A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
by Louise Browner Blanchard
This was definitely a dinner party that people were talking about the next day. It takes place somewhere in Galilee, still relatively early in Jesus’s ministry, but far enough along that he is attracting large crowds and lots of attention. The host is Simon, a prominent leader in the community. His invitation to Jesus probably seems a bit daring. Simon is a Pharisee, committed to upholding the Law, and Jesus is becoming notorious for challenging it, proclaiming love for enemies and forgiveness for all, and healing outsiders like the centurion’s servant and the poor widow’s son. Those gathered that night are undoubtedly curious to see him close up and to hear what he has to say.
It appears that Simon’s invitation isn’t quite wholeheartedly welcoming and hospitable. He doesn’t greet Jesus with a kiss or offer water to clean his dusty feet. One wonders whether he singles out Jesus, or if all of his guests are treated with similar reserve. In any event, they all soon observe a different approach.
A woman shows up. We know nothing about her except that she is “a sinner” and carries an alabaster jar of ointment, which is quite an extravagance. Somehow she knows that Jesus is at Simon’s house, and she soon makes it clear that she is there to visit him. Without saying a word, presumably as everyone is gathered around and in the midst of all of them, she begins weeping. She uses her tears to wash Jesus’s feet and her hair to dry them. She continuously kisses his feet and rubs them with ointment from the expensive alabaster jar. Apparently, no one says a word.
If you don’t think this is a wild story, take just a second and imagine it in today’s context. An admired and respected leader invites a controversial preacher and teacher to dinner. A woman who is a sinner and not invited shows up with a fancy jar of ointment. Other than weeping, she makes no sound. She uses her own tears and hair to wipe Jesus‘s feet, which means that her face is basically on the floor. And then she kisses those feet over and over as she rubs them with ointment from that costly jar. Intentionally, methodically. In front of everyone.
And she’s the one who gets it right.
Simon the Pharisee certainly has no sympathy for her. She’s a “sinner,” and although we’re never told what it was that she did, even Jesus acknowledged that “her sins were many.” The funny thing is that it’s that—that she was a sinner—that seems to spark Simon’s outrage, not that she shows up at his house uninvited. Not her extravagant behavior—the ointment, the tears, the hair. Simon has contempt for her because she’s a sinner, and he has contempt for Jesus because he accepts the quite intimate attention of a sinner.
But, of course, like each of us, Simon, is a sinner, too. None of us escapes that designation; it’s simply a matter of frequency and degree, whose worse, and by how much…well, at least in our minds. Jesus gently makes a slightly different point in his parable about the two debtors who are forgiven. We aren’t told what their debts were for. And, as far as the creditor is concerned, they’re forgiven regardless of the reasons that they were incurred. In other words, the creditor forgives them both equally, but the gift is not equally received: perhaps because the debtor who owes more has a more acute sense of the perils he escaped, he loves the creditor more. But it’s not vice versa. The creditor doesn’t “love” either debtor more than the other. Remember, the creditor canceled the debts of both.
In other words, whoever we are and whatever our sins, they’re forgiven, regardless of frequency and degree. Simon, the woman who was a sinner, me, you—each of us is forgiven and loved. Extravagantly and unconditionally. Through God’s grace, as St. Paul reminds the Galatians again this week. Grace, which as Bob quoted last week from the back of the Prayer Book, is “God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved.”
Our salvation, however, depends on our willingness to accept such unearned and undeserved favor. Ironically, many of us are in a difficult position to do so. If we have a house and a job, decent health, plenty of food and enough money, it’s often hard for us to believe that, ultimately, we depend on God to sustain us. As we get more successful or lucky, as our hard work or years of education pay off, as we attain the markers of achievement that are all around us, it’s often easy to tell ourselves that those are the things that really matter, that our achievement of them is our own doing, or maybe even God’s reward. That those who don’t have what we do don’t deserve to. It gets harder to accept frailties in others…and ourselves. Surely the reason that Simon had such stature in the community is that he had so few frailties. He played by the rules that everyone understood.
But the rules are not the point, as far as Jesus is concerned. Remember, it’s the woman in today’s gospel who gets it right. Our salvation does not depend on what we do, but on our comprehension of who we are–human beings who by our very nature are imperfect; created, forgiven, and loved extravagantly by God. It is the humility of that realization that frees us to live the life that Jesus holds out for us. Pride and principles are not prerequisites. As author Brene Brown puts it in slightly different words, vulnerability, courage, and empathy are. The vulnerability to accept that we have all missed the mark, the courage to acknowledge that we are loved and forgiven in spite of it, and the empathy to act accordingly toward others. Or, as Jesus put it, “Do not judged, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
That is the realization that brings us true abundance and sustained joy. At the end of today’s gospel, Luke reminds us that good fortune is not necessarily a barrier to enjoying the fruits of God’s kingdom. There are those who travel with Jesus who use their resources in furtherance of his Word. Maybe that, with a helping of compassion, is all that is asked of us, and more than we can say grace over.
And don’t forget, it the woman in today’s gospel who gets it right.