The Shame of it
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6 – Year C – June 16, 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? 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. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
It’s what happened in stories like the one we just heard from Luke that gets Jesus into so much trouble. His actions and words are bold and daring and fly in the face of what is socially acceptable, increasing the discomfort level of everyone around him.
The first hint of discomfort comes when we learn Jesus is dining with a Pharisee. That’s a set up for trouble, right there. But even more so when the woman with the alabaster jar enters the picture. “Who does she think she is?” question some. “How dare she be here” whisper others. My favorite comment comes from the one who says: “She is a sinner” as if everyone else in the room is not.
The discomfort increases when Jesus allows the woman to bathe his feet and kiss and anoint them. That’s blatantly intimate and what self-respecting man would allow that to happen in public? Has she no shame? Has he no shame?
Jesus senses the discomfort of the crowd with respect to the woman’s presence and what she is doing and he particularly senses it in Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner in the first place. Simon is thinking to himself that Jesus can’t be the prophet people believe him to be or else he would have known not to pay attention to the woman who crashed his dinner party. Ironically, Jesus, the prophet, not only knows what Simon is thinking but knows full well the sins of the woman.
“Simon”, Jesus says, “think about this for a moment. Suppose a person owes a creditor a significant amount of money. Then let’s say that another person owes that same creditor ten times that amount. When the creditor hears that neither person can pay what is owed to him, he decides to forgive the debts of both persons.”
Then Jesus asks the question: “Now which of them will love the creditor more?” And Simon answers: “The one for whom he forgave the greater debt.”
Surprisingly, because Simon’s answer makes it sound as if love is conditional on the size of the gift, Jesus told Simon that he had judged rightly. Jesus wanted to make Simon feel good about his answer yet at the same time jesus wanted him to connect it to his misguided criticism of the woman’s act of love and gratitude. (New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p 179).
It was a trap and Simon fell for it. He didn’t realize it until Jesus began to compare the actions of the woman to Simon’s actions as host of the dinner party. And Simon came up short as his apparent lack of hospitality when Jesus entered Simon’s home became obvious in the comparison – and in Jesus’ day that could only have brought shame on Simon.
Luke’s story puts the character of the woman who was thought by others to be deeply flawed and perhaps not worthy of forgiveness squarely in opposition to the character of Simon who was thought by others to be a fine, upstanding man, having few sins and hardly in need of much forgiveness.
The woman feels nothing but love for Jesus because she knows in her heart that she has been completely forgiven for whatever grievous sin she committed – and she knows that even before Jesus utters the words: “Your sins are forgiven.” By contrast, since Simon didn’t recognize the need for his sins to be forgiven, no enormous weight was removed from him. Therefore he didn’t feel the gratitude that the woman did.
So, do our sins accumulate until we reach a point where we can’t stand how they make us feel? Is it only then that we recognize our need for forgiveness? What if our sins are just a chronic burden which we simply live with or get used to carrying around? Can’t we almost ignore them especially if we get reinforcement from our peers that we really aren’t bad people? And aren’t we good at rationalizing our sins to make us feel better about ourselves so that we don’t have to feel any shame?
Jesus, by his very presence, reminds us of that part of our nature that we’d rather forget. And that only increases our discomfort level and makes us distance ourselves from him. But his purpose is not just to remind us of our sinful nature but to offer us relief from it.
That’s what the woman with the alabaster jar seemed to know so well. She recognized what she deeply needed instead of succumbing to the social pressures of her day that worked to keep her stuck in shame. Doors constantly closed in her face yet, ironically, she was able to make her way to Simon’s front door. She slipped in quietly and reverently, without calling attention to herself and went straight for her target as a moth drawn to flame. Her gratitude was nothing less than extravagant.
There is an expression that states: “To whom much is given much will be required or expected.” What if the expression instead were: “To whom much is given, much will be forgiven.” The word “much” in the original saying usually refers to worldly possessions. But what if “much” referred to mental anguish such as shame, regret, or unworthiness.
I see Simon, the Pharisee, as having much in terms of worldly goods and little in terms of being aware of his own mental state. He is the one in Jesus’ parable who believes he has only a small debt to be forgiven which is why his gratitude, reflected in his hospitality, is so small.
I see the woman as having little in the way of worldly goods and influence and much in the way of shame and regret. She is the one in Jesus’ parable who has the greater debt and is completely grateful to have it be forgiven. Her response is unconditional love for the one who forgave her sins.
So, where and who are we in the story? I know where I am. I’m the one whispering my judgment with anyone who will hear me about how appalled I am at the woman’s presence and at her overtly intimate actions. I’m also wondering where Jesus’ boundaries are in letting the woman care for him so extravagantly and so publicly.
Yet if I stepped back a moment and viewed the scene as if it had been captured on canvas and hanging on the wall of museum somewhere, I think I would be struck by the beauty of it, the naturalness of it and the pure love that emanates from it. What complicates the scene is not what is actually happening, but that it is happening with such blatant disrespect for social customs and propriety.
Jesus didn’t care about social customs and propriety. He cared about love – unconditional love – and modeling that love in every situation in which he found himself.
He also showed that the gift of forgiveness comes with that love whether we think we deserve it or not or whether we think we need it or not.
For a few weeks, now, we have been hearing about Jesus’ travels and the people he encounters in need of forgiveness and healing: the healing of a powerful Roman soldier’s powerless slave; the healing and raising to life of a powerless, suffering widow’s only son; and today, the forgiveness of a scorned and shamed woman. As one commentary puts it: “Jesus casts an ever-widening net to catch the people of God. And in doing so, he changes the rules of the game” (David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Louisville: WJK Press Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p 143).
And changing the rules of the game is precisely what increased the anxiety level of the people around Jesus and what got him into so much trouble and it continues to happen. We hardly know what to do other than be critical when those rules are broken. We hardly know what to do with extravagant love or the power of forgiveness when it is right in front of us and has Jesus’ name all over it. And that’s perhaps the real shame of this morning’s story.