It was supposed to be a gathering of men, eating dinner, reclining at table, talking about important things–talking about God, talking about the righteous life, talking about the future of Israel. And then she came in. How did that happen? All of a sudden she was standing there behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, with that alabaster jar hugged to her breast. And then she was anointing his feet with the ointment, bathing his feet with her tears, wiping his feet with her hair, kissing them. And he let her. In fact, without saying a word, there was definitely something going on between Jesus and that woman.
“Oh, for the love of God!” Simon muttered under his breath. “Some prophet this is! If he were the real deal, he would know who this woman is who is kissing him and crying all over him. So much for an enlightened conversation, let alone the hope of Israel…”
Jesus held Simon’s gaze. “Simon,” he said, “I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” And Jesus told him a parable about a creditor who had two debtors, one who owed 10 times as much as the other. When neither could repay the debts, the man forgave them both. “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asked. Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” “Right,” Jesus said, and then asked him, “Simon, do you see this woman?” As it was so often with Jesus, it wasn’t a simple question, not the beginning of a magic trick–”Do you see this hat? Do you see this woman?”
“Simon, do you see this woman, beyond the nametag that says SINNER? [Mark Davis, leftbehindandloving it] You have been cordial and respectful, ingratiating even, since I arrived, but you have not offered even the basics of human connection that is customary among people who care for one another. I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment…Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; so she has shown great love.” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you–or, has made you whole; go in peace.”
When Matthew tells this story, he has Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” That’s quite the claim for an unnamed woman of the street. This act of out and out sensuality, of love and devotion, of courage, of faith, this is at the core of the good news. Wow! I don’t remember ever reading it in any of the creeds!
I have to say, I see an awful lot of myself in Simon. His exasperated muttering, “Oh for the love of God!” was not just a throwaway. He thought the conversation he had envisioned for the evening was going to be his act and offering of love for God, talking theology, politics, listening to the one so many people were identifying as a prophet, a healer, a teacher. “Let’s get this right,” the good Pharisee in Simon said. “Let’s act according to God’s law so we can be above reproach. Then God will be pleased with us and save us.”
And I have no doubt Jesus loved him for that. Despite the way we seem to love to villainize the Pharisees, Jesus was much more like them than not. He too sought to live a life that loved and glorified God. But he also knew that the law without love, embodied love, for God and neighbor, was empty, just like his brother Pharisee Paul later wrote–”Though I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.”
“Your faith has saved you,” Jesus said to the woman. “Your leaning in, your act of courage and trust, has made you whole.” There was no statement of belief here, no naming of Jesus as Lord and Savior, no affirmation of the saving power of his death on the cross. “Your faith has saved you.” “Faith is also the belief that you are worthy of salvation,” New Testament professor Karoline Lewis writes. [workingpreacher.com, 6/5/16] Someone else has described a saint not as one who loves God so much but the one who knows they are so loved by God.
Do you? Do you know that you are completely, unconditionally, before you’ve raised a finger, loved by God? “The one to whom little is forgiven,” Jesus said, “loves little.” Stories of jailhouse conversions, testimonies at 12-step groups, “come to Jesus” moments of great confes-sion or self-recognition are often so powerful because the love these people have experienced is so unexpected and so great. Maybe those of us who’ve managed to get through life on a fairly even keel have never experienced quite the same thing. On the other hand, if we’ve never experienced forgiveness–that feels like genuine forgiveness,– if we’ve never felt completely accepted just for who we are, not for what we’ve done or accomplished, then maybe we’ve also never really been able to love as freely as this woman with the alabaster jar did.
And the fact that this love was expressed so physically, so sensually, also reinforces the fullness of our confession that the Word became flesh. You know, there has been so much uproar, so much controversy, around whether Jesus could have been married, what was his relationship to Mary Magdalen, when, after all, he was divine. He wasn’t “that human,” many protest. “He was so holy, so antiseptic, so immaculate. Heaven forbid, [writes Debie Thomas] that the Son of God might have been so embodied. So (shudder!) sensual.” [journeywithjesus, 6/5/16] This exchange between Jesus and the woman off the street [Thomas writes] “is not a polite piety of the mind; this is physical extravagance. What writer Mary Gordon calls, ‘A Sabbath of the skin.’”
Bodies matter. Love is not disembodied. So food and drink, shelter and healthcare, being able to express love to whomever you love, the soil and water and air around us–all of this matters, all of this is part of the good news, whose core is love. God Almighty chose to slip into human flesh, to experience life on this planet the way we do–in bodies both fragile and resilient, that respond to touch and smell and sounds and tastes and images. We are so loved by God [remember that definition of saints as those who know they are thoroughly loved by God?]; and faith is at least in part, knowing that we are worthy of being loved, being saved, being made whole.
“Your faith has saved you,” Jesus said to the woman. “Your leaning in, your outpouring of love, has made you whole. No matter what you’ve done, you are loved.” “Through the abundance of your steadfast love,” the psalmist sings, “I will enter your house.” How we speak about God matters. The way we live our lives matters. The way we trust that God is able to forgive us and love us no matter what, matters. What matters most of all is love.
Amen, and amen. Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark