Today we have two fabulous stories, the first about Ahab and Elijah from the Book of Kings, and the other a story from Luke’s gospel about the woman who bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair.
While it’s tempting to preach on Ahab and Elijah, I hope you can see this is but the latest in a series of confrontations in ancient Israel regarding the spiritual authority of the prophet vs. the king. In the prophet’s response to the injustice and blatant abuse of power exercised by the king that leads to the murder of Naboth, the moral authority of the prophet Elijah far surpasses that of King Ahab and his wife. This puts one more nail in the coffin that will end monarchical authority, and paves the way to the great age of the classical prophets of Israel as God’s best representatives on earth. The names of kings like Ahab may go down in history, but in scripture they will never again carry the same honor and moral stature that we associate with the names of God’s prophets. The prophet eclipses the king in moral authority as God’s servant leader.
Is there anything greater than the prophet as moral rigorist, who rails against both false religion and unjust society? Is there any successor more worthy than the prophet?
Yes! A more worthy successor arises in Jesus, who is
the new development which the New Testament is all about. Jesus does not abandon the prophet’s role of critiquing religion and society or speaking truth to power, yet he brings love and compassion and forgiveness to the forefront and center of everything. This is attested by the people themselves in today’s gospel from Luke, not only by the Pharisee who (like many) cries out for justice when he really needs mercy, but by the woman who speaks for grateful hearts in every age when she lavishly anoints Jesus for his compassion and forgiveness towards her. She is the deeply indebted one who really captures all our attention today. Who could ever recover from the image – both tender and scandalous — of her bathing the feet of Jesus with her tears and drying them with her hair, then anointing his feet with oil! This is not our response to a prophet, but to a savior, whose sandals the prophet is not worthy to untie.
I don’t think we realize, from this distance of time, what prominent roles and radical stories Luke’s gospel portrays of the women who gathered around Jesus. It is Luke we owe for the unique portrayals of the cousins Elizabeth and Mary (the mother of Jesus), as well as the prophetess Anna, and Jesus’ close friendship with the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany (who also anointed Jesus before his crucifixion), and of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. To help finance a rabbi’s ministry was one thing, but that women of great means and no means – both married and unmarried — would travel together with him and other men was unheard of and best online casino scandalous.
But it is also Luke who gives us such intimate and unforgettable stories as the woman at the well, and today’s story about the unnamed woman who dares to come into the Pharisee’s home to anoint Jesus, a story so vivid and graphic that it continues to make everyone squirm in their seats.
From every fascinating angle, her story is one of my favorites. Not because I associate her with Mary of Magdala as some legends have, or picture her a prostitute as some music, art and drama has. There is no convincing evidence for either of these suggestions. She carries the heavy burden of her sins, but not all sins are sexual sins.
Instead what I find endlessly fascinating is the character of the woman, who in responding to the gift of forgiveness for her sins (which she evidently experienced from Jesus before arriving at the Pharisee’s home), now pours out such a torrent of affection and gratitude upon Jesus. This is definitely not a story about the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial as we hear elsewhere, where the issue is the waste of expensive oil. This is a story of real love and real liberation from the burdens of the past, thanks to Jesus!
Yet Simon the Pharisee, as host to the invited guests, finds the woman’s uninvited presence and behavior unseemly, and cannot understand why Jesus, who should know this woman “from the city” and her reputation, doesn’t judge her harshly as he thinks a good prophet should. But Jesus is more than a rabbi, and more than a prophet. He has something more in mind than Simon can fathom.
Scholar Bruce Malina says that the Pharisees in this story represent Jewish Christians in the community to whom Luke was originally writing his gospel. There was tension because they still held to a rigorous set of criteria about membership and table fellowship at meals in Christian community, about what was “clean and unclean,” and whether you can offer hospitality to an outsider who’s impure without altering the social fabric. They were inclined to limit universal forgiveness, and had a narrow view about who belongs in God’s holy community. They didn’t easily comprehend that God’s kingdom comes when Jesus extends not judgment but mercy to half-Jews like the Samaritans, and to women known to be sinners and outsiders.
In response to this view from Simon, Jesus tells a parable about two debtors with debts that neither could repay, though one was many times larger than the other. The creditor forgave both of the debts and debtors. The ledger of those with greater sins and of lesser sins were both wiped clean.
The parable, which Simon understands in part, demonstrates why the person with the greater cancelled debt would express such lavish gratitude in response. When the parable is applied to the woman who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with oil, the story itself shines as one that proclaims God’s love and liberation for all sinners.
Yet the parable is also sober in its assessment of self-righteousness. Jesus reminds Simon that while his debts and sins are also forgiven, he has shown no honor or tribute to Jesus that would begin to match the gratitude of this woman. Jesus received from Simon no kiss upon arriving, no water for his feet, no anointing of his head with oil, whereas she responded lavishly.
Like Simon and the unnamed woman, none of us can pay our debts either, yet we’ve all had the burden of our sins removed, our sentence commuted. AA folks get it. Folks who have bottomed out get it. Folks acquainted with the pit and dark night of the soul get it. You and I, flat on our face at times in our lives, have gotten it. But we too often forget it. We forget how much we are loved, forgiven, released from sin and debt, liberated, and sent out to love and serve in response!
Our Sunday liturgy is all about remembering this! Our hunger for God’s presence, love and compassion while carrying our heavy loads in life is nowhere experienced with greater depth and intimacy than during Communion each week. The keen awareness of this again last Sunday reduced me to tears during the 8:45 service. God’s compassion for us, and ours for one another, is made so very real amidst the one body and bread ofChrist that we all break and share alike. In Communion we know we are delivered from the burden of sins, delivered from judgment, delivered from isolation, delivered from the need to prove ourselves worthy before God. In communion we all stand shoulder to shoulder in the wide embrace of God’s love and affection for each of us, and we respond with grateful hearts and lips that sing God’s praises.
I’m reminded today how hard Jesus worked to get this Good News to fellow Jews like Simon. He went out of his way to reach the unnamed woman, and was the only One who welcomed her to Simon’s house and table.
Jesus worked hard to communicate God’s welcome to outcasts, God’s love for sinners, God’s desire for women as disciples, and God’s acceptance of all who yearn for a place at the Table. Jesus has worked hard to reach us, too. Let’s remember this with a real sense of joy and gratitude today. For anyone who takes a good look in the mirror, it’s all pretty amazing if you ask me. AMEN