I notice bumper-stickers. If you glance at my car this morning, you won’t see any, except a Rutgers 250 one. Once upon a time in my life, however, my car was festooned with them! My sister once looked at the menagerie of opinions on what she called my “preachy bumper” and quipped, “My! You sure have got a lot to say!” At some point, I stopped the practice, choosing not to raise the blood pressure of other drivers or some of my students and parishioners for that matter.
But I still notice them. And they are everywhere, especially during election season. Among the more memorable ones I’ve seen are: “I believe in the separation of Church and hate!” “Nourish your hopes, not your fears.” “Don’t meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” And finally one which most readily comes to mind this morning: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
A woman in our readings this morning captures my imagination. No, not Jezebel, but this woman in the gospel lesson. She is often identified as Mary Magdalene, but the text, at least in Luke, simply doesn’t state that. All we know is that she is a woman 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 this version in Luke best because it captures the outrage and the gasping of the crowd better than the others.
A religious leader, very traditional and conservative, one who observes all the religious rites and protocols, has invited Jesus to dinner. The other gospel accounts identify the host as Simon, but here in Luke he is just called, “A Pharisee.” Who knows why he has invited Jesus to dinner? Was he genuinely curious about this itinerant rabbi? Does he find Jesus amusing and hopes for something entertaining to happen in front of his invited guests? Is he considering becoming a follower? Whatever his reasons for inviting Jesus, this host has not gone out of his way to make Jesus feel welcome in his home.
Dinner commences. Suddenly, a woman bursts-in to the place where they are eating and begins to make a scene. Now, this woman has a reputation, she is called “a sinner,” but Jesus’ reputation has preceded him to the dinner as well. 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 at this time, people did not eat sitting upright in chairs as we do. They reclined on benches or on cushions on the floor at dinner. So when the text says she stands behind Jesus, his feet would naturally have been sticking out behind him, exposed to her. Without permission, despite the scorn and ridicule that would surely come her way, this woman with a reputation behaves badly.
She begins to weep, always awkward at a dinner party. And then she anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. We might miss some of the significance here. I don’t know if you have the tradition of foot washing at St. Mark’s on Maundy Thursday, but 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, their master, washes their feet? This was not something a respectable man or woman would do – this was work for a slave.
Why does this woman wash Jesus’ feet – because his feet are dirty. The host hadn’t seen to it. We are told he didn’t even give Jesus water to wash his own feet. This is clearly an insult, not just an oversight. This is an insult that everyone at the dinner could see. And now this sinful woman is doing the job instead. She is showing respect to the one person in the room who had so clearly been treated with disrespect.
Why is she weeping? Perhaps because she sees how the host and the other Pharisees are treating Jesus – not granting him even the smallest amount dignity or respect. Jesus has been dishonored; something that strikes a chord very deeply in her own experience, no doubt. She’s been dishonored too.
She shows Jesus the honors that the host, a member of the local religious establishment, refused to show him. He did not greet Jesus with the customary kiss of greeting, but she is kissing Jesus’ feet over and over – his feet! The host did not give Jesus the customary anointing with olive oil on his head, but she, this misbehaving woman, 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 Jesus respect quite publicly in a very intimate, extravagant manner.
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 the host 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 was at the bottom of the social ladder. Her reputations preceded her into that room. She had nothing to lose.
Her faith told her that Jesus would not treat her as the others had. Clearly, his reputation had preceded him. No doubt he had been greeted by looks and whispers himself. This “rabbi” eats with sinners. This man consorts with prostitutes and tax-collectors. Today they might say, “I saw him eating with a lesbian couple.” Or, “Isn’t she the priest who helped those illegal immigrants?”
The woman doesn’t ask permission. She just acts. She probably expected to be thrown out at any second.
The dinner guests are shocked, “Doesn’t he know what kind of woman this is?” But Jesus responds by assuring her that her faith has saved her. Her faith! This brings to mind other misbehaving women we hear of in the gospels – the woman with the flow of blood, the woman at the well. The faith of these women had a lot of courage behind them. This woman won’t be denied the chance to honor Jesus, even when the rest of the town seems bent on shaming him as they have shamed her.
Neither Jesus nor this woman were welcome in this Pharisee’s home. Yet they welcomed each other.
I love the detail at the end of the gospel lesson – women were following Jesus. We hear their names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna. They weren’t all women of bad reputation, indeed some of them were women of means. But by supported Jesus in his ministry, by endorsing what he was doing, this questionable, trouble-making rabbi, they were putting their own reputations in jeopardy.
How often has our mission as the church required us to step out of our comfort zones and maybe take on a bad reputation? Every generation of the Episcopal Church has faced the choice – to “behave” or to stand up for justice and peace, despite the reaction of the community.
I found some time ago a newspaper clipping detailing a scandal in the church. A new prayer book had come out, and some of the language had been changed. It was news in 1928, that the Episcopal marriage service no longer required the bride to say she would obey her husband in the vows. It was scandalous! By the 1950’s the question was could divorced people remarry. In the 1960’s racial integration divided many congregations, especially in the South. Then the question of women’s ordination rocked the church.
Of late, we are facing struggles over immigrant and economic justice. In recent years we have also seen the church struggle with the full acceptance of the LGBTQ community. If you come into the Canterbury House at Rutgers this Fall, you will see a poster that reads, “Worship where you are celebrated, not just tolerated.”
Church, if we aren’t wrestling against some injustice, I don’t think we are doing our job, to work for justice, freedom, and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. This woman, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, should call us to look for those who may not feel fully welcome, despite our best efforts and handshakes. Be on the lookout. Who needs an extra word of grace, a special intervention? May our churches grow with those who need God’s grace and our help.
And let us always thank God for misbehaving women. Amen.