The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 12, 2016
The Rev. Dcn Anne Burke
It seems the older I get the more easily I cry. Predictably, I cry at funerals, weddings, and graduations and acts of courage and sainthood. Tears are my response to the arrival of a healthy new grandchild. I get choky when I sing “Amazing Grace” or “The Day that Thou Gavest,” at sunset. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an annual holiday tear-jerker and there are even poignant moments in Toy Story movies that make “my cup runneth over.” Crying is a critical part of the human emotional makeup, just as laughing is. But there is more to crying than tears that flow from our eyes, run across our faces and smear our mascara. Yes, women do cry more often than men, perhaps because in men tears may be perceived as a sign of weakness, but remember, Jesus himself wept openly. Crying actually releases hormones and toxins from the body. Emotional energy builds up and needs release and sometimes we need to relax our defenses and tap into a place deep inside ourselves to express what we cannot put into words. And we are never so dumbstruck or moved to tears than when we are in the presence of holiness. These are our most vulnerable and humbling moments.
I cried unashamedly during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last year, and I was not alone. Tears were evident in those who touched him, or came close or caught his eye. Many wept as he kissed and blessed their children, usually children who were disabled or diseased. There was power in his presence. The power of God. Even on television. I was struck by the spontaneous expressions of ineffable emotion that greeted him wherever he went, and I surrendered to my own.
Public displays of tears can make some people uneasy, but not Jesus. Luke’s Gospel today tells of a dinner party given in Jesus’ honor where an uninvited woman foists herself on him and pours out tears and perfume on his feet. We don’t know her age or name but she was old enough to have earned a reputation as a sinner, and apparently, in a previous encounter with Jesus, she had experienced the love and forgiveness of God. Seeing Jesus now, just being in his presence, she is overcome with joy, and not having the words to express her sense of release and relief, she shows it with her tears.
Kneeling behind Jesus as he reclined at the table, the woman weeps so profusely that her tears actually wet his feet. Then, letting down her hair, she dries them, caresses them and applies some soothing, aromatic oil. People are stunned. Speechless. These were things a woman simply did not do to a man who was not her husband, and in public, no less! But she was already a woman with a reputation and had nothing more to lose. The host, however, has plenty to say. He opines that if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would realize what kind of woman this was. He would know that sin was in her heart. Any proper man would react with outrage and anger and send her away. But Jesus does know what is in her heart and he also knows what is in the heart of his host.
The host is a Pharisee named Simon, whose guests are likely as prominent in the community as he. He is aghast at the embarrassing faux pas committed by this woman. This is not just a dinner party but something of a “salon,” where the respected and influential gather to discuss important matters of the day. It was an opportunity for the establishment to size up the young, controversial prophet who had caught everyone’s attention. Jesus had a testy relationship with the Pharisees. He was offended by their self-righteous, over inflated, moral and religious pride, and they in turn were threatened by his counter cultural message. Jesus had recently insulted Simon and his colleagues by saying that “tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you Pharisees.” Now, Jesus gives Simon a piece of his mind.
Simon had failed to provide Jesus even the minimum of what a good host would offer a guest, especially a guest of honor. He had not provided water or a servant to wash Jesus’ feet, or oil for his skin, or even a “man-hug” greeting at the door. And here, this outcast woman is seeing to Jesus’ every need. In fact, Simon has been cool and aloof. We might wonder if his dinner invitation to Jesus was sincere, or just for sport, for an ancient “roasting” of a local celebrity. But even with a head full of steam, Jesus does not render judgment. He tells a short parable about debt forgiveness and gratitude and offers an observation: people who are forgiven much, love much, and those who are forgiven little, love little. He might well have added, “If the sandal fits, wear it.”
But the problem is that Simon doesn’t think he needs forgiveness. He thinks forgiveness is something for other people, for those like this woman, who is clearly a serial sinner, clearly beneath him and clearly in need of forgiveness. But Simon? Need forgiveness? Don’t be silly! Because Simon can’t admit his deepest needs, he cannot satisfy them. He can’t respond with the gratitude that comes from receiving something of extraordinary value. He is unable to love with the same wild abandon that drove the woman to violate all the rules of accepted social behavior. Simon has invited Jesus to his home but offered him no hospitality. He is trapped in a hardness of heart and rather than take inspiration from the woman’s show of love, he judges both her and Jesus.
It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that the woman’s sins are forgiven but not Simon’s. We are quick to recognize Simon as the villain, the one who is judgmental and oblivious to forgiveness. But we are just as quick to judge Simon, until, lo, we realize we ARE Simon. Like him, we search for splinters in our neighbor’s eye rather than remove the 2x4s from our own. In a state of exasperation Jesus asks Simon, “Do you SEE this woman?” Simon really cannot see the woman for who she truly is. All he sees is the reputation that precedes her. He sees the interruption of his carefully planned evening and he sees Jesus’ failure to respond appropriately.
He doesn’t see her as a human being created in the image of God and he doesn’t see that she has changed. He doesn’t see her extravagant acts as expressions of hospitality, love and gratitude. He doesn’t recognize the connection between forgiveness of financial debt and forgiveness of sins. Being indebted, always owing others, knowing yourself as a sinner, after a while these things come to define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, or failed to do. Forgiveness gives you back yourself. It sets healing in motion which brings renewal, restoration and freedom. All those who know themselves to be broken and captive to sin can rejoice, while those who believe they are already whole and free are threatened by the mere suggestion of forgiveness.
To the woman in this story forgiveness is sheer blessing. It is something so beautiful and so potent it breaks her heart and all she can do is express her gratitude with tears of joy and homage to Jesus. Simon, the Pharisee, on the other hand, is righteous. He obeys the law, does what he should, and so not only does he not need forgiveness, even the mention of it is offensive. He is convinced that his “righteousness” warrants God’s favor, that he deserves a reward for doing what he should. He fails to understand that God’s favor, God’s grace, means receiving something wonderful and unexpected that you know you don’t deserve, and that mercy is forgoing something terrible that you know you do deserve.
Today’s story is about a woman who comes to Jesus with a worshipful appreciation for his mercy and healing grace. It’s about the gratitude that forgiveness creates and the extravagant acts of love and devotion that flow from it. It’s about a response to divine presence. But it’s also about someone who magnifies the faults of others to make himself look good; about hardness of heart instead of love, judgment instead of forgiveness and entitlement instead of gratitude. We have a choice. We can accept our identity as sinners, beloved by God and forgiven all things, or deny our failings, and with them God’s loving embrace. Either way, it’s enough to make you cry.