Saturday, March 17, 2018
Over the past weeks, we have focused on “Reclaiming Sin, A Biblical Guide.” Although popular culture has largely abandoned the concept of sin, I have claimed that recognizing and acknowledging our sin is still crucially important. The first, essential step towards eventually achieving forgiveness and reconciliation is to acknowledge and confess our sins.
We have defined sin as the rupture of essential relationships. Each of us lives in an interconnected web of relationships that include our relationship with the Divine, our relationships with other persons, our relationship with Creation, and our relationship with ourselves. When we do things to rupture, or damage, one of these relationships, then we sin.
We have used Bible stories to reflect on the reality of sin as the rupturing of various relationships. We have looked at the following stories:
1. The story of Eve, Adam, and the Forbidden Fruit, Genesis 3
2. The story of the woman caught in Adultery, John 7:53 – 8:11
3. Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5: 1-11
4. David and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11 & 12 (Sermon preached by Beth Menhusen)
This Sunday, March 18th, we will shift our focus. Instead of reflecting on the reality of sin as a rupturing of relationships, we will examine a story of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. This is the story of the woman who anoints Christ with precious oil. All four Gospels include this story, but we will focus on Luke’s account, which has a different emphasis than the other Gospels.[i]
According to Luke, Jesus is invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee for a banquet. During this time period in the Middle East, the host and his guests at a banquet would recline on pillows, leaning on their left arms while eating food from a mat with their right hand. In this position, their feet would be stretched out behind them, away from the mat.
While the dinner would only be served to invited guests, it was customary for uninvited locals to come to the house and stand around the courtyard and inside walls of the house, listening to the conversation at the table. Banquets, such as this, were usually filled with wit and wisdom. Sometimes guests engaged one another in a contest of riddles. So the uninvited would come to the event to enjoy the conversation and entertainment.
One of the uninvited that night was a woman, whom Luke describes as “a sinner.” Most scriptural scholars agree that she was most likely a village prostitute. This woman had come to see Jesus. She stood behind Jesus as he reclined at the banquet table. She begins to weep and her tears fall down on Jesus’ feet. Eventually, she lets down her long hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair—thus, washing Jesus’ feet. Then, she takes an alabaster jar of ointment and anoints the feet of Jesus.
Now, it is very important to recognize that from the cultural perspective of the first century, the woman’s expressions of love and gratitude were highly sexualized actions. Touching a man’s feet, as well as a woman letting down her hair in public, carried heavy sexual connotations. Finally, the fact that the woman was a prostitute suggests that she was ritually unclean. By touching Jesus’ feet, she would have also made Jesus ritually unclean.
Simon, the host for the evening, sees the actions of the woman. Although he doesn’t say anything out loud, Simon thought to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
In the spirit of the evening festivities, Jesus poses a riddle to Simon. He says: “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[ii] and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon responds that the debtor who owed the greater debt would love the creditor more. Jesus affirms that Simon has answered correctly. Then, Jesus points out three significant differences between Simon and the sinful woman:
1. When Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, he was offered no water to wash his feet, as was customary in their culture. Yet, the woman has washed and dried Jesus’ feet with her hair.
2. When Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, he was not greeted with a kiss, as was customary. Yet, the woman has kissed his feet continuously.
3. Simon has not used oil to anoint Jesus’ head, which was an important component of good hospitality. But, the woman has anointed his feet with ointment.
To summarize, Simon has failed miserably at being a good host for Jesus, while the woman has exemplified excellent hospitality to Jesus, the guest of honor at the banquet. Referring to the woman, Jesus continues: This woman’s “sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little.” Then, Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”
In his reflections on this story, the Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper asks, “Does love lead to forgiveness, or is the ability to love the result of being forgiven?”[iii] I believe that the answer is “both.” We are speaking here of reconciliation and healing of relationships. When we love someone, we are more likely to forgive them because we desire to repair the loving relationship which has been ruptured by sin. Sometimes, both persons in a ruptured relationship have contributed to its damage. Therefore, we seek to forgive—as well as to be forgiven—in order to repair the relationship.
Complementarily, when we rupture a relationship, but experience forgiveness, then we are more likely to love that person in the future. And, as Jesus points out to Simon, there is an irony in love and forgiveness. When we have significantly damaged a relationship and, yet, experience forgiveness and healing, then we develop an even deeper love in response to the healing and reconciliation that comes to us.
If you live in the Lincoln area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, March 18th, as we explore healing and reconciliation. Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come, join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] In Matthew, Mark, and John, the anointing of Jesus by the woman foreshadows his crucifixion and burial. In Matthew, Jesus says, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.” By contrast, in Luke, highlights the relationship between love and forgiveness. Scriptural scholars hypothesize that there may have been two similar stories of women anointing Jesus with oil, accounting for the difference in emphasis between Luke and the other three Gospels.
[ii] In the economy of first century Israel, a denarii was worth a full-days wages for laborers.
[iii] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.