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Do you see this woman? What do we see when we look at this unnamed woman in our story this morning? How we see her will determine how we see Jesus. How we see her will determine whether we are seeing with our own eyes or with the eyes of our hearts enlightened by the grace of God and the mercy of God. “Do you see this woman?” asks Jesus. What do we see?
This is a story about repentance. This is the definition of repentance that we looked at on the 1st Sunday of Lent – “Repentance is the fruit of a heart yielded to God. Not just regret because of sin’s consequences. Not merely remorse, the emotional sorrow of getting caught in sin. Repentance is an ongoing, conscious decision to turn away from sin and pursue God’s plans. Therefore, repentance, like fruit, can be seen.” The fruit that we can see in this story is love. It’s a story about a response on this unnamed woman’s part that is born out of love. It’s a story that answers the question, “What is the good and right and fitting and proper response to Jesus as the agent of God’s love and mercy?” It is also a story about mercy, about forgiveness.
I want to propose a way of seeing this story and a way of seeing this woman this morning. It goes against the title for the story that we often see. One writer calls it “Jesus Anointed By A Sinful Woman.” The NRSV Bible entitles it to “A Sinful Woman Forgiven.” “The Pardon of a Sinful Woman,” says the NAB. “A Sinful Woman Forgiven,” says the Harper Collins Study Bible. La Nueva Bible Latinoamericana calls the story “La mujer pecadora de Magdala” – confusing matters entirely. You sense a theme going on here. Ironically these titles are putting the focus in much the same place that Simon puts the focus – on this woman’s sinfulness. I’m not saying that sin is not a part of this story. Sin is a part of all our stories. We looked last week at sin, a power from which we need to be freed. How do we see what we call sin or wrongdoing, or doing wrong, or putting something else in the place of God as the object of our worship and service (very often, this object is ourself)? We need to take this question seriously. Too often in our world, doing wrong is seen as a result simply of a mistake or bad choice or all the stress I am under or lack of self-care on my part. How do we view going wrong? Sin is involved in this story as it’s involved in all our stories. Is it the main part? Do we see this woman?
Here's how I propose we consider our story this morning. It has to do with the good and fitting response to the mercy and acceptance of Jesus. May it be our response too. It might even lead us to get down at his feet and weep for love and joy in response to the forgiveness of God. Or maybe we’re too proud for that. Maybe we’ve become complacent in the face of God’s mercy. We’ve become too used to it to the point where we pretty much ignore it entirely.
I propose we title this story as someone has titled it. “The Woman Who Loved Much.” Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at her story.
Last week we heard Jesus’ mission statement. His inaugural address. His description of what he would be doing. Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim in his words and in his actions the year of the Lord’s favour. The time of unmerited mercy and forgiveness that we call grace. Jesus continues his work in Galilee. Teaching. Healing. Calling. Preaching. We see positive and negative responses. Simon Peter tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus doesn’t go anywhere. Jesus tells him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people. Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and another set of brothers (James and John) follow him. We see responses of faith and trust. A man covered in leprosy tells Jesus, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Boundaries are crossed. In chapter 7, the servant of a Roman centurion is healed, and Jesus wonders at the centurion’s faith. Life is springing from death. People are responding positively, negatively, and questioningly. From prison, cousin John sends two of his followers to Jesus to ask this question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words – what should our response to you be? Which brings us to our story, in which there are two responses to Jesus. Two responses to forgiveness. I don’t want us to be too too hard on Simon the Pharisee. Don’t let us respond to him by saying, “Thank God I’m not like that self-righteous Pharisee.” We don’t know how it turned out for him. The story is open-ended. He was interested in Jesus, and this is a start. We can presume the same can be said for anyone hearing this story today. “One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went to the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.” The importance of extending and accepting invitations. Jesus was open to the encounter too. The second of 7 banquets with Jesus in Luke. Meeting Jesus at a table. Truths about Jesus being revealed at a table. Jesus takes his place at the table. It wasn’t the sort of table and chairs situation that we’re used to. Guests around the table would recline, propping themselves up on one elbow with their legs extended out behind them. The woman wasn’t crawling around under the table (in the same way I used to do as a child after asking to be excused from dinner and being hemmed in). It’s not a question of trespassing in the story. Our notion of public and private space was not so much the thing in first-century Galilee. Space was much more open, and people were much more free about entering houses.
The third person in our story is then introduced. A woman in the city. Who was a sinner. I want us to note the past tense there. Simon wanted to hang the label of “sinner” on this woman. This woman had been forgiven by Jesus. This woman knew forgiveness. Her sins were many. So were mine. So were yours. We don’t know what her sins were. There is much speculation. Someone has pointed out that there is not that much speculation about Simon Peter’s sins when he says, “Get away from Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Many commentators and interpreters go straight to labelling her a prostitute, which maybe says more about us than about her. Contact with Gentiles would have rendered someone sinful and unclean and excluded in this setting. She could have been involved with dyeing textiles. She could have been a midwife.
None of this is the point, though. She had been categorized/labelled. This categorization meant she was out of bounds when it came to polite society. She had been in the grip of something from which she was unable to extricate herself. Then she met had met Jesus. Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven. She had heard and accepted the call to turn, to follow. What we might imagine is a neon sign above her head with an arrow pointing toward her, and the sign simply says “Forgiven.”
It does us well to sit with ideas like this one – there is forgiveness here. There is mercy here in the kingdom of God. We were talking about Jesus’ words of good news from the Nazareth synagogue in one of our small groups this week. Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. The year of the Lord’s favour/grace/mercy/forgiveness. May we not become used to God forgiving or complacent about it or take it for granted or as a matter of course. We asked ourselves the question, “What have Jesus’ words of good news meant in your life?” From what have you been freed? From what have you been released? I’ve been released from addiction, from self-destructive self-interested behaviour, from the desire for payback, and from wallowing in the holding of a grudge. None of that came from me. I can tell you because I know myself. Any label that I or others wanted to put on me has been replaced by one that says “Forgiven.” I pray you can say the same. If you can’t know that Jesus’ accepting hand is held out. Do you see this woman? She had taken Jesus’ hand, and her response was one of love and devotion. She goes into the house with a jar of ointment. When she gets to Jesus, she stands behind him, and she is overcome. She begins to weep to the point where Jesus’ feet are wet with her tears. She begins to bathe them and dry them with her hair and kiss them and anoint them with the ointment.
Do you see this woman? She loves much. May God give us each the same kind of wonder and adoration in the light of God’s mercy. No matter what she had done, the only thing this woman needed to come to Jesus was an awareness of her need for him. No matter what we have done, the only qualification we need to come to Jesus is an awareness of our need for him. Nothing we have done; no label that we have carried; no category into which we have been placed; is too much for the mercy of God.
Don’t let any religious leader tell you otherwise. The religious leader in the story (the one who’s not Jesus) does not acquit himself very well. At times we don’t acquit ourselves very well. At times great damage has been done. Let’s not stand in judgement on Simon, though, as we don’t know how his story ended. We read earlier in this chapter that the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to be baptized by John, and in so doing, they rejected God’s purpose for themselves. We have heard something about God’s purposes from Mary back in chapter 1. Scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Lifting up the lowly. Here we see both of these things happening. “If this man were a prophet,” thinks Simon, “he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” If we see ourselves as the source of our goodness, it tends to make us look down on others that we see as less good. Is this not why, in a culture which prides itself on being accepting and non-judgemental, we just love shaming people online. Let me record this bad behaviour and put it in a reel, it will go viral. The internet will be divided. We love this stuff. What kind of person does that? They refused to switch seats on a plane!? Let me record this…
Don’t you know what kind of woman this is? Self-righteousness is not just for Pharisees or religious leaders or religious people. Someone has said this about the woman and Simon – “Her past sins… are barriers to (her) inclusion in the community. Yet Jesus is not bound by the world’s standards. He operates according to the inverted ethos of God’s kingdom, where the poor, the outcast, and the lowly are embraced by God’s mercy. Their faith, born out of desperation, exhibits an insight absent from those well-ensconced in the religious establishment of the day. In the end, self-righteousness may turn out to be the most impenetrable barrier between a person and God’s salvation.”
All is not lost, however. Jesus is there, after all. All is not lost! “Simon,” says Jesus, “I have something to say to you… A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty (500 days wages, 50 days wages). When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” The answer comes back, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.”
The forgiveness of Jesus is in the house (literally). What is our response? Ignore or adore. Do we see this woman? She loves much because she has been forgiven much. There’s been no “Well, I really don’t feel I’ve ever done anything I need to ask forgiveness for” from the woman who loved much. She loves much because she has been forgiven much, and we see true faith in action.
“Your faith has saved you, go in peace,” are Jesus’ final words to the woman. One of the places we are called to go and be is a community of faith made up of forgiven and forgiving sinners/saints. Those imaginary neon signs say “Forgiven.” “Forgiven so that I can forgive” is the line we sang earlier. Once again, this good news is not simply all about us, nor is it to stop with us. “Forgive us, Lord,” Jesus taught us to pray, “As we forgive others.” Our invitation is to live in the forgiveness of God, and I invite you to pray this prayer with me now:
“Lord Jesus, I love and trust and adore you. You walked among us, died and were raised that all might know mercy and peace. We thank you that in your kingdom, there is forgiveness. Cleanse me from doing wrong or failing to do right. Help me to know my need for you. Help me to know peace and be someone who forgives as I have been forgiven. In Jesus’ precious name, we pray all of these things.