Not What You Think (Luke 7:36-8:3)
Here is my manuscript for the sermon that I preached on Sunday, March 17 at The Bridge service. As always, this is not exactly what I said. For example, the manuscript ends very differently (and abruptly) from what I said this morning because I didn’t like the original and changed it on the fly.
We’re in the middle of a weird season in Nashville where someone you know, but not everyone is on spring break. It was this past week for some people. It’s next week for others. Some might even have it the week after that. If one of my students from Youth Group were missing in late April and I asked, “Where’s so-and-so?” and someone said, “Oh, they’re on spring break,” I absolutely would believe them.
This past week was spring break for our boys. We took them up to see some of EA’s family in New Jersey and took them into New York City for a couple of days. People ask me if we had a good trip. Yeah, it was pretty good. They got to hang out with their cousins, they saw the Statue of Liberty and a few other sights in the city. It was pretty good. One person asked me if it was a restful trip. No. My kids get tired walking around Kroger when we’re shopping for groceries. Getting them to traverse a city of 8 million people was a pretty big ask. They did great, but I think of “a restful vacation” the same way that I think about flying cars. Like I think it might happen somewhere way off in the future, but I’m growing increasingly skeptical that I’ll ever see it.
People who haven’t been up to New York always ask “Are Northerners nice?” Which is weird, because there is no way that everyone in a densely populated area is going to act the same way. No one asks me “Are Northerners brunettes?” But people always ask if Northerners are uniformly nice. Some of them are. There were many helpful folks as we tried to navigate the city, individuals who commented on the adorableness of our kids as they skipped around the Statue of Liberty, or who gave that reassuring nod when one of them had a meltdown. There were plenty of nice people.
But there was this one guy. EA got sick midway through our trip and so I took her to a Minute Clinic while our kids went to church with her family. Then I let her rest at her aunt and uncle’s house while I rejoined everyone else for lunch at Fuddrucker’s. EA’s uncle Larry was generously paying for everyone, which included his wife, his two daughters, their husbands, six grandkids, Jim, Liam, and myself. Right before I was about to place our order, a cousin realized that one of the grandkids didn’t say if they wanted fries or something like that. They went to go find the grandkid, who had run off to some other part of the restaurant.
So the cashier and I are just standing there staring at each other. I, introverted but raised from childhood to be polite, say, “So how is your day going?” And he stares at me a moment and says, “Don’t try to talk to me. It will just be awkward.” Now it probably would have been awkward, because I am not great at small talk, but, come on, that’s not nice.
I did not say anything to the cashier but “Okay,” yet there must have been some sort of reaction on my face because EA’s family spent the next five minutes apologizing, telling stories of Northerners who were rude to them, and generally talking about how people were different “up there” than they are “down here.” Their loving attempt to spare my poor Southern feelings—which I was fine, we’ve got plenty of rude people in Nashville—was to basically say, “All of what we assume are your Southern assumptions about the North are true.” I was touched they were concerned for my well being, but the assumption route was a weird way to try to assuage my feelings.
We are continuing our series looking at Jesus’ life as told in the Gospel of Luke and today’s scripture passage is about assumptions; both within the story itself and how people have approached the passage for many years. I believe that the difference between what people think is going on and what is actually going on can shed light on our own assumptions and how they shade our relationship with others, God, and ourselves.
A variation of this story appears in all four gospels. The timing, characters, and the details vary, but the main story is the same: a woman crashes a dinner to honor Jesus in some way and someone at the party is scandalized by her act. In this case, Jesus has been invited to dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Prior to this party—earlier in the chapter—Jesus healed a Centurion’s servant and raised a widow’s son from the dead, acts which both echo the greatest hits of two of Israel’s most prominent prophets Elijah and Elisha.
In light of those acts, you would think that this soiree was being held in Jesus’ honor. You would think Simon would roll out the red carpet for this man of God, but you would be wrong. We learn that the pharisee has not been the most hospitable host. In that day and time, a good host would provide water for the guest’s hands and feet, oil to anoint the head, and a kiss of greeting. Simon goes 0 for 3, which seems to indicate the pharisee is intentionally and publicly trying to shame Jesus. He has made assumptions about who Jesus is and considers reports of his miracles to be fake news.
Into this awkward dinner party arrives our other main character. This woman begins to wash the feet of Jesus with tears; the first act of hospitality Simon refused. She anoints his feet with ointment; the second thing Simon didn’t do. And she kisses his feet; the third basic act that Simon denied Jesus, though to be exact, the kiss of greeting was for the cheeks and not the feet. This party crasher has shown Jesus the honor that nobody at the table showed him. But Simon does not feel shame over his negligence. Instead, he scoffs at the scene. “If Jesus really were a prophet,” Simon thinks, “he would know who this woman is and would never allow her to touch him.”
And just what kind of woman is this? Simon has his assumptions and readers for the last near 2000 years have had theirs. Typically, this woman is portrayed to be a prostitute. With the woman’s flowing hair and the affectionate kissing, the author of Luke does try to make the reader a little uncomfortable. It all has a smooth jazz romantic vibe to it. In framing it this way, Luke puts the reader in Simon’s shoes, or rather his washed feet.
We’re supposed to feel like something is off here, but I believe that is to teach us the same lesson that Simon is missing. Luke never says the woman is a prostitute. We say that. The church has said that for about as long as it has been a thing. And to be sure, the story is just as legitimate if the woman was a prostitute. But it’s interesting to think about how our assumptions and biases shade this story. What is happening is not necessarily what you think is happening.
Luke introduces her as “a woman in the city, a sinner.” The scholar Richard Vinson says this is similar to how Simon Peter introduces himself a few chapters earlier in Luke 5:8. “Go away from me Lord, I am a man, a sinner.” To my knowledge, no one has ever proposed that Peter was a male prostitute. We think he was aware that he messed up a lot in his life. But when this woman is introduced as a sinner, people’s minds go to, “Ah, she was a prostitute.”
What else would make her weep at Jesus’ feet like that? Well, many things. She could have lied. She could have stolen something. She could have worshipped at the altar of some Roman god. She could have had a nasty fight with a loved one and that person passed away leaving her with immense guilt. She could have been a drunk. She could have felt the weight of those ordinary, every day failures pile up on her. Or she could have suffered from some illness, malady, or misfortune that led everyone in her community to assume that God was punishing her for being sinful.
The assumptions concerning women go beyond this particular one washing the feet of Jesus. I included the first three verses of Luke 8 because it introduces Mary Magdalene. This is the Mary who proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. She is a vitally important character in the gospels and in the history of the church. Luke tells us that she was a woman from whom seven demons had been cast out.
Now we don’t have time to unpack that. Even if we did, Luke states it in such a casual way that it seems like it happened on Jesus’ typical Tuesday. But what Luke doesn’t say, nor do any of the gospel writers, is that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Yet the church, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Tim Rice have told the story in a way to where we always see that as Mary’s original profession. It could have been, but nothing in the text suggests that.
This may seem like a relatively minor point to harp on, but I think it matters. For one, it’s important that we reckon with the fact that the church has a long history of relegating women to the margins. It traditionally only tells stories about mothers and wives or prostitutes when women were also the ones leading Israel like Deborah, or bankrolling Jesus’ ministry, or showing Jesus the honor when others would not, or being the very first one to proclaim the gospel message of the resurrection. The church has a history in which they tell women what they can and can’t do.
I come from a background where women are not permitted in ministerial positions. Even as I moved in to areas of that tradition where women were permitted to be pastors, I saw classmates, friends, and even my own sister face blowback because of this history. And it is heartbreaking to watch individuals who are talented and feel very clearly called by God told that they are not wanted. We are lucky that we are in a church that allows women to preach and teach, but we should not take that for granted and we should be careful about the stories that we tell, how we tell them, and the assumptions that we make. Just because someone is allowed to do something does not necessarily mean they feel empowered to do it.
Beyond that, I want to point out that our assumptions can hurt us and others. Simon thinks that this woman is an inferior “other.” Now if we take that thought process to its extreme, when someone begins to see a person as an inferior “other” then they are on the path to seeing a people group as “inferior others” and that is how we get racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and tragic events like the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday.
Hatred does not come into the world as fully formed acts of mass violence. It starts small and in the heart. Simon mistakenly thought that he could not possibly be where that woman was. She was a sinner. He was righteous. She was inferior. He was superior. He saw himself as supreme to her. That is how a mindset of supremacy starts. It might be easy for me and you to look at Simon or the perpetrators of such violence and think that we are in no way like them. But that is the exact same mistake that Simon made. We need to check our assumptions and what we think of others.
Yet even if our assumptions don’t explode into violence, they can cause us to completely miss what is going on in front of us. Simon does not know what is going on. He thinks the woman is sinful. Simon thinks that he is not. Because the woman is sinful, Jesus cannot be a prophet because he is giving her the time of day.
Simon has no clue who anyone is in this story—not even himself—because of these assumptions. He is a sinner just like the woman. She is a child of God worthy of grace. And Jesus is greater than a prophet. Simon has had God incarnate sitting at his table this whole time and he was completely blind to it. Even more, he was being a complete jerk to God incarnate because Jesus was not fitting Simon’s assumptions of what a person of God looks like. I almost feel bad for how badly Simon is missing this beautiful thing happening in his home.
Simon does not see what Jesus sees. He does not see the waterfall of tears. He does not see the repentance in the woman’s eyes. Simon thinks that something scandalous is happening at his table. He’s right but it’s not what he thinks. The scandal is grace. Grace, God’s love and forgiveness, is scandalous to the graceless. For people, like Simon, who believe that they have attained righteousness by pulling up their own bootstraps, grace is an outrageous affront.
Grace is the great equalizer that gives all sinner women and sinner men a place at God’s table. It is an equalizer that drives people nuts when they fancy themselves better than prostitutes or people who commit “big sins” or Hispanics or Muslims or Republicans or LGBTQ individuals or Northerners or anyone else. Grace exposes our assumptions. It tears down our personal supremacies. Simon completely misses on the beauty of grace that is taking place in his home. And he is missing out on the possibility that he could experience too because he “others” this woman to the point that he could not see himself in her place.
Simon’s assumptions completely mess up how he sees God, his neighbor, and himself. But I miss the point if I stand in judgment of him. Because sometimes I don’t see God, my neighbor, or myself in the right way either. Part of this season of Lent is for us to reexamine who we are and what we do in this world. It is a time to reflect on the ways in which we have fallen short of what God desires of us and to remember that God’s love and forgiveness for us is greater than all the ways we fall short. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Our life is finite and we should never look at another person and think ourselves superior to them. We all are dust.
When people come down to have the sign of the cross made on their forehead, I don’t know what to say. Because we do need the reminder that we are dust. That we are sinner people like Simon and the woman at Jesus’ feet. But we also need the reminder that we are loved more than we could ever imagine. That we are forgiven greatly and that love is the natural response to that grace. And so I told people, “You are dust and Christ loves you more than you can imagine.” When we follow Jesus we are at the convergence of our finite humanity and the animating great love of God that makes that humanity shine like the sun.