St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Do You See This Woman?

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.