A Misbehaving Woman Making History

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 21:1-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Once upon a time, I was a huge bumper sticker fan, so much so that my older sister, on one of her visits, looked at all the slogans and pithy sayings on the back of  my car and said, “Wow!  You’ve got a lot to say!”  That’s when I started noticing them more – cars festooned with bumper stickers.  We came to refer to them as “preachy bumpers.”  Turns out, like some kind of cultural short-hand, they give us a glimpse into the psyche of Americans and others in our midst – at least those who drive, in my neighborhood, and those who have a lot to say…

I have even engaged in what is called “bumper-sticker theology” in the past with Canterbury, with great success and will probably do so again in the future.  So when I see an interesting bumper sticker, I make a mental note.  Among those I have seen recently, here are a few favorites:  “I believe in the separation of Church and hate.” “In the time it takes to read this, 35 gallons of oil have leaked into your oceans.” “I’m stupid and I vote.” “I was an honor student.  I don’t know what happened.”  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 least well-behaved characters in all of Scripture, it would be a bit like preaching on the Wicked Witch of the West — kind of an easy target.  Never fear, Jezebel will reappear in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures in coming weeks, so you might just hear about her yet!

My attention then turned to this morning’s gospel lesson and to this woman anointing Jesus’ feet.  Immediately some of you may say, “Wait, Scott!  Didn’t you just preach on this story back in Lent, week 5?”  My how observant of you!  I’m glad you are paying attention!

Actually, the story we hear this morning is a parallel story from the life of Jesus taken, not from John’s gospel as it was during Lent, but from Luke.  A version of this story can be found in all four gospels, which makes me say we need to pay attention.  In Lent we heard John’s account tell how Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and then a debate ensues about how wasteful it was and that the money she spent on the perfume could have been given to the poor.  Her generous and intimate gesture is placed right before the crucifixion in John, and it foreshadows the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial.  But the woman here in Luke is simply described as a “sinner.”   She is not identified as Mary Magdalene or Mary, the sister of Lazarus, but as a woman with a bad reputation, and in Luke this moment happens quite early in Jesus’ ministry.

Some of the details are the same, but the point of the story is a bit different here.  Jesus has been invited to dinner by a Pharisee named Simon, also called “Simon the Leper” in Matthew and Mark.  As a religious leader, Simon would no doubt have been very traditional and conservative, one who observes all the religious rites and protocols, so it is a bit of a mystery why he would invite Jesus to dinner in the first place.  Jesus was not at the top of many guest lists among the religious establishment.  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, it is clear that Simon has not gone out of his way to make Jesus feel welcome in his home, as we will see.  He has not shown the usual respect shown to a guest.

Suddenly during dinner, 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.  She is misbehaving.  Can you hear the gasps?

Now, remember that people reclined on benches or on cushions at dinner then, so when she stands behind Jesus, his feet would have been exposed to her.  But to position oneself at someone’s feet was also to assume a place of humility.  We aren’t told, but it is doubtful whether Jesus was 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 then dries them with her hair.  We might miss some of the significance here.  First of all, feet were the lowest part of the body.  They were filthy!  And 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.  So 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.  Jesus’ feet were dirty.  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 them.  In doing so, she is showing Jesus the honor that Simon, a member of the religious establishment in that town, refused to show him.

The contrast is striking – she washes his feet, but 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 plain 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 even more gasps 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 treated so shamefully 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, the one who was treated with the greatest 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.

But this woman had nothing to lose.  Her reputation preceded her.  Whispers and looks of contempt surely followed her throughout her day in 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 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 found each other, welcomed each other.  I love the detail at the end of the gospel lesson – women were following Jesus.  It is then that we hear the name of Mary Magdalene.  They weren’t all women of bad reputation.  It would appear some of them were women of means.  What they had in common was that Jesus had healed them.  Jesus had treated them with respect in a society that often showed little regard for women.  In return they supported Jesus in his ministry.  But by endorsing his ministry, this ministry to those pushed to the margins, like this woman making an exhibit of herself at Simon’s dinner party, these women were putting their own reputations in jeopardy.

And yet, here we are talking about them this morning.  We name them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and those whose names we don’t know.  Thank God for these misbehaving women!

Add their names to the list of misbehaving, history making women of faith throughout history.  Women like Lucretia Mott, a radical Quaker pastor who was a forerunner of both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements.  Or Rosa Parks who, after being arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, was surrounded by her faith community.  And I would add to the list our own Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who dared to talk back to the Archbishop of Canterbury.  These women were considered upstarts, rebellious, perhaps sinful, perhaps even “demon possessed” to some.

I pray that unlike at Simon’s house, Christ Church will be a place where everyone feels welcomed, and not just welcomed, but honored, despite their reputation or public approval.  May Christ Church be the kind of place where people can experience both forgiveness and respect, and may we have the courage to embrace those who come here, no matter what that might mean to our reputation as a parish.  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.

Helena Hill Weed (above) served a three day sentence in prison for carrying a placard that read, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

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