Sermons That Work

Today’s Story from Luke…, Proper 6 (C) – 2010

June 13, 2010

Today’s story from Luke could easily be a contemporary one-act play – a single scene where characters, conflict, and social norms clash together to reveal an unexpected and utterly transformative truth. The set: a well-decorated dining room, simple but expensive looking. The characters: Simon the Pharisee, a curious intellectual with an eye for the interesting; Jesus of Nazareth, the guest of honor and eventual game changer; and the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, a character with no name who is the source of the scene’s most uncomfortable moments.

Like any good drama, this story begins with the mundane. A Pharisee asks Jesus over for dinner, Jesus accepts, and the two sit down for a meal. So often in the gospels the Pharisees are cast as the villains. Unable to accept Jesus’ teaching, confused by his deliberate opposition to certain devout customs, this group of religious leaders is often understood as an organized faction out to get Jesus. But here, we see a different side of the Pharisees. Simon is obviously open minded enough to invite the renegade rabbi over to his house for dinner. As we find out later, he is not quite excited enough about the event to make a big show of it – to ask a servant to wash Jesus’ feet, for example – but he is willing to hear what the increasingly popular teacher has to say. There is no evidence to indicate that the dinner invitation is a plot or a trick. It’s simply a dinner, and Simon has at least an intellectual interest in this man named Jesus.

Enter the Woman with the Alabaster Jar. Luke does not give her a name, nor does he give her any lines. We know very little about her aside from the fierce gossip spoken behind her back – “Sinner!” – yet she provides the action that drives the rest of the story. We don’t know how she entered the house, how many people she defiantly walked past before finding Jesus as the table. She stands behind him, then crouches on the ground. She begins to cry, allowing her tears to collect at his feet, bathing them, washing away the day’s dust. Without a towel or even a scarf – maybe she didn’t think this through – she unties her hair and dries his feet, wet with her own tears. Finally, she takes expensive oil and anoints him again and again, kissing him as she does it.

Imagine the room. Imagine Simon, whose carefully casual dinner just became shockingly uncomfortable. Simon’s reaction – or the emotional response that we might picture him having – is not difficult to understand. If he is shocked, there is a good chance that we are too. Even contemporary readers thousands of years removed from the first telling of this story, readers thoroughly on board with Jesus and his message, may find this part of the scene more than a little awkward. A woman overcome with emotion for reasons that we do not know, her tears washing a man’s feet, her hair drying them, her kisses, the oil … it all seems a little voyeuristic on our end, as if we are spying on an a moment so raw, so vulnerable, that it was never meant to be seen at all.

Only Jesus remains unflappable. Only he – the God in him, the man in him – is able to understand this woman’s extravagant gesture, her otherwise inappropriate actions, as a full-body attempt at reconciliation, a plea for forgiveness. If she is a sinner like the rest of us, only Jesus knows her sin.

If this story was a one-act play, it might be titled “Forgiveness.” Here, we get a sense of God’s love, of God’s composed and collected way of accepting our broken pleas, our vulnerable moments, and refusing to turn away from them. While we may find it difficult to forgive, we see that forgiveness is natural to God. While we may find ourselves cringing away from the brokenness of others, we see that God never blinks. For Simon, and maybe for us, this introduction to a God so full of love and so ready to reconcile with us can be almost too much to bear.

In today’s reading from Galatians, we find Paul taking a stab at using theological language to describe the type of forgiveness that Jesus displays at Simon’s house. While the Woman with the Alabaster Jar ignites the right side of our brains, Paul goes to work on the left. “We know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” he writes. “But if in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!”

“Justified,” “faith,” “works,” “law,” “sin”: Paul throws around heavy religious words that can be hard get a handle on. The underlying theme of this and many of Paul’s points is that through the person of Jesus – his whole life, his death, his resurrection and ascension – we, as individuals and as a gathered community, find unity with God. It is through faith in Jesus that all of our sins are forgiven. Even that sin, whether it be one or many, that we cannot even name, that causes us to weep as we crouch at Christ’s feet.

Back in Simon’s dining room, Jesus is about to show his true colors, revealing that he doesn’t care too much for fancy dinner parties or the invitations of respected hosts. While Jesus may have been a bit of a curiosity to Simon, the Pharisee’s status was of little interest to his guest. When Simon questions Jesus’ status as a prophet, claiming that if he really was what he said he was, he would know that this woman with her tears and her kisses was a sinner, Jesus calmly responds. I imagine him meeting Simon’s gaze across the table, setting down his glass, staring for a while. In case we were wondering who is in charge here, we are about to find out. “Simon, I have something to say to you,” Jesus begins, and then he tells a story.

The parable is a simple one. A creditor has two debtors, one who owes a lot of money and one who owes less. Neither of them could pay, so the creditor cancels both debts. In the end, the one with the greater debt loved the creditor more, Jesus and Simon agree. “The one to whom little is forgiven loves little,” Jesus says. Then he turns to the woman and tells her that she is forgiven. Her sins, known to him alone, have been wiped away like the dust on his feet, and she is free to go and live a new life in the assurance of God’s grace.

This final exchange is the resolution of the one-act play and it is the perfect image to go along with Paul’s words about sin and justification. The audience knows that something important has happened, for the Woman with the Alabaster Jar, for us. Like any good play, when the lights go down, the attention shifts from the stage to the silent working of the audience’s hearts and minds, where the lessons learned struggle to take root and grow.

Like Simon, we all might have an intellectual interest in Jesus, an interest that extends about as far as a carefully casual dinner party with Christ as the guest of honor. But we have our “alabaster jar” side, too – that part of us that yearns for reconciliation and forgiveness, that wells up with emotion when we think of the pain and the wrong that we cannot name. Here we learn that Jesus knows us better than anyone else, that he accepts our offerings no matter how awkward, how ugly, and forgives.

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Christopher Sikkema


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