June 12, 2016
I've hosted a few parties before. I've thrown birthday parties for kids and adults alike. I've had open houses and planned surprise parties. I've put together spur-of-the-moment potlucks and planned formal dinner parties. Being a child of the 70's, when I first started throwing parties on my own, I always worried that they would turn out as badly as Mary's parties did on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary was the epitome of a woman who had it altogether, but her parties were complete and utter disasters. She'd invite people over for drinks and the guests would arrive expecting dinner. She'd invite people over for dinner and the dinner would burn -- that kind of thing. But I also worried that my parties would go the opposite direction and become like the out-of-control teenager parties you see in movies such as "Sixteen Candles." Party crashers, people you'd never met before and certainly didn't invite, would drive their cars across your yard, put an exercise bike through the ceiling of the room below and try to cook a pizza by spinning it on your turntable. Note that when I say "your," I actually mean "your parents."
Thankfully, I haven't experienced either of these extremes. At some of my bigger, just show up and hang out parties, I've had people drop by that I didn't expect. But I've never had party crashers. I've certainly never had them at a dinner party. Yet that is essentially what happens in this story from Luke's gospel.
Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to a dinner party. While at this party, a woman crashed it. If I were to invite all of you to a dinner party, it would not be normal to have the neighborhood gathered around outside of my house trying to get a peek at the goings on inside. Some commentators that I've read suggest that the opposite would have been true for Simon's dinner party. Dinner parties in this culture and context were not necessarily private affairs. The guests would have been seated inside a courtyard or a garden area. They would have been visible to people outside of the home. Jesus was becoming widely known, so it is possible that other people from the village would have stood outside the gates and watched as the host and guests went about their business. It's not hard to believe, then, that it would have been easy for this woman to walk right in.
When she bent down to Jesus' feet, she would not have been crawling around underneath the dinner table. The guests would have been reclining around a low table or mat. They would have lain on their sides, supporting themselves with their left hand while they ate with their right. While reclined in this position, this encounter between the woman and Jesus unfolded.
We know very little about this woman, except that she was a sinner and from the city. Hearing that description might make us assume that she was a prostitute. But surely there were other ways for a woman to be a sinner back then. We don't know exactly what her sin was, but we do know that Simon knew her – or at least he knew her sin. Versions of this story are found in all four gospels. There are similarities between them, but there are also distinct differences. One that I find significant is the timing of Luke's telling. In the other gospels, Jesus was preparing for his final confrontation with the powers and principalities. He was living in the shadow of the cross. When the woman anointed him, she was anointing him for burial. It was an act of both love and grief. However Luke's telling is unique. The woman does not come to anoint him before his death. Instead, this was a moment of love and forgiveness. The unnamed woman stood behind Jesus’ feet, weeping. She knelt and unbound her hair. She washed his feet with her tears and used her hair to dry them. She kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment from an alabaster jar she brought with her.
Her actions would have been scandalous to others watching. A woman did not unbind her hair in public. A woman did not touch a man’s feet. Both gestures would have been considered inappropriately intimate; actions reserved solely for a husband and wife. Whatever her sin, she was known for it, and that sinfulness would have made her unclean. Touching Jesus in this way would have made him unclean as well.
We do not know the reactions of the other guests, but Luke tells us what Simon was thinking. “If this Jesus guy were any kind of a real prophet, he would know the kind of woman who was touching him and he’d put a stop to it.” But Jesus, who was even more than a prophet, knew exactly what Simon was thinking and he confronted him. But as was often the case, he did not confront him with accusations. Instead Jesus posed a question and he told a story. A creditor had two debtors. One debtor owed the creditor 50 denarii, the other 500. The creditor took pity on both and cancelled both debts. Jesus asked Simon, "Who would love the creditor more?" "The one who owed him a little or the one who owed him a lot?" What could Simon say but, "The one with the greater debt.'
Jesus told Simon his answer was correct. But what did that really mean? Sometimes Jesus ended his stories with the command to go and do likewise. However, with the telling of this parable, we get more details about what did not happen at Simon's party. The woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Although the rules of hospitality would have prescribed having water ready to wash away the grime and grit on his guest’s feet, Simon did not offer Jesus any water for washing. The woman anointed Jesus with oil and could not stop kissing his feet. But Simon neither greeted his guest with a kiss or with oil. Simon did none of those things. Yet, the woman, the sinner, did. Why? Because I think she sensed that in Jesus, she was forgiven. She knew the depth to which she needed forgiveness, and she knew that Jesus' forgiveness and love plumbed that depth. She responded to this great forgiveness by showing great love. She responded with overwhelming gratitude, because she was the greater debtor.
Jesus finished by saying, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
The root of the Greek word for "forgiven" is also defined as "release." When Jesus declared that she was forgiven, he released her. He released her, he freed her, from the burden of her sin and her guilt.
That's what forgiveness does. It releases us. We are released when we are forgiven. But it seems to me that we are also released when we forgive. That burden of guilt and sin impedes love -- it bars the way for us to experience love and to give it to others. But doesn't refusing to forgive do the same? Isn't carrying a grudge and hurt and anger equally as burdensome? I don't think that Jesus called Simon on the carpet simply because he didn't fulfill the duties of host. I think Jesus saw Simon's lack of forgiveness. I think Jesus realized that Simon saw people merely as a combination of their sins, of what they lacked, of what they did or did not do. That would seem to be true in the way he looked at and judged this woman. But Jesus saw the woman. He saw not her sin, but her. I think he looked at Simon the way. Maybe in speaking those words to Simon, he released him as well. He was released from the sin of his judgment. He was released from his inability to see more than the sin of a person. Jesus declared the woman forgiven and she was released. I think Simon was released as well.
When I was a candidate for ordination, I heard a story about a longtime minister and his particular way of examining candidates on the floor of presbytery. The older minister would ask each candidate who came before the presbytery to look out the window of the church where they were meeting. He asked the candidate to describe the first person he or she saw in theological terms. The answers fell into two categories. The first was that the candidate described the person as a sinner, who needed God for salvation. The second was that the candidate saw a child of God; a child loved and forgiven. Both of these answers were correct. But the older minister claimed that the candidate who answered in the second way made a better minister; not because of skill or competence, but because of compassion and forgiveness.
This story may be a ministerial urban myth, but I think it speaks a great truth -- not just for ministers but for all of us. Our sins, big or small, burden us. When we are forgiven we are released. But when we refuse or withhold forgiveness, we are burdened as well. Forgiveness and forgiving releases us. On that day, at that dinner party, two people were released from their burden. The woman responded to that release with overwhelming and extravagant love for the One who released her. Simon was offered release as well. We don't know what happened next for him. We don't know how he responded. We can only wonder and hope. What about us? Do we need to be forgiven or do we need to forgive? Either way, Jesus offers us release from our burden of sin. Will we take it? How will we respond?
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.