Saturday, June 15, 2013

Feet Washed With Tears

This song played in my head, for some reason, when I was writing this. Perhaps it is the last line.

"Four Word Letter"

I wrote a four word letter,
With post-script in crooked lines,
"Tho I'd lived I'd never been alive."
You know who I am - you held my hem
As I traveled blind
Listening to a whispering in my ear,
Soft but getting stronger,
Telling me the only purpose of my being here
Is to stay a bit longer.

Stealing a bicycle chain,
As the handlebars crashed to the ground,
The back wheel detached from the frame,
It kept rolling, yeah, but aimlessly drifting around.

Oh, doubters, let's go down,
Lets go down - won't you come on down?
Oh doubters, lets go down-
Down, to the river to pray?

"But I'm so small I can barely be seen - how can this great love be inside of me?"
Look at your eyes - they're small in size, but they see enormous things.

Wearing black canvas slippers
In our frog-on-a-lily-pad pose
We sewed buttons and zippers
To chinese pink silk
And olive night clothes
If you can someday stop by
Somehow we'll show you the pictures and fix you some tea
(see, my dad's getting a bit older now and just unimaginably lonely).

Oh, pretenders, let's go down
Lets go down- won't you come on down?
Oh, pretenders
Lets go down-
Down to the river and pray?

"Oh but I'm so afraid, and I'm set in my ways"
But he'll make the rabbits and rocks sing his praise.
"But I'm too tired, I won't last long."
No, he'll use the weak to overcome the strong!

Oh, Amanda, let's go down
Lets go down- won't you come on down?
Mama, Nana, let’s go down, down in the dirt by the river to pray?

You struck the match - why not be utterly changed by fire?
To sacrifice the shadow and the mist
Of a brief life you never much liked - So if you'd care to come along we're gonna curb all our never-ending,
clever complaining (as who's ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?)
We hunger, but though all that we eat brings us little relief, we don't know quite what else to do,
We have all our beliefs but we don't want our beliefs,
God of peace, we want you.

I think that this is the cry of all creation: God of peace, we want you.

Luke 7:36-8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation in the Gospels. Yes, it’s a reputation they come by honestly for the way they work against Jesus at every turn. Yet however badly they turned out, the origin of the movement was sincere: to be as faithful as possible to the Law of God, as handed down to them in the Scriptures.

We’ve spoken before about how, in the context of first-century Judaism, to be a Pharisee was to be a liberal, to work against the established power structure of the Sadducees, who held power in the Temple – and who clung to that position at the pleasure of the Roman governor.

Pharisees like Simon strove to be as faithful as they could be, carefully, one might say obsessively, working to observe the smallest detail of those dietary and ceremonial laws passed down from Moses, keeping themselves separated from anyone and anything that might bring uncleanness upon them. They rejected the compromises the Sadducees made with Herod and Pilate for the sake of keeping the peace, for the sake of keeping their hold on power.

Compare this carefully pious man with the woman who came into the dining room just moments after they had reclined on their couches to eat: it was customary, by the way, for guests to lay on their left side, knees bent so their feet hung off the couch behind them. This woman, who in Luke’s account has no name, never says a word. She had her own reputation – Luke calls her merely “a sinner,” and all that means in the context of the Judaism of that day and age was that she was not faithful to God’s law. There isn’t any real point in speculating. All we know is that she had the means to buy expensive ointment in a costly box.

Simon may have heard about Jesus raising the widow’s son, or may have overheard him preaching in the town’s marketplace, we don’t know. I have read some intriguing speculation, though, that what Jesus was doing and saying, at least in the early part of his ministry, resonated with the Pharisees, especially as it pertained with their resistance to the Sadducees.

Apart from their insistence that there was no resurrection, no reward or punishment after death, and the possibility that they recognized only the first five books of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, as authoritative, the Sadducees insisted that worshipping and serving God centered on and emanated from the Temple, and the Temple alone.

The Pharisees, by contrast, believed in the resurrection of the dead, eternal reward or punishment following death, they held that the oral teachings, or Talmud, was as authoritative as Torah, and by their strict observance of Law in their daily lives, believed that worshiping and serving God must be something that was a part of daily life, not simply when one went to the Temple or sat in the synagogue.

So it is no wonder that the Pharisees heard echoes of their own beliefs in Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps, then, Simon took it upon himself to have Jesus over for dinner, so he could get a closer look at the fellow. Was he a prophet, a man of God, was he a Pharisee, or was he just another in a long line of rabble-rousing nutcases who dreamed of overthrowing Roman rule only to set himself on David’s throne in its place?

That’s what I would like to think about Simon, though I must say his actions aren’t those of someone wanting to woo Jesus into his fraternity. Judgmental, inhospitable… I wonder if the Pharisees got together to decide who would invite Jesus to dinner, and Simon drew the short straw?

Whatever the case, I think it is safe to say that when Simon invited Jesus to dinner it wasn’t about extending hospitality, wasn’t about developing a friendship. It was about seeing if Jesus measured up to the hype, to see if he was good enough. To see if he was Pharisee material. And I think Simon had already reached a conclusion about Jesus before he invited him, and it wasn’t a particularly positive conclusion at that.

This woman, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, might have heard Jesus at the same time as Simon. She may have seen Jesus at a different time, though, speaking with her friends, eating with sinners like her; perhaps she had seen sight restored to the blind or a sick person healed by a touch from Jesus. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus had healed her, or her child, we can’t know because (like so many times in the Gospels) we aren’t given her name. Whatever the case, this woman knew that it wasn’t a question of Jesus measuring up to her expectations – the fact was that, deep down, she knew it was her who didn’t measure up, who had had no hope of measuring up to such hope and love as Jesus personified. This wasn’t about measuring up. It was about worshiping.

There are so many things in the Gospels I wish I had been able to witness. To just stand in the corner that day, watching as Simon’s servants brought out the food, probably meager fare for someone so well off as Simon, but he wouldn’t have bothered preparing the really good stuff for Jesus and his band of raggedy Galileans. Not much is said, I suppose. Simon’s friends at the table would have talked softly among themselves, eyeing the smelly and road-worn disciples, and those disciples would have been softly speaking to each other, trying not to show their discomfort. The undercurrent of tension and Simon’s disapproval would have been palpable.

She entered the dining room quietly, yet knowing she hadn’t entered unnoticed. Every eye was on her – well, I can imagine a couple of the disciples looking up, looking at one another, shrugging and going back to their food. Stuff like this happened all the time, after all, but good eats were rare.

She held that alabaster jar in both hands as she knelt behind Jesus, who was still dusty from the road. Already weeping, her tears landed on his feet as she reached behind her head, and to the shock of almost everyone watching, let her long hair fall down her back. Taking the long tresses in her hands, she used her hair to dry where her tears fell, then picked up the jar and, with a soft crack, broke it open, the perfume filling the air. Simon watched, agape, mortified, as she anointed his feet with ointment, kissing them as she wept.

There were certain things that a good host provided for his guests in first century Judea. Guests would have been greeted in the traditional Middle Eastern fashion, a kiss on each cheek. There would be water, and perhaps a servant to wash their feet. Olive oil would be provided for their hair. This is why I think Simon had reached every conclusion he needed to before inviting Jesus, why else would none of these basic expectations were met?

In that moment, Simon was convinced that his worst expectations about Jesus were correct. This man wasn’t Pharisee material – why, he wasn’t even a good Jew! How dare he allow such an unseemly display, with a woman, in his home, at his table! Why, if he were really a prophet, he’d know the kind of woman he’s allowing to act that way, and he would certainly not allow the likes of her – let alone any woman – to touch him! Horrifying!

Jesus could feel the disgust and rage radiating from Simon. I imagine Jesus speaking softly, barely above a whisper, his tone level, calm, no sarcasm or accusing edge to his voice.

“Simon, let’s talk, you and I.”

Through clenched teeth, I imagine Simon replying, “So talk, ‘teacher.’”

“There was this banker who had two debtors; one owed twenty-nine thousand dollars, and the other twenty nine hundred dollars. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon looked at him a long time, trying to figure out what he was getting at. Finally he said, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

“Exactly, Simon. Exactly.”

Jesus sits up and turns on his couch, his hand extended toward the woman, but his eyes never leaving Simon. “See this woman? She did or me what you couldn’t be bothered to. I got no water for my feet, she washed them with her tears. You didn’t greet me, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Sure, maybe her sins were many, but those sins have been forgiven, and she knows it. So she shows great love. And there is the difference. You don’t think you need forgiveness, so you don’t show a whole lot of love, do you?”

That long look Jesus had been given Simon finally broke, and he looked instead at the woman, perhaps lifting her chin with his fingers until she looked him in the eye. “Your sins are forgiven,” is all he says.

Simon’s friends are of course scandalized. “Well don’t this beat all? Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Jesus doesn’t even blink, never breaks eye contact with the woman, who smiles, just a little. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

By their very nature, the Pharisees depended on their superior knowledge of the Law, their careful habits and attention to minute detail, over against the ritual and sacrifice and showmanship of the Sadducees, to keep them in a place of acceptability toward God. Since they were, in effect, doing everything themselves, there was, in effect, not much need for God to help them. They had things under control just fine, thanks. Whereas they had originally sought to please God by their piety, their efforts had in fact become a replacement for God – they could be good enough, they didn’t need forgiveness!

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we are good enough – that because of where we’re born, or how often we attend church, or which sins we do not commit, we are somehow acceptable to God. We find ourselves thinking, like Simon, that we measure up when, in fact, we should be sharing the floor with the weeping woman, sure of nothing except the fact that we need forgiveness.

Simon thought he was good enough, thought he was part of the “in crowd.” If this was so, why not look at this woman, who needed forgiveness and acceptance and redemption and see someone who could be guided, loved, restored?

This is our task, our calling: for those who think they’ve done too much, are too far gone to be forgiven, outside of the reach of the grace of God, we who are the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in this world today, remind ourselves that, in the words of Paul in the book of Romans, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and we reach out to them, shining the light of God’s grace into their dark corners. No matter who sees us, no matter who disapproves of our actions.

We love, because Christ first loved us. That is our calling, that is the Gospel.

You see, no matter where we start from, Jesus meets us, and always at the place where we lay down our right to claim social status, or religious purity, or birthright. Kneeling at the feet of Christ, crucified with Him, and yet we live and move and have our being in Jesus Christ. Like that woman, we are forgiven much, we are restored, we are alive in Him.

1 comment:

  1. The "good news" I grew up hearing is that Jesus died for our sins, meaning his sacrifice made it possible for God to forgive us. So, how can Jesus say that this woman's sins are forgiven, and what is the good news that he is going around preaching, when he hasn't even gone to the cross yet?