Drew’s Sermon from June 16th, 2013. The text for this week was Luke 7:36-8:3. Have a wonderful week!
So the new pope got in trouble a few months ago, for a Holy Thursday service he performed. Remember Holy Thursday was the day, according to the Gospel of John, that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. In the Catholic church they have a ritual that celebrates this, called the Mandatum Rite. Every year the presiding priest or bishop gathers twelve priests, who represent the twelve disciples, and washes their feet. Previous popes have performed this ritual in a grand cathedral, but Pope Francis, less than a month into his tenure, chose to do it in a juvenile detention center instead. And instead of the traditional priests, he washed the feet of 12 prisoners. Some were Catholic, others were not. One was Muslim. But what really shocked pope watchers around the world, was that two of the twelve, were women.
Not only was this against tradition, it was also against canon law. Church court decisions over the years have affirmed, even in the face of priests requesting a change, that only men could have their feet washed in this ceremony. Traditiionalists were concerned about what the new pope’s actions might say to the world. One expert, Edward Peters, put it this way: “By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive. What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example.” Openly ignoring the law and consorting with sinners is a questionable example indeed.
At this point in our story, Jesus has been setting some questionable examples as well. He has been helping widows and Roman soldiers, consorting with tax collectors and sinners. And in our story for today, Jesus again sets an example that many found questionable at best. Our story for today is familiar, but the setting is not. As Rev. Mary Anderson explains, when we find a story that is in all four Gospels, what we often find is that three of them are a little different, and one of them is very different. Usually the one that deviates the most comes from the Gospel of John. But in this case, the deviant story seems to come out of the book of Luke. The other Gospel writers place this story around Holy Week, juxtaposing it with the plans by the authorities to have Jesus killed. The anointing then, is about anointing Jesus’ body for burial. But instead of using this story to talk about Jesus’ death, Luke places his version in the house of a Pharisee, and tells the story in a very different way, so that it’s not about anointing Jesus for burial, it is about something completely different. It is about table manners.
Table fellowship, especially for feasts or dinner parties, was a big deal in the first and second centuries. It’s hard for us to understand because it was so different. Who you ate with mattered a lot to everyone. Table fellowship involved a guarantee of trust, friendship and kinship. So everyone in the ancient world was very careful about who they sat with and who they ate with. And the problem was, Jesus had been hanging out with all sorts of the wrong kind of people. People were talking about Jesus, saying things like, “Look at him, he’s hanging out with sinners and tax collectors, feasting like a glutton and a drunkard.” A questionable example indeed.
Now Simon the Pharisee was curious about Jesus, had probably heard something about him, and wanted to know more. But he was also aware of Jesus’ reputation. He knew he was taking a risk when he invited Jesus to join him. Questionable reputations were contagious, and many who saw Simon eat with Jesus would paint him with the same brush. But then again, if Jesus really was the next big thing, it would be great for Simon the Pharisee. Simon was cautious but curious. He didn’t want to offer Jesus too warm a welcome, but he did want to see for himself what the fuss was all about. In other words, Simon invited Jesus to his house so that he could judge him.
So ancient table fellowship might be a little bit hard for us to relate to. But judgment most definitely is not. Judgment is something that we experience almost continuously. We pass judgment on just about everyone we see, and we assume that everyone we see is passing judgment on us. “What will people say?” we worry, knowing full well what we would say. I have a lot of friends who are young parents, and ooooh, they could tell you some stories. A friend of mine with a baby less than two days old had someone follow her down the street yelling at her about how she was ruining her child. Another friend of mine was pregnant and had to run to the store to get wine for a recipe. You wouldn’t believe the dirty looks she got. It’s not limited to new parents. Feeling and being judged are almost universal experiences. We feel judged on our appearance, our cars, our homes, our jobs, our children, and our friends. And one of the reasons we always feel judged about those things, is that in our own heads, we are passing judgment on everyone else for those same things.
This is exactly what’s happening in our story. We have Simon, who has invited Jesus in, but is worried about what it might do to his reputation. He is already judging himself for associating with such a shady character. And in walks an even shadier character, and she walks straight to Jesus, obviously about to do something embarrassing and shameful. And Simon can’t help but judge Jesus for associating with such a person.
I’ve been told that there used to be folks around here called cedar choppers. Mostly poor people, who made their living clearing cedar from people’s ranches, who would let them keep the wood to use or sell. They generally lived out in the woods and cooked on cookfires. They said when one of those kids got on the school bus you could smell cedar all the way to the end of the bus. Those kids were marked, and couldn’t do anything about it. And everyone knew that those kids who smelled like cedar weren’t as civilized or well-bred or good as other folks, and they were often treated that way. Now I don’t think cedar choppers are a thing anymore. Not because we’re all that different. Just the people we avoid tend to smell like something else. Even today, there are folks that good people just don’t associate with. And if someone does go around cavorting with those kinds of people, we tend to think a little bit less of them, the way Simon thought of Jesus when he let this woman come to her.
Luke tells us that the woman is a sinner, and Simon seems to have been able to tell just by looking at her. It’s not clear how, but they way the story is told, it must have been obvious to everyone. Maybe she smelled of cedar.
And Jesus can see the judgment in Simon’s eyes. Simon feels judged by the other people at the party for what he has allowed in his home, and he judges Jesus, for bringing this shame upon him. No one who would allow himself to be touched by a woman such as this could ever be a prophet. No one so profane could possibly be holy.
But Jesus doesn’t offer judgment. Jesus offers forgiveness. This is what Jesus has been proclaiming, and this is what Simon has so much difficulty understanding. He is constantly judging himself, and has lived up to his standards. He has no understanding of the pain that comes from looking at yourself and judging yourself a failure, a fraud, worthless. He doesn’t understand what it is to be broken. It was easy for him to be righteous, he had the money, the education, every advantage, and so he thinks he is better than the man who had none of those, and fell into sin.
But she, she on the other hand has endured the cruel stares of others, and the nights alone wishing that she were someone, anyone else. She knows what it is to hate how far she’s fallen, and then go out and fall further into the pit. Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, healing, wholeness, might not mean much to Simon the Pharisee, but it means everything to her.
Her tears soak his feet and she wipes them dry with her hair. While this might shame another woman, such humiliation means nothing to her, because he has given her a gift so great that nothing else matters. She pours ointment over his feet, anointing them, and kisses them, pouring out her love upon him as if there is no end.
Simon has been careful; he invited Jesus into his home, but did not treat him as an honored guest, afraid that if he gives honor to Jesus, he will have less for himself. He hoards his affection, afraid to waste it, afraid that giving it to the wrong person might take away from him. But the woman pours it all out, not caring what may come of herself. And Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Not because of her righteousness, or because she believes the right things, or does the right things, but because of the love that she has shone, this beautiful, extravagant, wasteful love.
My charge to you is this: Love someone extravagantly this week. I know that you can do it because I’ve seen the way you’ve loved and welcomed and cared for me, and the way you’ve loved and supported and cared for each other. Remember that generosity begins at home, but it doesn’t end there.
So go out into the world and love. Love generously, love openly, love recklessly. Pour out love on someone else, waste your love on someone who doesn’t deserve it. Love as if someone loves you exactly for who you are, and you truly know what that means. Love as if you love yourself, because you know how hard that is. Love because you know what the woman knows, what Simon the Pharisee has trouble understanding: love is a basket with five loaves and two fish. It is never enough until you give it away.