Know Mercy? Show Mercy!

Luke 7:36-8:3
Ordinary Time
Elizabeth M. Deibert

From the time we are young, we are inclined to divide people into the good guys and the bad guys. We categorize people -- those who might do us some good, and those who will either drag us down or do nothing for our status. We group people. There are some people who are worthy of our attention, and some people whom we can dismiss as not worthy of our time or energy. I’ve been reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. Because she writes the book from the perspective of both white and black women in Mississippi in the early 60’s, you can feel the hurt of the African American “help” even as you hear how easily their employers dismiss them as less than human. They are not there to do anything but help. It was a world with all kinds of unspoken rules and everybody following them, scared to do anything else…until one white woman and two black women find some courage to step outside that world and see each other with new eyes.

Jesus asks Simon if he sees this woman. Well, of course, he sees her, but does he see her as Jesus sees her? With what kind of lens does Simon see her? With the lens of mercy or the lens of judgment? I think it’s safe to say, he looks down his nose at her. He puts her in a box – sinner, a woman of the city. If I can find someone “worse” than me, then I am always in a position to feel pretty good about myself by comparison.

The unnamed woman of this story might be a prostitute or she might be a devoted follower like Mary of Bethany, with her sister Martha. See how even now, I’m trying to figure out whether she belongs in the good woman or bad woman box. Perhaps, just perhaps, she might be both. In anointing Jesus, she could be good woman, fully devoted or evil woman, trying to seduce Jesus with her long flowing hair. Or perhaps she is both. She is the good and the bad all rolled up in one complicated personality – just like each of us.

Jesus offers harsh challenges to those who think they are better than others. We all play these games in our heads. Someone is not as smart or good-looking or wealthy or personable or secure or sophisticated or well-heeled or spiritual as you. You dismiss them. The off-hand comment. The glance beyond their face.

Oh, how subtle is our prejudice. It’s not just skin tone. We look for all kinds of ways to place people in the less-than-me box, and in so doing, we place ourselves in the less-than-me box. We become less than we were created to be by our judgment of others. Remember the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying side by side. The Pharisee said, “Thank you, God, I am not like that tax collector.” The tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ challenge to judge not, so we will not be judged. Take the log out of your own eye, so you can see clearly to remove the speck you keep staring out in your neighbor’s eye. If we are truly humble, then we are able to see both the sparkle and the pain in other people’s eyes, both the goodness and the badness. We are not looking to pick out the specks, not trying to spot the blemishes but seeing beauty, seeing them as children of God, no different from me.

Hear the word of the Lord from the Gospel of Luke, from the Gospel writer most determined to challenge the male-dominated world of the 1st century by pointing out the faithful female followers of Jesus Christ.

NRS Luke 7:36 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. 37 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. 38 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. 39 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." 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." 41 "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" 43 Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 44 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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." 48 Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" 50 And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
8:1 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, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Versions of this story are in all four gospels, but Luke is the one who emphasizes her tears rather than the expense of the massage oil or ointment. In Luke, there is no sense of waste of the ointment, but a clear sense that she is being judged by Simon for being a sinner, for not belonging, for being inappropriate. In Luke and Luke only, Jesus explains this extreme act of devotion by telling the parable of the creditor who is owed money by two debtors. He compares the unnamed woman to the debtor with a great debt. When a great debt is forgiven, there is overwhelming gratitude.

So if you’re not feeling particularly grateful to God this week, perhaps you have not pondered the debt you owe. If we truly see the glory of God and truly see ourselves, then we too would be wiping Jesus’ feet with our tears. We too would be on our knees, overwhelmed with a need to say thanks, ready to give, ready to love. Instead we busy ourselves measuring up other people and their worthiness.

Just as we have trouble in life avoiding the judgment of others, so in this narrative, it is particularly challenging to avoid judgment. We want to judge the woman for being sinful and Simon for being Pharisaical. But we cannot judge the woman nor can we judge Simon, because we are them. Everyone of us is both Simon and the woman. Like Simon, we are too preoccupied condemning others to give Jesus the honor he deserves. Like the woman, we are indebted to the Lord for a mercy which lets even us in the door. She understands her indebtedness and thereby is the heroine of the story.

That brings me to the textual challenge of this passage. Take a look at the scripture in your bulletin insert. Verse 47. This is the climax, the teaching moment, the moral of the story and the parable together. Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many (notice past tense – indicating that she’s repented and turned from her sin) her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. HENCE, a wonderfully ambigious word meaning “for this reason, or following from this, or therefore” Some translations say “because.” This little Greek word “Oti” is often translated “because.” Now stop and think about it. There is a big difference is saying “she’s been forgiven because she has shown great love.” And “she’s been forgiven, therefore/hence she has shown great love.”

Maybe the ambiguity is intended and necessary. If our sins are many (and I believe that is the witness of scripture and the witness of life– that our sins are many), then our forgiveness by God is both result of our love for God and the cause of our love for God. Because loving God means truly seeing God’s glory and our failure to live fully in that image, with humility.

I want to close with the story of Saint Cyril, an abbot in a monastery in Russia. Cyril was known for his great reverence and particularly for his humility. One year, there was a monk who developed a severe hatred toward Cyril. This monk was so overcome with grief over his ill will toward his abbot, that one day he confessed it to Cyril. “I have spent an entire year, thinking bad thoughts about you, thinking you are a sinful man, not remembering that you are an honorable man and my spiritual leader. Immediately Cyril offered the monk comfort and laughed with him, saying, “All the other monks are in error concerning me. Only you have perceived the truth – my unworthiness. He forgave him and sent him away in peace.”

In his great humility, Cyril knew God’s mercy, so he showed mercy, even toward someone who had spent a year hating him.