Text: Luke 7:36-50
Social occasions can sometimes be, well, awkward. We can find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings, with people we do not know well, and we are not sure of the expectations. It can be uncomfortable.
A few years ago Susan and I went to a clergy retreat at a camp near Eldora. It was a fairly small group, and maybe eight of us went into town for dinner. The camp director told us about a tavern that had good food, and if you didn’t want to go to Pizza Ranch, this was about your only option. We opened the door and walked in. There were maybe 10 people in the whole place, all of them sitting at the bar. They turned and stared at us. Every one of them. I half-expected one of them to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” but nobody said a word. They just stared. It was an extremely awkward moment. Finally a waitress turned up, showed us to a table, and everything was fine. The food was good. But for a moment, it was pretty uncomfortable.
We have all been in those awkward, uncomfortable situations. Like our experience at that tavern, the problem can stem from lack of familiarity – we were newcomers on the regulars’ turf. But sometimes the problem is just the opposite: we find ourselves in situations with people that we know all too well. Someone whose politics or social or religious views are very different than yours insists on talking about loudly it at a holiday gathering. Or you attend a dinner and happen to be seated by literally the last person on earth you want to see. Or former spouses and in-laws are brought together at a wedding or funeral. Some navigate it well and at least for the time being they are a big happy family. For others – well, it doesn’t always go so well.
There is a Papa John’s commercial that they showed over and over during the NFL playoffs. Peyton Manning is having a party at his house. The doorbell rings and Miles, the Denver Broncos’ mascot arrives for the party. Peyton welcomes him and invites him in – but suddenly Miles is standing face to face with Blue, the mascot of the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s former team. These two horse mascots look at each other and it is instant awkwardness. You’re not sure if the Papa John’s pizza is going enough to break the tension and make everybody happy.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus has been put in an incredibly awkward situation. It is hard to overstate how uncomfortable this must have been. Perhaps we need a little background to understand the situation more fully. As we have seen as we have followed along in Luke over these past weeks, Jesus had created quite a stir as a new and completely genuine and teacher and healer and holy man.
All sorts of people were attracted to him – both rich and poor folks, educated and illiterate, highly respectable people as well as those on the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. His teaching was at the same time very traditional, based on the ancient law, but also new and refreshing and accessible to many, as he interpreted ancient truths and traditions in ways that were filled with grace and mercy. And as we have seen, Jesus’ ministry did not meet with everyone’s approval.
One evening Jesus is being entertained by one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem, and while he was at the dinner table, something absolutely astonishing occurred. A woman - who is described as a sinner - broke into that scene and began to pour expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then to weep uncontrollably and to wipe his feet with her hair. Then she began kissing his feet. This woman was most definitely not an invited guest.
Don’t you hate it when that happens? This was brazen, completely unthinkable behavior.
In first-century Palestine, such meals were often held in a courtyard or in a semi-outdoor setting, so there may have been neighbors and townspeople on the outskirts of the gathering who could see what was going on. And Jesus had attracted a following, so word may have gotten out that Jesus, well known by now, was having dinner at Simon’s home. This makes it a little more understandable that this woman showed up there.
On the other hand, women did not intrude into the company of men who were sitting at table for dinner. In fact, even the wives were oftentimes not included at such a gathering. Speaking of this incident, John Claypool wrote, “This woman’s mere presence alone was shocking, and then what she did was as tasteless and vulgar a show of affection as you could possibly imagine.” It is hard to even list all of the taboos going on here. Among other things, women never let their hair down in public. The woman was already known as a sinner.
Most anyone in Jesus’ situation would have been utterly horrified. They would have thought, “What on earth are people going to think about this? Are they not going to wonder how I ever even came to know a woman of this sort? Isn’t this going to be absolutely devastating to my reputation?” I mean, this was bad bad.
Jesus had every reason to be beyond embarrassed. But what makes this story so amazing is the way that Jesus responded. Jesus’ first thought is not for himself and his reputation. Jesus immediately jumps to the defense of this woman and began to celebrate what must have happened in her life that prompted this kind of behavior.
Now, the history of interpretation of this passage is interesting. This woman is most often referred to as a prostitute. It is somehow assumed that if she is a sinner, that has to mean sexual sin. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that that kind of label gets attached to women described as sinners, but not so much to men. The fact that she lets her hair down and behaves in such a forward way may lend credence to that view, but the text simply says she is a sinner. And in fact, if she were a prostitute, Luke could have called her that, as he does another woman in chapter 15.
To me, such speculation misses the point. At the end of last week’s scripture, Jesus points out that John the Baptist lived an ascetic life, abstained from alcohol and rich foods, and people said he had a demon. Jesus on the other hand ate and drank and hung out with tax collectors and sinners, and he was called a glutton and a drunk.
Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners, and then what happens in the very next story? Of course, he is again shown as a friend of sinners.
Now, there is another reason that speculation about this woman kind of misses the point. And that is because this story may be about Simon, the host of the meal, as much as it is about this woman. People are appalled and mortified at this woman’s display, and they are no doubt shocked that Jesus’ doesn’t put a stop to it. For his part, Simon – the man who had invited Jesus to the dinner – says to himself, “If this man were actually a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him – a sinner.” Which in a way is kind of weird, because decorum and common decency would have demanded that Jesus be offended by any woman who would do this – her “sinner” status was just icing on the cake, as it were. And in fact, if she were not already known as a sinner, she certainly would be now.
Now whether Jesus hears Simon muttering under his breath, or whether it is obvious to him what his host is thinking, Jesus puts a question to Simon. It’s a little parable that is tucked into this passage. “Simon,” he says, “I have a question for you.” He tells the story of a creditor with two debtors. One owes a not insignificant amount, but the other owes a huge amount – ten times as much as the first person. Neither was able to repay the debt, and the creditor decided to forgive the debt of each. Jesus asked Simon, “Now, which one of these will love him more?”
Simon is no dummy, he knows exactly what Jesus is saying. He knows Jesus is about to zap him. So he says, “Well, I suppose it is the one who was forgiven more.” You suppose? Bu then, what else can he say?
Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.” But then, the spotlight gets turned on Simon. Jesus says, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, and you did not give me water for my feet.” (As was the custom - roads were dusty, travel was hard, and it was customary to offer guests a chance to wash their feet.) “But she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss (of welcome), but she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Simon had not offered basic hospitality to Jesus, an invited guest, but this woman, this sinner, had offered all of this. And according to the story Jesus told, because she had been forgiven much, she had great love.
Jesus topped it off by saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What Jesus does is kind of subversive, because in effect he is saying that Simon was as much of a sinner as this woman. He was lacking in love, he was lacking in forgiveness, and by implication he was lacking in faith.
Now just to hear this story, we are probably all scandalized by what this woman does. When people behave in such ways and when they are already tagged with the label “sinner,” we just automatically assume a kind of moral superiority. It’s hard not to feel like we are better than some people. It’s hard not to feel a little judgmental toward some people.
I admit that this is true for me, and research actually shows that I am not alone. A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that most individuals strongly believe that they are just, virtuous and moral, and uniformly see others as inferior. Interestingly, people also tend to rate themselves more highly than others in modesty.
Ben Tappin, a psychologist at the University of London and the study’s lead author, reported that “The individuals in our sample consistently judged themselves to be superior to the average person.” Participants rated themselves, the average person, and a “socially desirable ideal” on traits such as sincerity, honesty, friendliness, competence, creativity, and so forth.
Basically, most people just think they are better than other people. This is largely due to what is called the “self-enhancement effect.” The classic study on this was back in 1981, a study on driving ability. Most people rate themselves as an above-average driver. I would guess that a majority of us here might think that we are well above average. Well, by definition, we can’t all be well above average, but there you go.
Simon sees this woman, and he thinks that he is far better than she is. Well, let me take that back. Did you catch what Jesus asked Simon? Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
Maybe that verse is a key to the whole story. “Do you see this woman?” If he saw her at all, Simon simply saw a sinner. Someone beneath him, someone really not worth thinking about.
Simon doesn’t actually see her, not as a person, not as a child of God, not as an individual in her own right. He just sees a sinner, someone beneath him, someone worthy of scorn and contempt, someone to absolutely avoid.
But what does Jesus see? He sees someone with gifts. Someone filled with love, with gratitude, with hospitality, with thoughtfulness. Jesus can even overlook the social inappropriateness of her actions to see a child of God who has been forgiven.
This interplay between love and forgiveness is interesting. Jesus says that she has great love because she has been forgiven, like the debtor with the unpayable debt. Her actions were in response to the love and forgiveness of God that she had experienced. Perhaps she had met Jesus before, or maybe she had been a person in the crowd whose life was changed by Jesus’ message of God’s grace and acceptance.
Jesus made it clear. He tells her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Jesus forgives her, but forgiveness looks a lot like healing. Jesus’ grace and forgiveness had absolutely changed her life.
With God, forgiveness and love and grace and salvation are all tied together. And by pointing out Simon’s lack of love, lack of hospitality, lack of lack of graciousness, Jesus is basically saying that we are all in the same boat. We are all sinners. Whether our sin is there for all to see, or whether our sin is more hidden in our respectability, we are all in the same boat. And the thing is, Jesus has the same love, the same grace, offers the same forgiveness to Simon that he does to this woman. And he offers the same to us.
You already are a beloved child of God, not because of what you have made of yourself, not because on some moral scoreboard you rate a little higher than the next person, but because God has made you out of pure and amazing grace. It was true of this woman, it is true of Simon, and it is true of each of us.
Living in this truth, living in God’s grace and love and forgiveness, we are made free, like this woman. We are free to live lives of love and gratitude. And we are free to truly see others. May it be so. Amen.