A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6C)
I notice bumper-stickers. I even have one or two on my own car. Once upon a time in my life, however, my car was festooned with them. My sister, on one of her visits, looked at my car and said, “Wow! You’ve got a lot to say!” We came to refer to them as “preachy” bumpers. The members of Canterbury will tell you that I have engaged in what is called “Bumper-sticker theology” in the past, and will probably do so in the future. I find them an interesting, if not amusing way to get a glimpse into what at least a few members of our society are thinking at the moment.
Among those I have seen recently, here are a few favorites: “I believe in the separation of Church and hate.” “Where are we going and why are we in this hand-basket?” “Don’t meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” “Nourish your hopes, not your fears.” “Live your life with meaning – this isn’t a dress rehearsal.” And finally the one which most readily comes to mind this morning: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
As tempting as it would be to preach about Jezebel, one of the most colorful and interesting characters in all of Scripture, it would be a bit like preaching on the Wicked Witch of the West. Never fear, Jezebel will reappear in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures in coming weeks, so you might just hear about her yet.
No, the woman that captures my imagination this morning is this woman in the gospel lesson, often wrongly identified as Mary Magdalene. The text doesn’t state that. All we know is that she is a woman simply described as a “sinner.” This encounter appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels and a slightly different account occurs in John. But I like the version in Luke the best because it captures the outrage and the gasping of the crowd better than the others.
Jesus has been invited to dinner. The other gospel accounts identify the host as Simon the Leper. Here he is just called, “A Pharisee.” The scene has been set . A religious leader, very traditional and conservative, one who observes all the religious rites and protocols, has invited Jesus to dinner. Who knows why he has invited Jesus to dinner. Was he genuinely curious about this itinerant rabbi? Does he find Jesus amusing and wants to show off in front of his friends? Whatever his reasons for inviting Jesus, Simon has not gone out of his way to make Jesus feel welcome in his home.
Suddenly, this woman, this sinful woman bursts in to the place where they are eating and begins to make a scene. This woman has a reputation, but so does Jesus. She has clearly heard of Jesus and is desperate to meet him, desperate enough to make a scene and break all kinds of conventions. Can you hear the gasps?
Now, remember that people reclined on benches or on cushions at dinner, so when she stands behind Jesus his feet would have been exposed to her. But to stand at someone’s feet is also to assume a place of humility. We aren’t told, but it is doubtful whether Jesus is seated in a place of honor, given how badly Simon has treated him already. Jesus has been mistreated, shoved aside as it were. This woman is showing respect to the one person in the room who had been treated with disrespect.
She weeps and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair. We might miss some of the significance here. Remember that washing someone’s feet is a sign of honor typically accorded to a guest by the servants of the host. Remember how shocked Jesus’ disciples are when he, the host, the master, washes their feet in the upper room. This was not something a respectable man would do – it was the work of a slave. Why does this woman wash Jesus’ feet – because Simon hadn’t seen to it. He didn’t even give Jesus water to wash his own feet. This is clearly an insult – not just an oversight.
Why is she weeping? Perhaps because she sees how Simon and the other Pharisees are treating Jesus – not according him any dignity or respect. Jesus has been dishonored, something that perhaps strikes a chord very deeply in her own experience. She washes Jesus’ feet and she anoints him. In the other gospel versions, Jesus points to this as a foreshadowing of his impending death. She is anointing him for burial.
Regardless, she is showing Jesus the honors that Simon, a member of the religious establishment in that town, refused to show him. She washes his feet. Simon refused. Simon did not greet Jesus with the customary kiss, but she is kissing Jesus’ feet over and over – his feet! This is not just an act of great humility but an intimate one as well. Simon did not give Jesus the customary anointing with olive oil on the head but she uses expensive ointment, again, on his feet.
The fact that she uses her hair to dry his feet must have caused gasping in the crowd as well – respectable women simply didn’t do such things – a well-behaved woman would never have let her hair down in public. She is showing respect in a very intimate, extravagant manner, to this dinner guest so badly treated by the host. She is placing herself in the role of a servant to a disrespected man. She is washing the feet of the one person in the room that deserves it the most but was treated with contempt.
It is only in Luke’s account that we hear this parable of the creditor and the two debtors. It is one of the shortest parables Jesus ever told and perhaps the easiest to understand. But did Simon understand, truly understand it? His smug self-righteous place of authority meant he did not need to extend grace to anyone – not to this woman, not even to Jesus. This woman had nothing to lose. Her reputation preceded her. Whispers and looks of contempt surely followed her throughout the town.
Yet her faith told her that Jesus would not treat her as the others had. His reputation had preceded him. No doubt he had been greeted by looks and whispers himself. This man eats with sinners. This man consorts with prostitutes and tax-collectors. Today they might say, “I saw him talking to a lesbian couple.” Or, “Isn’t that the guy who helped those illegal immigrants?”
The woman doesn’t ask Simon’s permission. She just acts. What does she have to lose? She probably expected to be thrown out at any second. Jesus says her faith has saved her, this faith with a lot of courage behind it. She won’t be denied a chance to honor Jesus, even when the rest of the town seems bent on shaming him.
Neither Jesus nor this woman were welcome in Simon’s home. Yet they welcomed each other. I love the detail at the end of the gospel lesson – women were following Jesus. And they weren’t all women of bad reputation. Some of them were women of means. They supported Jesus in his ministry. But by endorsing what he was doing, they were putting their own reputations in jeopardy. Thank God for misbehaving women.
This morning, Chloe will be baptized. Now, I won’t ask her parents if she is well-behaved. But we here at Christ Church welcome her to become part of our parish family regardless of how well-behaved or ornery she may be. The family of God is very much like a human family – with good babies and little old ladies, with black sheep and eccentric uncles, with rebellious teenagers and faithful, long-suffering parents. It is to this family that we welcome Chloe – a family with tensions sometimes, but hope always, with plenty of love and hugs to go around.
I pray that unlike Simon’s house, Christ Church will be a place where everyone feels welcomed, and not just welcomed, but honored. May we all be on the lookout for those who need to be given that extra measure of grace, that extra ounce of patience and forgiveness. In the end, may Jesus’ words not be just to that sinful, misbehaving woman, but to all of us – Your faith has saved you, go in peace. Amen.