The Capacity to Love

June 12, 2016

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost – Proper 6
1 Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Gospel Text:

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.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. y. (Luke 7:36 – 8:3)

 

Before I begin, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to reflect on the gospel lesson you just heard. Think to yourself and answer this question:

When you think about the woman in the story, what word comes to mind?  

Okay, we’ll come back to that in a little bit.

If you were here last week, you heard me talk about the summer journey we’ll be taking through Luke’s gospel. We were reminded that this gospel account was written to an early faith community. so, its purpose wasn’t to convert new believers. Instead, the author is retelling the story of Jesus’ life and ministry to convey a particular message of salvation.

  • hungry-filledA salvation open to all people, not just to those of the Hebrew tradition, and not just to men. We see time and time again in Luke’s telling that women are central figures in the narrative.
  • A salvation where the lowly are raised up, the oppressed are freed, the sick and dying are healed, and the poor are given good things.
  • A salvation that up-ends the status quo of Jesus’ time. Where the powerful are challenged to be servants, and those previously ostracized are restored to community.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at today’s story and see what it might teach us that would activate this kind of salvation in our Christian journey.

We heard the story of the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman. We see a version of this story in all four gospels, but in the other three, the story is told near the end of Jesus’ ministry. It’s conveyed as an anointing of Jesus’ head and feet to enact a burial ritual, anticipating his coming crucifixion. Clearly that’s not the case in Luke’s gospel where the story is told during the early stages of Jesus’ ministry.

Simon, the Pharisee, has invited Jesus to his house for dinner. He, like others, has heard of the amazing healings Jesus is doing, so perhaps Simon is hoping to entertain this new prophet to gain an inside track. Unfortunately for Simon, in Luke’s gospel, in order for the lowly to be raised up, the powerful must be brought down. In some ways this story provides an example of that – but let’s not jump ahead.

Having heard that Jesus was having dinner at the Pharisee’s house, we are told that an unnamed woman with an alabaster jar of ointment decides to stop in. It says:

Woman1111111She stood behind (Jesus) 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, I don’t know about you, but if a complete stranger came into a dinner party weeping and then knelt down and began bathing the guest’s feet with her tears and ointment, it would be a little strange. Certainly in that time, the mere presence of a woman in the room with the men would be taboo, and this takes it to a whole other level!

Yet, interestingly, that isn’t the part that Simon has the issue with. It says:

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.

Simon is concerned that this guy he’s invited to his house – this guy who he wants to get-in good with – may not be a prophet at all. But, he didn’t say it out loud, yet Jesus knew what he was thinking… a prophetic act, for sure!

And instead of just letting Simon off the hook and letting it slide, it says: Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

ParableSlides-Then Jesus provides a parable as a way to invite Simon into a new way of seeing things. He uses the example of a creditor who forgives two debtors, one with a large debt and the other with a small debt. Then he asks Simon:

 

Now which of them will love [the creditor who forgave their debt] more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

So, so far things are going okay for Simon. But, don’t get too comfortable. The upending of the status quo is just around the next turn. Jesus says,

“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.

This woman has provided the kind of hospitality that Simon should have given. Luke’s gospel is sending a message that those who are in authority, those with power, are to be servants to others.

Then it goes on to say:

Therefore, I tell you, (this woman’s) sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

heartmeterThe woman has received a generous gift from God, forgiveness of her sins. She has been restored to community. And, in response to that generous gift, she, too, provides generous hospitality to others.

Simon, on the other hand, sees himself as a righteous man. He’s a Pharisee after all. A strict follower of the Hebrew tradition. But the story suggests that if he hasn’t felt the depth of forgiveness from God, then he has less capacity to share love as fully with others.

As I reflected on this part of the lesson earlier this week, I realized that this doesn’t just apply to God’s gift of forgiveness, but our forgiveness of one another. It certainly happened in my own life. Many years ago I betrayed someone close to me and hurt them deeply. I was later forgiven by this person, and it was the greatest gift in my life. I could have lost that person and their trust forever, yet their forgiveness of me restored our relationship with one another.

147ad-forgive_by_onlycuriousWhat’s more, it caused me to understand the power of forgiveness more fully. I came to realize that the forgiveness we give to others is a generous gift. It has the power to restore relationship and to restore community. Receiving that forgiveness from God and from others increases our capacity to love; to open boundaries and invite others in. It equips us to be servants to one another and to strangers.

Now, let’s go back to the question I asked a few minutes ago.

When you thought about the woman in this story, what word came to mind?

For many, the initial label of sinner continues to be the word that comes to mind.[i] When you think about it, it’s not too surprising why that might be. Even our own Christian tradition is guilty of reminding us endlessly that we are sinners and unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness, though God gives it anyway. We come into church and make our confession, yet even after the Absolution, we still hold onto that label of being a sinner. When we do this, we reject God’s generous gift of love. And, in rejecting it, we limit our capacity to love others.

While Luke’s telling of this story does provide the initial label of sinner to this woman, that label is only the means to an end. Just as the sick are labeled by their infirmity in other stories, it’s only to provide a context for the healing that will follow. So, too for this woman. So, if we leave the story still seeing her as a sinner, we’ve missed the point. In this story, she’s so much more…

She’s the woman who showed great love.

She’s the one who revealed Jesus’ authority to forgive sins.

She’s a woman of great faith.

And, in the end, she’s a fully restored member of the community.[ii]

And, with all the attention we’ve given to this woman, both today and throughout time, the story actually isn’t about her. As with all stories in the gospels, they were written to tell us something about Jesus.

So, what do we learn about Jesus in this story?

  • That he accepts all people, even if his religious tradition would call it taboo.
  • He’s willing to have tough conversations with those who judge or belittle other people.
  • He’s compassionate.
  • He forgives generously.
  • He lifts up those who have been marginalized and restores them to community.
  • He wishes for us to be whole.
  • And, in the end, he bids us to go in peace to love others and to serve God.

That’s what the forgiven woman did.

And, it’s what Jesus did himself. It says: “Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Following his example, this is the apostolic work we are called to do. So, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

526157_4031326874293_552023310_n

 

 

[i] English, Jennifer A. 2012. “Which woman?: Reimagining the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7:36-50.” Currents In Theology And Mission 39, no. 6: 435-441. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2016), 438.

[ii] Ibid. 438.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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