by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 7:36-8:3
“I have something to say to you.” Those were the words Jesus first spoke to Simon, the Pharisee, according to today’s Gospel reading.
“Simon, I have something to say to you,” he announced during a dinner at Simon’s home while an uninvited and disreputable woman washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with ointment. In the midst of that strange distraction, Jesus never admonished the woman and seemed entirely focused on his host, not the party crasher. His words of instruction were directed to his host. And now, to us.
“I have something to say to you” is the rhetorical equivalent of throat clearing that launches a serious topic. If your old high school principal had pulled you out of class and said, “I have something to say to you,” you’d have assumed you were in trouble. If your parents had said, “I have something to say to you,” you’d have braced yourself for a lecture. If your spouse closed the door so the children couldn’t hear and began, “I have something to say to you,” you’d have prepared for bad news. So Jesus has Simon’s attention. And ours.
You may think I’ve recently preached on this text. That’s because a few months ago we read a similar story in John’s Gospel about Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazareth, anointing Jesus’s feet at a dinner in her home. All four Gospels have a story of a woman anointing Jesus but with many variations that reflect their own theological purposes. Luke’s version is the only one in which Jesus is in dialogue with a Pharisee named Simon. Some scholars classify the exchange that follows as a symposium, a Greco-Roman literary genre structured as a conversation at a banquet (Tannehill 134).
The symposium begins: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” We half-expect Jesus to rebuke Simon after that, with something like “Simon, I can tell by your look of disgust as this woman anoints my feet that you despise her. You are clearly bothered more by the taboos she has broken than the tears she has shed.”
Instead, out of left field, Jesus tells a brief story. It seems irrelevant to the bizarre situation at hand. This story within the story seems to have nothing to do with a woman interrupting a banquet and violating all kinds of social and religious conventions. The story Jesus tells has an economic rather than social/religious theme. The story involves three characters: two people who owe debts to a creditor. One is a large debt; the other, much smaller debt. The creditor forgives both. That’s the story. Short and simple.
Then Jesus asks the question: Who feels the greatest relief/joy/love for the forgiving lender?
“The one with the greater debt,” Simon—and we—answer, still wondering what this has to do with the obnoxious woman.
“You have judged rightly,” Jesus says, encouragingly.
Then Jesus finally mentions the elephant—sorry, the woman—in the room and makes explicit the meaning of his story. With more description than accusation, Jesus reminds Simon that he, the host of the dinner, did NOT give Jesus water for his feet or a kiss in greeting or oil for his head—but the woman who is making the host uncomfortable had bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, anointed his feet. Because she had been forgiven some mighty big sins.
With that we, as readers, have moved back into the larger story. The three main characters in the overarching story are Jesus and two sinners/debtors. And the person society has deemed the greater sinner has experienced the greater measure of forgiveness and therefore is the one who expresses the greater measure of love. It’s not until the climax of the story that Simon–and we–see Jesus’s reaction to the improper woman. Jesus lauds her for her extravagant love. The host who is a proper Pharisee is exposed as less loving than she.
The macro-story concludes open-endedly (Tannehill 137). We never learn how Simon responds when the woman is judged more favorably than he. The narrator leaves open the possibility that Simon—and we—might learn from the ones God forgives extravagantly, might indeed welcome into our own community those whom others may have labeled as “sinners” but Jesus has lifted up as his favorites. We might also, depending on our response to this story, learn to accept forgiveness for ourselves and, in return, love other imperfect humans extravagantly.
In Love’s economy, some of us come to God greatly indebted–after we’ve made of mess of things at least a time or two. It’s not that God loves us more but that we have been disregarded, disrespected, even disowned–so God’s love moves us more deeply and alters us more radically.
Some of us have come to a welcoming church after feeling unwelcome at other churches. So we experience God’s love more powerfully because we didn’t think we’d ever find it.
The Gospels are full of stories that insist God has a special love for those who have not been loved well by others: the poor, the blind, the orphans, the prisoners, the lepers, the women, the foreigners, the sinners. Here’s a story that reminds us that they, in turn, may love God better than the rest of us who have lived pretty comfortable lives.
A wiser preacher might tie this sermon up with a bow right now. But the thing is, this story has been speaking to me all this week. It kept saying, “I have something more to say to you.”
At first the story of Jesus, Simon, and the sinner woman (whom tradition has probably wrongly linked to Mary Magdalene) put me in mind of the Stanford University campus rape victim who bravely wrote and read in court this week a letter to her attacker. I thought of her because of the disrespect women’s bodies received then and receive now. I wanted to lift up the woman in Luke’s Gospel who herself violated tradition’s body boundaries in anointing Jesus but did so with his tacit permission. The one disdained for her breach of body boundaries had already been deemed disreputable, possible through no fault of her own. She may have been a sexual assault victim—for which, in that culture, she would have been blamed. Yes, even in some cultures today victims of rape are considered at fault. I wanted to say to you: “I have something to say to you” about the ways we teach our boy and girl children to respect their bodies and others’ bodies.
Also this week, after hearing that comedian/talk show host John Oliver bought up nearly $15 million of medical debt and then “forgave” all that debt for many very lucky Americans—I wanted to focus on the way real economic debt, not debt in a long ago parable, is a justice issue in our own times when predatory pay day lenders plague the poor and student loans are crippling the Millennials.
But more than anything this story has said to me that God uses stories.
Today’s story from Luke is about Jesus’s use of stories as he reached out to others. It is saying to me that stories reach us deep down.
When you and I try to understand what God might be saying to us, we often hear God speaking in a story. And we have our own stories. You have something to say to me and others through your own stories. These are precious spiritual resources.
I want you to listen for the overarching story of scripture. But I also want you to be “authorized,” as we discussed last week, to author your own sacred stories.
I’m always interested in HOW as well as WHAT Jesus taught. Story telling was his forte. We can learn from him.
But I have to admit this was not his best parable.
Jesus missed the chance to tell us the really interesting story here.
Because as one Lukan scholar points out, “There is a significant gap in the narrative, for we are not told what caused the woman to come to Jesus with her ointment” (Tannehill 134). The story implies that she has come to Jesus with the deep love of someone who has already been forgiven. “But we are not told that part of the story.”
Jesus might have included the woman’s backstory instead of the lackluster story of two debtors whose loans were forgiven. Jesus and the woman had apparently had some previous meeting at which she shared her story and he forgave her. Grateful, she sought him out later, made her way to Simon’s house, and because she’d already been forgiven by Jesus earlier, she thanked him there effusively, embarrassingly—bathing his feet in tears, drying them with her hair, anointing him with ointment.
We’re never going to know what the woman did that needed forgiving, which would surely have been the juiciest part of the story, more exciting than that dull story of debtors being forgiven debts. Jesus could have told Simon, “Wait a New York minute before you judge this woman. Let me give you her backstory.”
But maybe that’s just the point. Whatever she did, Jesus forgave her. We don’t have to know her story. Because her story is my story. She and I have sinned. She and I have erred and disappointed others and hurt those we’ve loved. It’s the same story, really.
Writer Frederick Buechner once said, “”My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”
My favorite story about stories comes from Holocaust survivor and novelist Elie Wiesel:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was. God made [us] because God loves stories.
–from the preface to Gates of the Forest
PRAYER: God, I have something to say to you. You have something to say to me. Keep speaking to and through us. Author our lives afresh.
Tannehill, Robert C. Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.