Do you see this woman?
Sermon preached at Enmore, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 12th June 2016
Readings: 1 Kings 21.1–10, 15–21; Luke 7. 36–8.3
Each of the Gospels has an account of Jesus being anointed by a woman. While there are features common to them all, there are also things that are distinctive to each account so it is important that we read each one in its own light. This is especially true of this morning’s Gospel from Luke.
In Luke’s narrative Jesus is invited to eat at the home of a Pharisee. That was unusual in itself- only people of equal status were generally invited to your house for a meal. Meals were part of the reciprocal relationships of the community: you invited those who could invite you to their home in return. To invite those of lower status was considered demeaning. As an itinerant teacher and healer, coming from a humble family, Jesus was low on the social ladder. However, the large crowds following him and his miraculous works had given him some prominence so this curious Pharisee decided he would take the risk in extending a dinner invitation to Jesus. Not all the Pharisees were implacably opposed to Jesus- some had a more open mind and were willing to pay some attention to him. Significantly though, on this occasion, Jesus was not accorded the privileges normally given to guests. There were two main stages to a formal meal. The first was conducted near the entrance to the house and involved a slave removing the guest’s sandals and washing their dusty feet. Another slave would anoint their heads with oil and a third would serve appetizers before the meal was served. The guests then moved to the dining room where they reclined on couches placed on three sides of the room. The places were carefully arranged for the most honourable to the least honourable. At this dinner party it appears, Jesus was given the lowest place closest to the door.
Simon was probably hoping for a very comfortable meal with his friends where they could interrogate Jesus further about what he believed and taught. Feasts were never held in secret- this was a very open society where everyone knew everyone else’s business. A person’s importance was determined not just by their own abilities, but their status within a family, a tribe and a village in an area. Often a host would publish his guest list in a public place, so that people would know who was in and who was out. The ‘A’ list is an ancient not a modern idea.
The entrance of the woman changed the dynamics of the dinner party immediately. It was not difficult to gain access to a house in those days- doors were rarely locked and a wealthy host would have been happy for passers by to be able to look in and see how lavishly he was entertaining his guests. But for a woman to intrude into the dining space and to interrupt a meal was way beyond acceptable bounds. Furthermore she was a sinner known in the city, possibly, but not necessarily, a prostitute. Standing behind the couch where Jesus was reclining she reached over and began to wash his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. The First Century Mediterranean world was preoccupied with bodily secretions of all kinds including tears. Inside the body they were in their proper place, once outside they were improper and had to be controlled with various rituals so as to preserve the good order of society. The woman’s tears falling on Jesus would have made him ritually unclean so that anything he touched, such as a bowl of food would also be made unclean. Women never had their hair out in public- it was a mark of a loose woman, to display her hair. This woman not only wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair but she then kisses his feet and anoints them with a precious ointment. Even by the very different standards of our own day- kissing the feet of someone at a dinner party would be regarded as pretty unusual behaviour. Everything she was doing was scandalous and the other guests would have been rigid with anger at this intrusion. Simon’s response is to focus more on Jesus than on the woman. He immediately thinks that if Jesus were a genuine prophet he would know what sort of person he was dealing with and would then reprimand her and demand she leave the building. Simon is not sure whose behaviour is the more shocking, the uninvited woman or the guest who seems to almost relish her attention.
Then the dinner party changes again: Jesus takes control by telling Simon the story about the two debtors- one who owes about $5000 (in our currency) and one who owes $50,000- both are forgiven so the question is posed, “Who will love the generous creditor more?” Fearing a trap, Simon answers rather tentatively, ‘The one who had the greater debt cancelled.’ Jesus replies, ‘You have judged rightly’ but then he turns to the woman and says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Of course he sees her –his attention has been drawn to her from the moment she walked into his house, he has watched every disgraceful act she has performed. But the question was of course much deeper than that. How do we see our world, do we see it through the prejudices and mind sets of our own culture or do we have a wider vision. Do we see people and situations as God sees them or are we blinkered by the labels our own society likes to put on people. To Simon the woman meant trouble-she was a sinner, an imposter, she was out of place in his home and an affront to every righteous person there. Slowly and painfully Jesus helps Simon see things in a new light. He, Simon has been a poor host, failing to perform the usual courtesies shown to a guest. The woman on the other hand has treated Jesus with exquisite care and attention, doing all the things Simon failed to do.
Jesus explains that the woman’s actions are a response of love because her sins have been forgiven and she has been given a new start. Some commentators argue that Jesus must have had a prior encounter with the woman where he had declared that her sins were forgiven. But perhaps it was in the very act of showing her love and devotion to Jesus that she came to understand her sins were forgiven. Lest there be any doubt about this Jesus declares publicly to the woman in the hearing of the startled guests that “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus’ words of forgiveness were as offensive to the other guests as anything the woman had done. Only God could forgive sins so what right did this itinerant preacher have to pronounce forgiveness? Forgiveness is a powerful thing and the other guests were right in taking the statement very seriously. Forgiveness is not something given lightly or wantonly. When we say to someone “I forgive you” it must be said from the heart. If forgiveness is genuine it is life changing. When we know that God has forgiven us, it changes us and gives us a whole new perspective on life. It puts the past behind us and allows us to start afresh. It means we no longer have to carry the baggage from the past. The old hurts, resentments, guilt and regrets can be put away. When we forgive someone genuinely from the heart then the relationship can be restored, given a new beginning.
Jesus final words to the woman are, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” Salvation for this woman meant she was forgiven the past and given the possibility of a new life. That would not have been easy- many would still judge her and reject her. It is probably not too fanciful to surmise that she joined the group of women that Luke describes at the beginning of chapter 8: the women who followed Jesus with the twelve disciples and ‘who provided for them out of their resources.’ This would have been a very risky thing for these women to do. In the eyes of their community it would have brought great shame on them- traveling around with a group of men was unheard of and would have been regarded with deep suspicion- why were they not at home looking after their own menfolk. Luke gives the name of just three of the women- in that society women were never named in their own right but only as the wife or daughter of someone. When a woman was named without reference to a male sponsor it usually meant that she was a woman of shame. In calling both women and men to follow him Jesus ignored the social conventions of his own culture and gave to women an equality that the church today still struggles to recognize.
In a world where women make up 70% of the world’s poor, where nearly one thousand women die in childbirth every day, and where every year about 2 million girls are sold into sex slavery, the question posed by Jesus, “Do you see this woman?” still awaits an answer.