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. Luke 7:36-38
#1 Son graduated from high school this week, and as so often happens on family occasions, we sat at lunch afterward sharing family stories. You probably find in your family, as we certainly do, that each person’s memory is a little bit different, and often that someone else’s telling of the story will bring the listeners to some other conclusion than your own might have. Life is full of experiences that are mixed; you’ve probably had a day or a vacation or an evening that could be told as either a bad story or a happy one. I know I have. And sometimes we turn a story around a bit to have it suit the message we wish to communicate.
A favorite story about #1 Son took place on a trip to the Norlands Living History Museum in Livermore Falls. He was 2 years old and a fairly verbal little fellow. I remember that day so clearly, even down to what he was wearing: a bright yellow OshKosh shirt with red and blue details and a little pair of blue shorts to match. I remember how beautiful the sunshine was and the feel of the lanolin on the wool I bought to make a sweater so itchy that he never would wear it! And I remember my dear mother-in-law taking charge for a little while so that his father and I could have some time to wander off alone. When we met up again, #1 Son looked woeful. When I asked what was wrong, he held out his finger and answered, “I put my finger in the chicken’s cage, and the chicken did peck me.” Now that could be a story about the dangers of chickens, or the poor supervision of a grandmother, or, as in our case, a delightful memory of a toddler’s funny way of saying things.
Our gospel story from Luke today is a wonderful example of taking a story that has already been told and re-working it to make a particular point. Each of the gospels contains a story about a woman coming to a dinner table and anointing Jesus. Mark’s is the earliest version of the story, and Matthew uses his bare-bones account as a model for a more embroidered version. During a dinner at the home of Simon the leper, in Bethany, a woman comes in and anoints Jesus and is criticized for wasting expensive perfume rather than selling it to feed the poor. In Mark’s gospel, the critique comes from unnamed dinner guests. Matthew lays it at the feet of the disciples. In John’s gospel, the dinner takes place at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and it is Mary who anoints Jesus and Judas who criticizes her, giving John a chance to describe Judas as a thief who really wants the money for himself and doesn’t care about the poor. Unlike the unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew, who anoint Jesus’ head, Mary sits humbly at his feet and anoints them instead. In each of these stories, the anointing takes place just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and so it makes sense when Jesus describes the anointing woman as preparing him for his burial, which we know is coming soon.
Luke takes the simple idea of a woman anointing Jesus and goes somewhere else with it. In his gospel, the story comes early in Jesus’ ministry, and it is used to illustrate a very important point—that Jesus has come to bring forgiveness to everyone, and that all we need to do to be forgiven is to yearn for it.
The dinner takes place at the home of Simon the Pharisee, quite a change in location from the home of a leper. The Pharisees in the other gospels are Jesus’ adversaries, but in Luke’s version of events, they are not quite so bad. They are pious, upright folks, as is this Simon. He has invited the traveling rabbi to dinner not to trick him, as the Pharisees try to do with their questions in the other gospels, but out of genuine interest. He wants to see for himself if this guy from Nazareth is really a prophet. And from Simon’s point of view, the question is answered as soon as the woman comes through the door. A prophet, he says to himself, would know what kind of person this is. A prophet, by which Simon means a truly holy person, would never let such an unclean woman touch him or come into the room where he is eating.
Simon lives by the rulebook of the Pharisees—in other words, he is an upright guy. He eats only what he is supposed to eat, washes his hands in the ritual fashion, adheres not only to the Ten Commandments but to all the Jewish laws handed down from generation to generation. He knows his place and who not to touch in order to keep that place. It’s important to remember that Simon is not a bad guy, that I’m not, and Jesus is not, suggesting that he is the sinner here, or that he is a worse sinner than the woman who enters his house at dinner that night, although that is one way you might try to interpret the story. Jesus is making a different point when he poses the question about forgiving debt. In verse 47 he explains to Simon, “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.”
We know the woman has a lot to be forgiven because she has been described as “a woman of the city,” in other words, a prostitute. She doesn’t come to anoint Jesus for burial, but comes because she yearns for something she has heard she might find from this man: healing. And the healing she seeks if for her soul. It is the healing of forgiveness. Now she doesn’t come in and say, “I’ve been working as a prostitute to support myself.” And Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, fine, I understand you have had hard choices to make. Please undertake a ritual cleansing, stop what you are doing and come back to see me when you have been clean for three weeks, or three months or three years.” No. She comes into his presence and simply because she is not rejected she knows that she is accepted. She sits on the floor and weeps for joy as she washes his feet with perfume. Although she is not of Simon’s household, she performs the acts of hospitality any guest would have expected.
When Jesus says her sins are forgiven, he is not forgiving them but putting words on what has already happened. In other words, he doesn’t forgive her because she has anointed his feet with perfume and bathed him with her tears. It is her faith in him that has brought about the forgiveness, her stepping toward him, her act of coming to the table despite her identity as sinner and outcast. It doesn’t matter what we have done wrong; Jesus is waiting at the table for us.
So what keeps us from being there? It is only our own reluctance. Sin is a state of mind as well as a category of action. It is not only our behaviors but our thoughts and our feelings, if their result is to raise a barrier between ourselves and God. And all we have to do to be forgiven is to come to the table, to come to Jesus. We are all flawed, all sinful; sinfulness makes us feel separate from God. We might even say that it is the division that is the sin! When we choose the table, when we choose to be with Jesus, then we are opening ourselves to forgiveness. And if we must take the scorecard approach, then at least we can admit that no matter how many sins we may have toted up, feeling forgiven for everything opens us up to joyfulness and adoration. Feeling God’s forgiveness opens all the doors and windows that have been closed when our souls are alienated from God by our own sinfulness.
Luke was Greek and he uses the philosophical model to make his point. Jesus is the teacher telling a story and asking a question to impart a lesson to his student, in this case Simon. The dinner and anointing story lays out a pattern to help us understand Jesus’ ministry and his intentions for our response to it. Jesus is here for us; we must come to him; in coming to him we are forgiven and reconciled to God; our joy at reconciliation shows itself in worship; and the natural conclusion of our worship is that we serve others, living a changed life. Notice that Jesus isn’t looking for life change first. Our yearning to be forgiven leads to our love for Jesus who forgives and finally changes the way we live our lives.
This story in Luke has been used to describe a theology of hospitality. So what does this theology of hospitality ask of us? I think it is only as limited as our own imaginations. As the Vision Commission examines life in this church and shares its hopes for the future, we are looking for ways both to reach out and to gather in—to be more accessible, to be more hospitable. We meet again tonight to begin drafting suggestions and recommendations for our life together as a faith community. I believe that every one of us is called to play some role in this church’s ministry. No one is too old or too new or too busy or too shy to be a part of it, because there are so many parts to play. And there are people in our community who are yearning to be part of a caring community, a place where they will be welcomed and missed and cared for, a place where they will find relationship with Christ and with other faithful people. Our size allows us to know one another, to notice the newcomer, to reach out to the visitor, to serve Christ together.
The 16th century Spanish nun, Teresa of Avila, wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.” She gives us a challenge. And I have one for you. This month at the Soup Kitchen, like so many other months, the representation from our church was very small. And while I can tell you that we are not the only church whose volunteer base has been shrinking, I don’t want to use that as an excuse. We need, as a church, to extend Christ’s hospitality beyond our own walls, to serve in our own community in a regular and meaningful way, not just with our financial support but with our own hands. Christ has no hands but ours now. How will we use them? Whether it is to serve at the soup kitchen, or to shelve groceries at the food pantry, or to knit prayer shawls for people in the hospital, or to serve in some way we haven’t yet imagined, we need as a community of faith to commit ourselves collectively to service for others. We’ve sung some beautiful, emotional music this morning, pouring out our hearts in song as Luke’s anointing woman did with tears and ointment. As we sing our last hymn, we will be reminded that our action is a response to grace, not a means of earning it. Christ has brought us to God, and we have worshiped him with joy, and we must go out and serve, be his hands, his feet, his face of compassion. Christ has no hands but ours. Amen.