Last week we talked about the spiral of faith. We talked about how as Jesus healed, and brought new life to the widow’s son, her faith and the faith of everyone in the crowd was deepened. As the crowd witnessed Jesus’ healing work, then came to know the Messiah more deeply and the Word spread throughout all Judea. Last week, we talked about prayer’s for healing—in our prayers we are actively engaged in this spiral of faith. We believe that Jesus offers new life, and we pray for healing and our faith is deepened.
We have rich stories and parables this week. In these stories, we see the actions of faithful people and again, the healing power of Jesus. What I’d like to highlight today is that on this faith journey, it is always a combination of actions and beliefs. We don’t come to know Jesus once and then it’s done. We come to know God over time, by what we do, how we live and how our understandings deepen and change.
There are simple things we can say about Jesus as children—we know Jesus loves us, we know that we are forgiven, we know that God heals. But over the course of our lives, we have to constantly act as faithful people and live into our relationship with God and one another.
So with that theme in mind, let’s look at our passages for today. We’ll begin with the Gospel reading. Here we have the story of the woman who is a sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet with tears and oil. This is an important story—it is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels in different ways. Here, the gospeler Luke is telling the story in the context of a dinner party at Simon the Pharisee’s house. This story doesn’t seem to be about burial anointing (like in Mark and John), it isn’t about what is most valuable (like when Judas or the disciples complains about the value of nard in the Matthew version). In this version of the story, Luke seems focused on a theme of radical inclusion, forgiveness and healing. And this makes sense, because Bible scholars tell us that it is likely that Luke is writing after Matthew and Mark, using their texts and a lost text referred to as “Q” when he writes the Gospel. Luke’s purpose in writing, is the building up of the community of faith among the Gentiles. He is both looking historically at Jesus’ ministry and he is focused on bringing the message to new people. Among the “new hearers” that Luke is concerned with, are women—who have a special and more significant role in Luke’s gospel than in the others in our canon.
So Luke tells the story with the purpose of building up the faith among the Gentiles. Let’s look at the details to see how this version might speak to our work of “building up faith.” Who are the characters in this story--they are Simon, the Pharisee; the other dinner guests; Jesus and the unnamed woman who is a public sinner. We can guess that Simon, the Pharisee is a Gentile, but he is one who knows Jesus—because he invited Jesus to his home and Jesus accepted. So he is likely one who “believes”, but he thinks to himself, “She is a sinner.” He is judgmental about both the woman, and about Jesus—because he thinks that if Jesus were truly a prophet, he would not have allowed her to touch him. We might imagine Simon, the host—shocked by the uninvited guest. Imagine how you might feel, if you prepared a dinner for a special friend, and a woman who was known around town as prostitute invited herself and began to touch your guest of honor.
Then there is the woman. She’s not invited, but she comes because she has heard about Jesus and she knows he’s going to be there for dinner. She comes because she recognizes him as the Messiah. She cries at his feet, she anoints them with oil, she uses her hair to wipe his feet. This is an outrageous display. A nice woman wouldn’t have her hair exposed in public. She wouldn’t have invited herself to someone else’s party, she wouldn’t be touching the honored guest. And certainly she wouldn’t have been doing something this sensual, this intimate—the wiping of feet with her hair.
We can look at these two characters—Simon and the woman as characters in a play. Simon represents the good one—who holds himself out as righteous in public. But secretly he has doubts about Jesus and he is judgmental about the woman. Then we have the woman who is publicly “the sinner”. Maybe she’s a prostitute or in some other way sexually immoral. Or maybe she has some other sin. But she is a true believer and she knows that Jesus is the one to be followed, to be honored, revered. She focuses all of her attention on him—in spite of the social conventions.
What we learn in this story is about Jesus’ role, Jesus’ true nature and about the journey of faith. Jesus steps in between the two characters—Simon and the woman and he tells the parable of the two debtors and creditor. Jesus shows Simon that he has read his mind. He knows that Simon is judging the woman harshly and he points out that the one who is forgiven a large will be more thankful than the one who is forgiven a small debt. He uses the parable to teach Simon. Simon should not have been judgmental, but he should have been a supportive witness to Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman. He should have honored Jesus just like the woman did. And Jesus responds to the woman, and instead of condemning her for her outrageous crying and anointing, he responds by pointing to her faith. He tells her that she is forgiven and that her faith has saved her and she is to go in peace.
For us this story is about God’s radical inclusion. Forgiveness is for all of God’s people. Forgiveness, and the peace that comes with God’s forgiveness is available to the other—the non-Christian, the ones who don’t follow the same religious rules, the ones who are publicly unacceptable. And Jesus calls to account, the ones who hold themselves out as “better than the rest” doing what’s “right” in public, but secretly being judgmental or secretly doubting God.
Can we think about people we know who do everything “right” in public, but are less than faithful in their private doings? If we think about our Hebrew Bible text, we have a similar theme. King David, who is favored by God, and given an empire. Publicly, he’s the one who is following God’s law. But secretly, he has sinned in a terrible way—he has killed Uriah and taken Uriah’s wife, Bethsheba. God deals harshly with him, but also forgives him. The parable is about the rich and powerful man who refuses to give up his own sheep, but instead takes the sheep of the poor man.
We hear about people in our public life. People who have power and prestige. People who are publicly “good”==giving to charity, making a show of doing good works. But secretly, they are judgmental, or unforgiving. Secretly, they may be immoral, or abusive themselves. We know of business people who are held up as pillars of society, but treat their workers badly or cheat on their husbands.
Our Scriptures today show us that God is seeking out the faithful among us. Jesus recognizes the one who publicly has no status—a woman, a sinner. Jesus recognizes her faith and grants her peace.
It is likely that most of us don’t really identify with either King David or with the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. We aren’t always powerful. And we aren’t calling out armies to kill someone so we can take their spouse. We are likely more like Simon—trying to be good believers, but secretly having doubts. Maybe not doing publicly hurtful things to other people, but we continue to harbor our judgments.
In these passages today, we see God’s posture towards us. Jesus is showing us that to be a follower means to witness and practice God’s forgiveness. There is always an opportunity for sinners to turn around. When we are judgmental, we can catch ourselves and instead of saying secretly—she has no right to be here, we might welcome her and offer her a place at the dinner. When we do what is wrong, we have an opportunity to seek forgiveness.
Like the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, we have an opportunity to bring ourselves to God, praise God, show our love by doing the outrageous thing because it is the right thing to do.
In these complex stories, we see Simon, the woman, King David, Uriah, Bethsheba—forgiveness is available to all of them, as forgiveness is available for all of us. But the stories show us God’s expectations—we must bring ourselves fully to God, not just publicly following the rules. We must secretly, in our most private selves seek forgiveness, recognize God’s way, and strive to live according to God’s way.
This is the spiral of faith. We are not perfectly good. We make mistakes, like the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, like Simon, like King David. We are believers, sometimes like the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, sometimes more like Simon or David. But the process of bringing ourselves to Jesus’ feet, of seeking forgiveness is how we come to peace and healing. The process of recognizing that divine forgiveness, and welcoming the sinner is a process of coming to know God more deeply.
I want to conclude with the note that Jesus doesn’t tell Simon that he should “forgive her”. That’s not Simon’s role in this story. Simon isn’t called to forgive her, Simon is called to witness God’s forgiveness. Simon is called to welcome her and accept her as a person in spite of her low status. There are some sins that are unforgivable in human terms. But nothing is unforgivable by God. We can love the sinner and hate the sin. We can reject what the sinner has done, but still know that that person can be forgiven and loved by God.
We are invited today to engage in these complex stories and come to a deeper knowledge of God’s forgiveness for us and for all people.