September 8, 2019
We continue with our sermon series “Jesus is the Question.” A recap: an under-emphasized fact of how Jesus is portrayed in the gospels is that in them he asked a lot of questions and, in fact, asked more questions than the answers he gave.
Does anyone remember the numbers from last week? What’s the break-down? 304 questions, 8 answers.
Martin Copenhaver, whose book, Jesus is the Question, was the inspiration for this series, calls Jesus the “Great Questioner” and points out that, like any good rabbi in that day and time, the art of questioning was important mode of teaching. So many of them were probing and seem to elude easy answers. Last week’s question that Jesus posed to his disciples at the beginning of their journey together, “What are you looking for?” takes a lifetime to answer, for many of us. However, not all of those questions were deep, however; some had simple, straightforward answers. Others were rhetorical. The one we’ll dig into today might be a combination of all of them. Let’s listen to Luke’s gospel…
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”
“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
“Do you see this woman?”
Jesus’ question to his now-embarrassed host runs deeper than, “Will you look at her?” It reveals a tear in the fabric of human community.
“We Oughta Be Ashamed” is lesser-known song by Johnny Cash, featuring Elvis Costello. It was on the box set album that was released near the time the movie about him, Walk the Line, hit the theaters 15 or so years ago. The lyrics to the refrain go like this (I’ll read it, there’s no way I’m going to sing it to you):
So we oughta be ashamed
We oughta be ashamed
We use and abuse such a wonderful name
Look at the beauty that’s all around us
From California to Maine
Then we think how we mistreat it
Oh, we oughta be ashamed
In the first verse of the song he mentions flowers, birds, and babies. Cash’s point, I think, is that we don’t really pay attention to the inherent beauty around us in the “small things.” We miss it.
The the second verse:
Watch the people pass the beggar
On the street as he cries
“Pencils for a nickel” [Costello chimes in]
Still they pass him by
See the rich man with all his money
Ah, but still he complains
Smell the flowing of all the whiskey
Lord, we oughta be ashamed
Cash’s message: not only do we miss the beauty in the natural world surrounding us, we ignore the splendor of our Creator in the people around us, especially in the nameless, faceless people in the streets. Perhaps that’s because, for some of us, despite our wealth we numb ourselves to that beauty.
Similarly to Cash’s song, in this story we have two people: a rich person and an ostensibly poor person; a man and a woman; someone with status, someone on the margins of society; a Pharisee, a religious leader, and a sinner, an outcast. His name is Simon. We don’t know her name. Luke only calls her “a woman from the city.”
She performs this dramatic, lavish, and scandalous gesture. Picture it, this “woman from the city” who catches wind that the Teacher has been invited to Simon’s house for a dinner party. This isn’t just any dinner, but a symposium of sorts, a custom in the Greco-Roman world where an important person invited other important people to their household for a formal dinner to discuss weighty matters of philosophical or political import. She hears about this, walks across town hauling a jar of ointment, somehow gets access to Simon’s courtyard, and is crouching down behind Jesus’ heels, drenching his feet with costly perfume and her own mournful tears.
It’s a prophetic act of what is to come; one angle on the story is that by her anointing she prepares Jesus for his inevitable death. And one reason it’s an interesting story is that it’s mentioned in all four gospels, although they differ on the details. A key detail to note in Luke’s version is that Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” And Jesus then tells the parable about debtors. Simon says to himself. Only in Luke’s version is Jesus party to Simon’s unspoken thoughts.
Internal monologue, while a common literary device these days, was rare then. In a commentary on this passage Michal Dinkler points out that:
Internal monologue has a significant function for an audience, as well. Giving voice to a character’s thoughts can uniquely engage readers’ or hearers’ emotions by inviting them to imagine their own personal reactions to similar situations. Luke invites us to ask, “What would I do in this situation?” “What would I say in my own heart?”
It’s almost as Jesus says to Simon, “I see you too.”
Jesus interrogates us as well, “Do you see this woman?” “Do you see this person?”
How many people go unseen in our lives?
There are those who are strangers to us, people who, like in the Johnny Cash song, we pass by. That’s one reason why the Sanctuary Arts Team installation for this season is so jarring: it takes these abstract, big-picture situations like border issues or immigration, and puts faces to them. Some of these faces we’ve met through our shelter ministry for people seeking asylum, “Hotel San Marcos.” Other faces come to us through the news. Even for those of us near the border, those of us steeped in the issues, we can easily forget that there are lives and stories and personalities behind these faces.
Simon’s error wasn’t only in the presumption that he was also himself a “debtor,” it was also in seeing this woman as the label that was affixed to her and assuming that Jesus would do the same. It was socially acceptable to ignore her, to make the choice not to see her.
“Do you see this woman?” we can imagine Jesus saying, “No, you don’t. You don’t see her.”
To whom are we blind? The person who stands on the median near the intersections in Tucson asking for money. The person who waits on us in restaurants or cleans our hotel rooms. There are plenty of examples like those in our day-to-day.
And this isn’t an exercise in moralizing, “Just stop and help people,” but I am struck by the move Jesus makes here. Simon has already assessed, judged, and written off this person as something less than a full, complex, unique human being—a sinner—and Jesus knows this. So in full view of his host and the guests at the party, Jesus forgives her, wiping away her “sinner” status.
We fail to see strangers, reducing them to only victims of injustice or misfortune. Most often we don’t do it consciously, of course, or out loud. Like Simon we say these things to ourselves. And it’s not only strangers, people on the news or on the street; sometimes even people who we’ve known a lifetime, we don’t really know. Siblings, coworkers, spouses, friends. We don’t really see. It’s so easy to, in our own internal monologues, box people in to being one thing or another, one way or another.
Bill Bullard, a high school educator in San Francisco, once said:
“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.”
“Do you see this person?” God does. That’s the good news. Jesus revealed something very true about who God is when he looked at people and truly saw them—saw who they were under their affliction, saw past what they were labeled (leper, prostitute, solider, tax collector) or saw what people tried to hide, or what the powerful were trying to protect. It’s true that God sees every part of a person—not just the parts, but the whole, and loves them anyway.
God sees us, too. God looks upon us and within us with a lavish, even scandalous amount of love and pours that love into us. And it will overflow to others… if we slow down. If we pay attention. If we see them.