This is Luke’s telling of the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with oil.
This is a story that appears in all four gospels but in very different ways.
In Luke’s version, early on in Jesus’ ministry, a nameless, sinful woman invites herself into Simon the Pharisees house, where Jesus is sitting at a table enjoying a meal.
She then proceeds to bathe Jesus’ feet in ointment and dry them with her hair.
Simon’ reaction is to pass judgment upon Jesus, saying if he were a true prophet he would know this woman’s reputation and not let her come anywhere near him.
In comparison, in Mark and in Matthew’s gospel the encounter with the woman takes place in Bethany two days before the Last Supper at the home of a different Simon, Simon the Leper.
Here the unnamed woman pours nard, a burial ointment, over the head of Jesus, anticipating his death. In this version, it is the disciples who are angry because this woman has wasted the expensive perfume. We are told nothing of her character but Jesus praises her and reminds us that what she has done will be remembered.
Finally, in John’s gospel the encounter takes place six days before Jesus death, also in Bethany, but this time in the home of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus brought back to life. Here we’re told it is Lazarus’ sister, Mary, who anoints the feet of Jesus with the expensive nard and wipes his feet with her hair, while Judas – showing his true character - is the one who takes offense at her waste.
For all four Gospel writers, this is a story about faith, about hospitality, about extravagant love given freely –
But for Luke it also a story about forgiveness.
He alone describes the woman as being sinful.
He alone has Jesus tell the woman that her faith has saved her.
And in the middle of his story he has Jesus tell a parable about forgiveness and gratitude.
The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, NH, UCC
June 12, 2016 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 32; Luke 7:36-8:3
“That Sinful Woman”
There’s an old story that many of you may have heard before about a minister who stood up in the pulpit and said to his congregation:
"Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying, and to help you prepare for and understand the sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17."
The following Sunday, the minister stood up to deliver his sermon, but first he asked for a show of hands.
He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17.
Every hand went up.
The minister smiled and said,
"That’s odd, because Mark has only 16 chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying."
This is as much a statement about Biblical literacy as it is about our failure to recognize that we all are predisposed to sin.
Now, if you just cringed when I said that last part, don’t worry.
Many of us have a visceral reaction when we hear the word “sin.”
It’s not a word that sits well with us, in any context.
Depending on the religious tradition in which we were raised the word “sin” can carry a slew of baggage.
Whether we grew up being forever reminded that we are by nature “sinful” creatures and are unworthy of God’s love and mercy –
or if we equate the word “sin” and all the judgment attached to it with those other Christians – the ones who focus only on sin – overcoming it,
being saved from it, and making it their job to point out when others have fallen into it.
In our more progressive churches we tend to avoid the word like the plague.
Because we recognize that it can stir up a lot of negative emotions and poke at the spiritual wounds that we may carry.
To get around this, we ministers have become masters at coming up with euphemisms for the word sin.
We call them transgressions, wrong-doings, short-comings, or brokenness.
Even in the Lord’s Prayer, where many say, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” we instead use the word “debts” or “trespasses.”
Translation semantics aside, we much prefer to be reminded of our debts or our trespasses than our sins.
It’s always interesting to hear the Lord’s Prayer recited at weddings or in a room full of worshipers who come from varying traditions, where we’re treated to a disjointed chorus of “sins” “debts” and “trespasses” ringing out at the same time…
It’s amazing how many will then switch midstream to whatever word they heard the person next to them say (“forgive us our debt-passes”) out of fear that they’re saying it wrong.
What’s odd is that we’re so resistant to taking on the label of “sinner,”
when according to the most basic definition of the word, sin is a turning away from God’s will, and none of us is “all knowing” enough to get it right every time.
Not one of us is perfect.
Even if we can claim that we’ve never committed a “major” sin -
we’ve all strayed from the path of perfection in some way.
We’re all guilty of being envious, wrathful, greedy, gluttonous, lustful, prideful, and slothful at any given time in our lives.
(Those of us who binge watch TV shows on Netflix are guilty of the latter)
One of my favorite quotes about sin is from Presbyterian minister, Eugene Peterson, who said:
“Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”
We all have shortcomings, weaknesses, and “growing edges.”
We all find it much easier to follow our own will, than to try to discern God’s will every waking moment of the day.
Especially when multiple paths and interests come into play –
and it’s not always clear where God’s will is leading us.
Perhaps our fear of the word sin –
and our fear of labeling ourselves as sinners –
is what’s behind the drive and the delight we feel in labeling others as sinful.
If it weren’t such a nasty thing to be, then we’d find no joy or satisfaction in pointing out when others have earned the badge of “sinner” in our eyes.
Which brings us to the sinful woman.
The woman who appears in all four gospels but only in Luke’s are we told that she is worthy of the label of “sinner.”
We aren’t told what sin she has committed.
Or how or why her status as a “sinner” is any different from every other imperfect person in the room, excluding Jesus of course.
But we can guess.
Biblical scholars tell us that in Jesus’ time it would have been scandalous for a woman to touch the feet of a man she was not married to –
or appear in public with her hair uncovered –
or enter a house uninvited and unaccompanied by her husband, father, brother, or another male relative.
Given Simon’s reaction, along with this, we might assume that this is a woman of loose morals – one who doesn’t do what is expected of her - likely a prostitute, an adulterer, or a temptress who uses her body to gain the attention of men.
The “sinful woman” as a character designation appears in our gospel stories about as often as the character of the unnamed “rich man” or “rich fool.”
There’s the woman in this story who anoints Jesus’ feet –
sometimes unnamed, sometimes identified as Mary of Bethany;
there’s the Samaritan woman with five husbands who meets Jesus at the well;
the hemorrhaging woman who touches Jesus’ cloak in the market;
the unnamed woman about to be stoned for adultery – and then there’s Mary Magdalene, whom we’re told had seven demons –or troubles- cast out of her.
Unfortunately, because most of us have only a fragmented knowledge of the Bible, all of these different women often get conflated in our minds and in our popular culture.
To the point where Mary Magdalene is often misidentified as a prostitute,
or as the adulterous woman Jesus saved from stoning,
or as the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair.
We can place some of the blame on Pope Gregory who back in the year 591 gave a sermon that erroneously conflated Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene and named her as the repentant prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet.
Poor Mary has since had to endure almost 1500 years of being saddled with a bad reputation. In art, literature, even the popular movies of today, Mary Magdalene is often depicted as a woman of ill repute.
This despite the Catholic Church having since admitted the error that was made.
In fact just this past Friday, Pope Francis announced that Mary Magdalene will now have her own Feast Day on the liturgical calendar – July 22 – and be honored as the apostle that she is.
The truth is, the Bible never identifies Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, neither does it say the “sinful” woman who washes Jesus’ feet is guilty of the same.
So we have to wonder - why is it that whenever a sinful woman is mentioned in the bible we assume it’s a sexual transgression she’s guilty of?
Prostitution. Adultery. Being flirtatious or seductive around men.
Why is it that we never assume she cheated on her taxes, or stole her neighbor’s sheep, or coveted her sister’s home, land, or wealth?
Is it because we assume only men have the means and the freedom to commit the wider variety of sins mentioned in all ten of the commandments?
But then again, we rarely see men in the Bible being stoned for adultery or being shamed for having a child out of wedlock or being labeled as a man of ill repute because he uncovered his hair or touched a woman in public, or traveled unaccompanied by a female relative.
Sadly, the assumptions we make about women in the Bible reflect the assumptions we make about women in general – across all times and all cultures and all religions.
The role women play in a story is often solely a reflection of how they are viewed by men – as loving companions or property to be protected,
as seductive tempters or objects to be used,
as sullied sinners who don’t know their place or worse, have the power to bring good men down with them.
The story that has filled our newsfeeds this past week about the Stanford woman who was dragged unconscious behind a dumpster and raped by a male student is frightening evidence that our branding of the “sinful woman” is as much a part of our culture as it was in Biblical times.
This is a man who despite his conviction by a jury was sentenced to only 6 months in jail because the judge saw no reason to ruin his life over one youthful transgression.
Because she was drunk. And she was at a party with men she didn’t know.
And she should have known not to put herself in that situation.
She’s responsible for her sin - and his.
How many women have heard this before?
“You shouldn’t have let him touch you – why didn’t you fight back?”
“You shouldn’t have made him mad – you know he gets violent when he drinks.”
“You should just leave him – I don’t know why you keep forgiving him and taking him back.”
This passage from Luke is about forgiveness, and it is framed in such a way that we’re meant to see that the greater the sin, the greater the gratitude we should show after being forgiven.
When Simon claims that Jesus has sullied his own status as a prophet because he allowed a woman with such a poor reputation to touch him,
Jesus pauses and tells the parable of the two debtors.
Both debtors are unable to pay and both debts are forgiven.
However one owes twice as much at the other.
It is the one who has the greatest debt who shows the most love in return for being forgiven.
Simon of course is blind to his own sins - his own debt that needs to be forgiven.
His failure to offer hospitality to his guest – by greeting him with a kiss, offering him water for his feet, and anointing him with oil.
His failure to see Jesus for who he is and recognize that he has the power to forgive.
His failure to see that this woman – for all her many sins – had shown greater faith in God’s all encompassing love by doing all the things she did for Jesus in public that a woman should not be doing – and risking it all – to weep in the presence of the one who had the power to forgive her and love her and heal her.
Jesus was in a sense saying, “I don’t care what she’s done, or what you say she’s done, the fact that she’s here, showing such great love and faith – that’s all that matters.”
It is amazing how Jesus is always popping up in the lives of these sinful women.
It’s amazing how he just lets them wash his feet, and touch his cloak, and fill their buckets with living water, and walk away without a stone being tossed.
It’s amazing how often he has sent them off saying,
“Go in peace, your faith has made you well.”
We’re all sinners.
Because we’re all human.
And we’re all in need of healing.
As much as we try to quantify and measure sin,
and point out the sins of others while ignoring our own,
to do so is to deny our humanity – to deny that God gave us free will –
the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to learn, the freedom to grow.
I’m convinced that it’s not the sinning, or the shaming, or the punishing that God cares about – We may be obsessed with that, but God is not.
It’s the learning and the growing that God cares about.
It’s like watching a child learn that greater things come from love than hate.
God keeps nudging us in that direction,
knowing that it will take us a lifetime of missteps to get there.
The forgiveness part is God’s way of acknowledging that we’re headed in the right direction.
Thanks be to God. Amen.