Luke 7:36-48 The Rev. Helen Havlik 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time November 3, 2019
Jesus said the greatest commandments are: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Easy to remember—but what does it mean to love our actual neighbor? That’s the question Alexandra Kuykendall asks in her book, Loving My Actual Neighbor—where she describes how our love for the real people around us can be nurtured and lived. So far this fall we’ve talked about being humble, listening to others and staying in the awkward. In our Gospel reading Jesus speaks about accepting people for who they are. I’m reading from Luke, ch. 7, beginning with vs. 36. Listen to God’s holy word.
You can’t judge a book by its cover—at least that’s what my mom used to say, but I admit I haven’t always believed it. I’m thinking of Mary Ann who lived across the hall from me in Newtown Square. She was much younger, had very big hair, heavy makeup and was very much into loud parties not just on weekends. Through pretty thin walls, I could hear her arguing with her boyfriend Russell and more than once she teetered past me in the hall having had way too much to drink. I fervently wished she would move away so that I wouldn’t have to deal with her. Then one night, I heard a timid knock on my door. It was Mary Ann, she had locked herself out of her apartment, could she use my phone? (This was way before cellphones.) I reluctantly let her in—she called Russell, who didn’t live there but had a key. He was giving her a hard time but finally said he’d come over when he could. Mary Ann hung up the phone and burst into tears. And for the next two hours I listened to the story of her life. It wasn’t a happy one, to say the least, and I found myself beginning to like her. It was obvious that some of what she did was a cover for how scared she was that she wasn’t a good person, that she had screwed up her life, that she was never going to get out of the hole she found herself in, especially with Russell. I can’t say we became best friends, but we talked a lot after that—she was really funny and sweet—and gradually things started to change for her. She wore less make-up—she got a better job. Before she got her driver’s license, I went out driving with her because Russell made her too nervous. We both cried when her lease was up and she moved out. And I learned my lesson.
Luke doesn’t tell us much about Simon, but a Pharisee was a community and religious leader, someone who worked hard at keeping covenant with God by putting the Law of Moses into practice to live a pure and righteous life. Simon inviting Jesus to dinner at this point in his ministry is probably a big deal. Guests would recline on cushions on the outside of low tables set up in a U-shape, supporting themselves on one elbow with their legs extended behind them. Servants behind the guests washed their hands and feet and anointed them with oil, an act of respect and hospitality and just cleanliness in an age before powder rooms. The lowest ranked servants washed feet, which would have been especially dirty and dusty from walking unpaved roads in sandals. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 255, 378, 381)
That’s supposed to happen, but something’s not quite right here. Apparently Jesus took his place at the table without a proper greeting from his host. Maybe Simon was distracted by other guests—and just didn’t see the guest of honor until he was seated? The unnamed woman must have slipped in at some point with the other servants and so also escaped Simon’s notice. It’s when she cries and lets down her hair to dry Jesus’ feet that Simon realizes what she’s doing and recognizes her. Luke doesn’t come right out and call her a prostitute—but, you know, “woman of the city.” “A sinner.” Put two and two together. Just look at her—she’s at least embarrassing herself and Simon doesn’t want her at his dinner party.
Believing is seeing, not the other way around. That person in the nice outfit with perfect manners is obviously a “good person.” That person with spiked hair and an armful of tattoos is obviously someone to avoid. And even proven otherwise, how often do we stubbornly cling to our mistaken beliefs? What we see with our eyes is complicated. It’s based on our experiences and how we interpret them, our personal biology and physical limitations. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says the colors we see are personal to us as light makes its way through our eyes. So in looking at a rainbow, some people see vivid colors, while others can’t see all the colors. Our brains fill in the blanks so that most of the time what we see is what we expect to see. And what we see is what we believe.
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks Simon. Not if he can help it! He knows her “kind.” So when Jesus asks, what Simon sees, but doesn’t say out loud, is a sinner; in his world, a person who doesn’t keep the law, who operates outside of the religious community and therefore God’s covenant, who has no right to approach Jesus, much less touch him so brazenly. What he sees is what he believes—that some people are so unacceptable they are outside of God’s concern.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” the Little Prince says, “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Jesus also sees what he believes because he looks into the heart. Jesus already knows what Simon sees—it’s written all over his face, it’s in his heart. And Jesus knows it’s based on Simon’s belief in following the law exactly—as Simon does, but not really. There’s so much the Bible doesn’t talk about but it does talk about hospitality in great detail, right down to the rules for welcoming a guest into your home. According to his own beliefs, Simon sinned in not welcoming Jesus properly. Ironically, this so-called sinful woman follows the law in her heartfelt, humble—and extravagant—action.
My mom was right, of course, you can’t judge a book by its cover. You can’t judge a book until you read it, know its story, spend time with it, know its heart—and accept it for what it is. If we believe that we are connected to each other because we all are connected to God—then there are no outsiders, you, me, the unnamed woman, Mary Ann, even Simon, all of us are welcome at the Lord’s table. To see and judge people based on stereotypes or appearances is to miss the deeper promise of blessing. The blessing that Jesus receives and then offers to the woman who bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We don’t know if she expected to be forgiven that day—but her faith in Jesus allowed her to see what Simon couldn’t or wouldn’t see. Jesus asked, “Do you see this woman?” And what he’s asking is: do we trust him to help us see and accept each other for who we really are: children of God, all of us loved and forgiven.