pharisee’s house. We can’t assume that’s she’s ever even met Jesus face-to-face before. All we know for sure is that she has heard of him.
But we can make some good guesses as to what she may have heard about him. In the passages that come right before this story, we get sort of a summary of Jesus’s reputation at this point in his ministry. John the Baptist is in prison, and he sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words: Are you the messiah? Are you bringing in the Kingdom of God? And Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:18-23).
From this short interaction we can get a neat summary of what Jesus is up to, what he is known for: he’s spending time with the sick and the outcast and the poor; he’s bringing healing and new life to the people everyone else just pushes aside. And I especially love that last line Jesus says: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Because that means he’s offending people. He’s offending people because he’s spending his time with offensive people; he’s giving his healing and his good news to offensive people.
Well, that’s how the people who are being offended see it, anyway. But can you imagine being one of those “offensive sinners” and hearing about this man? This wandering teacher and miracle-worker who touches lepers and carries hope to the poor? Who is invited to table with the Pharisees, the religious leaders – but who also eats with prostitutes and tax collectors and other offensive sinners? You spend your life knowing your presence and your touch offend people; you notice people purposefully looking away from you; maybe you hear the nasty things people say about you; maybe you even get spat on in the street, or kicked out of the way. You know how just about everyone sees you. But this man sees you differently. This man who has kind words for the poor and harsh words for the elite; this man who has the power to heal and, they say, even raise the dead; he sees you as human being in need of compassion and healing and forgiveness. And he gives it to you.
From that perspective: Jesus is so obviously bringing the Kingdom of God. Jesus is bringing a whole new world for the offensive sinners: a world where they are not kicked away, but welcomed; not condemned, but forgiven; not identified as “a woman…who [is] a sinner,” but as “a woman who is a child of God.” And once Jesus sees them as a child of God, they are able to see themselves that way, too.
Maybe all of that is what is going on inside of this “woman…who was a sinner,” as she enters the Pharisee’s dinner party and weeps at Jesus’s feet. She is overwhelmed with love and gratitude for this man who sees her differently: for this new world that is opened up to her.
Of course this whole new world, the Kingdom of God, comes to everyone else, too. It comes right to Simon the Pharisee’s dinner table as this offensive woman lingers at his guest’s feet. And as Simon cringes, thinking about how he would never let a woman like that touch him, feeling much more pious than this wandering preacher he’s invited to dinner, and, I’d guess, wondering how we can get Jesus out of there before dessert —- Jesus catches him. And he holds up that woman, who was a sinner, as a better example of love than Simon the Pharisee.
You remember that frustrating line Jesus has, about how it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? This story is a good example of what Jesus may have meant. That woman had been publicly labeled a sinner and had to bear that as the first marker of her identity; she had to struggle under the disdain of other people, and who knows what else she had to deal with…she was poor in spirit, and so she went running into the kingdom of God, weeping, ready to anoint the feet that brought her the good word that she was a forgiven child of God. But the Pharisee – we assume – had never felt that same desperation, had always thought he was behaving at least a little better than everyone else, had “a lifetime of doing right to cling to,”…he was rich in spirit and goods, and so when the Kingdom of God showed up at his dinner table, he found it offensive. It couldn’t be the Kingdom of God if people like her could get in.
So where does all that leave us?
I’m guessing that most of us, as individuals, finds ourselves relating a little more to the woman, or a little more to Simon the Pharisee. Some of us are feeling that overwhelming need to be forgiven and to be seen as a child of God – to see ourselves as a children of God – or feeling gratitude for that grace. And some of us are hearing God say “Wake up! Guess what – those people that offend you? I love them too. That’s the way it is — welcome to my Kingdom.”
But as a community and as a church, we have a calling, a responsibility, a mission to relate to that third character, Jesus: to be the Body of Christ. We are called to be the community that sees people differently; the community that causes offense by spending time with the offensive; the community that brings healing and compassion to those suffering with the realities of disease and hurt and loneliness, realties most of us would rather ignore. We are called to carry hope to the hopeless and forgiveness to the sinner. We are called to live in the Kingdom of God, where all people are seen as children of God, and we are called to invite others into that kingdom. We are called to be that new world that Jesus opened up when he saw people differently. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense. Amen.