Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
I live in a small city that loves to fund raise with lavish galas. The nails get polished and the clothes are glamorous. The food is decadent and the entertainment stunning. For a few hours this jeans-only oil town puts on the Ritz. And people want to know who is going; facebook, twitter and local gossip heats up. Will the beloved mayor be there? How about the multimillionaire industry leaders? Are there national and international celebrities coming to town?
It makes me wonder what kind of buzz Simon’s dinner party was generating. Luke tells us Jesus was garnering attention across the countryside after he raised a widow’s son from death to life. Now Jesus the healer and prophet is in town and Simon has snagged him for dinner. Simon has the food prepared, the setting elegant, the invited influential and important guests arrive as uninvited townspeople crowd around to see the Pharisee and his guests.
In Simon’s eyes, all is going according to plan until one of the onlookers pushes through the crowd and clings to Jesus’ feet. As she kneels anointing his feet, her tears bathe his toes and she wipes their moisture away with her hair.
Simon is scandalized by such a display. The sexual overtones of loosened hair in public and caressing a man’s feet are enough to set him on edge, but we also get a clue that this woman is known by Simon… known to be immoral… a sinner… unclean by the Pharisee’s conventions.
“If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!” Luke 7:39
And suddenly Simon’s smooth and elegant dinner party comes to a screeching and embarrassing halt. Because Jesus has done nothing to stop the woman of ill repute, Simon concludes Jesus must not know who she is and therefore he cannot be the rising star prophet Simon thought he’d netted. Simon’s social capital is plummeting before his eyes.
But contrary to Simon’s assumptions, Jesus is not naïve. He knows the woman who caresses him. Jesus sees a woman grateful for mercy, so caught up in her act of love that she is free from worrying about what people think of the propriety of her actions. Instead of seeing sin, Jesus sees love.
Jesus wants Simon to see the gift of love unfolding before his very eyes so he launches into a story of two debtors. One who is forgiven 10 times what the other owes. “Who loves the most?” Jesus queries his host.
“The one whose canceled debt was greater.” Simon correctly replies.
Simon can see the woman’s failings are so great, but he is blind to his own. It’s not that the woman was a worse sinner than Simon, but emptied of self-importance and more deeply aware of her need, she had so much more room to receive forgiveness. Simon’s capacity for love is stunted because he is still full of himself.
So Jesus invites Simon to see his own need and experience the outpouring of forgiveness and love that this woman has so lavishly demonstrated. “Simon, when I came to your home you did not offer me water to wash the dust from my feet… you did not greet me with a kiss… you neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head…”
Yet Simon is silent. There is no happy ending like the story of Zaccheus who repents and makes restitution. But neither do we hear that Simon turned away like the rich young ruler. It is as though, by leaving us on this cliffhanger, Luke has invited us to take up and respond to Simon’s story as our own.
We who invest in social capital; we who are careful about religious obligation. We who seek to rub shoulders with the upright and influential; we who judge the magnitude of sin in our fellow townsfolk. As we sit with Jesus and he begins to name our transgressions of the last hour, day or week do we empty ourselves of our excuses and self-righteousness and allow his forgiveness to fill us? Does the reality of our need and the abundance of his grace flow out of our lives in gratitude and love?
Simon’s response remains a mystery, but his dinner guests miss the invitation completely. They move from one offense to another, turning their attention to Jesus’ assurance of pardon. “Who is this man, that he goes around forgiving sins?”
The ironic answer to their question is that this Jesus is not only the prophet Simon had hoped, but Jesus is more than a prophet. One who has the authority to forgive as the Father forgives. He is the anticipated Messiah; the hope of Israel and the world.
And the scorned, disgraced, unnamed woman at his feet is the only one in the room who knows it. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Jesus bids her to walk in the peace of her new identity. A forgiven, beloved and precious one of God. Her debt has been canceled. Her humiliation has been erased in His acceptance.
It is the grace that meets us in our act of confession as we gather in worship. Grateful for the outpouring of forgiveness, our capacity to love grows and Jesus bids us go in peace.