By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
Today’s story from Luke’s Gospel is a story that we hear a different version of nearly every year. This time around, I found the story particularly meaningful...but more about that in a minute. For now, let’s take a look at what happens in today's Gospel.
The Jewish leaders were growing increasingly wary of Jesus, as rumors grew rampant that he might be a prophet, or possibly even the Messiah. Yet Jesus didn’t quite look or play the part of a prophet. So one of the Jewish leaders, a Pharisee named Simon, invited Jesus over for dinner to gauge if Jesus might actually be a prophet. At some point during dinner, a woman quietly interrupts the meal, by standing behind Jesus at his feet, weeping. She began to bathe his feet with her tears, then dried them with her hair, then kissed them profusely, before finally anointing them with ointment.
This woman, and her laundry list of sins, were infamous in the community. When Jesus let the woman carry on in such way, Simon knew that Jesus must not be a prophet, because if he had been a prophet, obviously he would have refused the woman.
As though Jesus could read Simon’s thoughts, he offered him a parable.
If two persons were forgiven their debt, one who owed fifty dollars and another who owed five hundred dollars, which person would be more grateful to the one who had forgiven them their debt? Simon supposed the one that owed a greater debt would be the most grateful--which of course is the right answer. Except it's the only answer Simon has gotten right all evening. Because when Jesus begins to compare Simon to the woman, she was the one who had been the most hospitable. She was the one that showed her love more, because she had been forgiven of more. Those that are forgiven more, love more; those that are forgiven less, love less.
We might wonder, what provoked this woman to interrupt dinner in the first place? I think she showed up to make her offering because she had been transformed by the Good News of Christ. For nearly all of her life, this woman had carried around a belief that she was unworthy of anything good, but most especially, she was unworthy of God’s love. After all, it was what those around her inferred by the way they treated her. Simon the Pharisee, and countless others, had been more than happy to play the part of judge, jury, and executioner.
As Karoline Lewis said of today’s Gospel, “...so many are so certain about whom God includes; who is worthy of God’s love.”
Who was this woman? thought Simon. She was a sinner. A worthless, nothing, nobody.
How many times do we find ourselves judging the worth of others as Simon did this woman? How many times do we allow ourselves to play the part of judge, jury, and executioner? Yet who is the only one qualified to make judgment? God--and we can give thanks that God does not judge us the way that we judge others. Because Jesus’ judgment is not scorn, but rather forgiveness. And it is always forgiveness. Again. And again. And again. Forgiveness.
When this woman encountered Christ, she came to believe in herself and understood deeply that she was worthy of salvation. It was as though Jesus said to her, as he says to all of us,“You are worthy to sit at the table. You are worthy of touching, and being touched by, God. You are worthy of belonging. You are worthy of being called a disciple” (Karoline Lewis). Jesus sends the woman on her way saying, “Your faith has saved you: go in peace.”
Some of you know that my aunt died on Christmas Day around two in the morning. It made for a very different kind of Christmas. Yet mostly, even in our grief, we were just relieved. Relieved she was no longer suffering; relieved that she went relatively peacefully; relieved she was reunited with Almighty God and her mother, whom she missed terribly after her own death three years earlier.
She was 58 years old, and died after a two month siege of her body by Stage IV liver cancer. This past Thursday, our family gathered at an old cemetery in South Paris, Maine where we held a graveside service and buried her cremains. In preparing to conduct my aunt’s graveside service, while also preparing to offer today’s sermon, I was struck by the similarities between my aunt and the woman in today’s gospel.
For much of her life, my aunt was the black sheep in the family. From the time she was a little girl she would act out in ways that hurt those around her. While in all likelihood, she did these things to grasp for some assurance of that unconditional love we seek from those around us and the parental boundaries that help us feel safe, it seemed to backfire. Instead, her parents didn’t know what to do with her, or how to parent her; and her siblings grew tired of her frustrating behaviors.
In her own right, she became the sinful woman.
A change finally began to weave it’s way into our family’s dynamics when my grandmother’s faith convinced her to let go of all those old hurts and wounds inflicted by her second daughter, and everyone else for that matter. Primarily because her faith had finally opened her eyes to see what she had been incapable of realizing as a young mother. She realized the thing that my aunt needed the most, heck, the thing we all need the most, was the assurance that we are loved and worthy of such love.
When my grandmother was able to love without abandon, it cracked open my aunt’s hardened shell, and she found Christ. She heard the voice of God assure her: “You are worthy to sit at the table. You are worthy of touching, and being touched by, God. You are worthy of belonging. You are worthy of being called a disciple” (Karoline Lewis).
She was transformed, yet much of her family was pushed so far out of her life that they didn’t get to see her for who she was in Christ until the very end of her life as she lay dying in a hospital room. After her death, we learned just how much she really was changed by her faith in the stories of her neighbors, which made clear that my aunt had developed a practice of lending what little extra money she had to her neighbors in need.
For me, the woman in today’s gospel will always also be my aunt, and their stories will serve as a reminder of the important role forgiveness has in helping us to find ourselves.
According to one of my favorite preachers, David Lose, “Forgiveness also give you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner – these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.”
Maybe you find yourself struggling with judgment like Simon, or weary of the frustrating behaviors of others like my family. Maybe you find yourself feeling unworthy, like the woman in today’s gospel or my aunt. Wherever you find yourself, know that forgiveness is everything, and it is there waiting for each and everyone of us. Amen.
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