(For an introduction to this series, click here. Also, please note that to avoid possible negative consequences, names of preachers and parishes will not be disclosed in this series.)
There is richness in this Gospel story that we could ponder from different angles for weeks. Questions about the role of prophets, the strong statement about the value placed on the roles of women, the erotic overtones to this story . . . there's a lot here. But, God is merciful, and our Worship Committee reflects that mercy by limiting the length of homilies, so I will focus on one theme I hear in this Gospel.
Simon the Pharisee misses the point when he thinks that Jesus doesn't know this unnamed woman touching him is a sinner.
Of course Jesus knew she was a sinner. What else could she be?
When I arrived in our worship space this morning, I greeted many of you, some with hugs, with handshakes. Each one of you I touched this morning was touched by a sinner. I doubt if this information is surprising to you. But I also doubt if any of us here use the term sinner as Simon does. Simon sees people as divided by sin – there are sinners, like this women, and there are good people, like himself.
In the many accounts in the Gospels of Jesus encountering and healing those people outcast as being sinners, Jesus teaches by word and example something radically new. He doesn't deny sin, the failings and wrong doings that build up to hurt us an individuals and as communities. And there isn't much new about in the idea that we all sin and are enmeshed in social sin.
What I hear as wonderfully new is the message to stop fearing sin. Jesus recognizes our failings as part of our common humanity. Jesus does not lecture or prescribe punishments or penances, he calls the person in need to a harder task – to truly desire forgiveness, and then dare to accept and receive it. What I read in this story is not that this woman cries at Jesus' feet because Simon said she was a sinner, but because she believes she was a sinner. Jesus recognizes her as a person experiencing the pain and fear of wanting deep change, someone beginning to recognize and experience God's healing power. Jesus empowers her to see her woundedness for what it is, a wound, yes, but part of her. Not something to be denied or hidden, but something she can learn to recognize as the entry way of true forgiveness, the window through which she can feel God's loving compassion shining in her. Her past is not undone here. What is different is that her present is filled with a new sense of hope. This newfound hope and belief in forgiveness and healing is not just an emotional response . . . the loving way she tends to Jesus shows how she has learned that she too is called to be a conduit of God's love.
A while back at this gathering, I was deeply struck by something community member Anne shared with us about hope being a virtue to cultivate, not a special grace some of us are given. A part of cultivating hope is letting go of the past.
Does anyone not have some shadow, some shame, somewhere is their past? We cannot go back to the past to undo these things. I see Jesus teaching us we have the power to let go of past errors, and the strength to begin again.
I live in a relatively small city flat, but due to an odd design, I have a bizarre abundance of closet space. Before you commit the sin of envying me for this, there is a real danger here – I can stuff a lot in closets and close the door, and pretend that the hidden mess is not there.
Last winter I started sorting through some closet spaces long neglected. Dark, spooky things laying in corners came to light, and became less spooky as I wondered why I had tossed worn out socks in that corner, what was I thinking saving boxes full of packing peanuts. I delighted to find a box with old greeting cards from years ago, with messages I had almost forgotten. I pulled out a sweater a friend had left at my house some five years ago, and sat and mourned a bit remembering how my friend died quite unexpectedly before I saw him again to return it.
The sad things, the happy things, the stupid things in that closet were all part of my past, all part of me. There was nothing to fear, nothing that needed to be hidden away forever. There was nothing there that controlled my present or my future. The only thing that had control over me was my reluctance to open that door and begin. After all, beginning was admitting I had been lazy and neglectful – things my parents taught me very clearly were bad.
Jesus teaches us we have to power to look into our lives, and look at the bad as well as the good, without condemning ourselves. Poor Simon the Pharisee is stuck in the past. After all, he knows what this women did. Jesus is aware of God's eternal present - he knows this woman for who she is. Jesus knows our capacity to grow, to heal, to do good is much greater than we sometimes believe. Jesus also knows we delude ourselves if we believe our past failings are beyond the capacity of God's forgiveness.
And if God forgives us, by what authority can we not forgive ourselves?