He had been battling with the Pharisees for weeks. Maybe battling is too strong of a word. They were intellectually feeling one another out, testing him, testing each other. Pharisees, scribes and teachers had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem to see this teacher who was becoming so popular with the people; they were seeing if he was up to snuff, if his teachings were “on message.” Everywhere he went, there they were. Just outside the home that had welcomed him to heal the sick in town. At a banquet with all the wrong people. On the edge of a field. Inside the synagogue. Everywhere he went, there they were, with questions to ask, with tests to stump him.
“Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God?”
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
“John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.”
“Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
The questions and the testing kept coming, wherever he went, whatever he did, but he must have done something right or at least intriguing because finally Simon the Pharisee invited him to dinner. It was an honor, a sign of at least some respect. A sign that Simon thought his teachings were solid enough or at least plausible enough that Jesus deserved, quite literally a place at the table, a voice in the discussions that would take place over a long leisurely meal, practically a symposium that would give Jesus the ear of the other Pharisees and teachers, the rabbis.
When out of nowhere, during the meal, Jesus began to feel the most extraordinary thing. It was luxurious and relaxing, soothing, even healing. It was an intimate, sensual experience; as he reclined at the table engaged in theological banter, someone was washing his feet. He looked away from his spiritual sparring partners and saw at the other end of his body a woman from the town bathing his feet with her tears, wiping them gently with her that fell around her shoulders, kissing them with her lips, anointing them with ointment from and expensive alabaster jar. A woman was there, a woman from the town, pouring out from her heart, her soul, and her very body, love, great love for Jesus.
Simon the Pharisee, Simon the host, was HORRIFIED! Everything was going wrong. Who let the woman in the house? Why was she touching one of his guests? What was this emotional outburst all about? Was she even clean? Not physically clean, but spiritually clean. Was she pure? Had she made offerings for her sins? Had she been cleansed in the ritual baths? Was she possibly… was she daring to touch one of his male guest and transferring to him her spiritual dirtiness?
Everybody in the whole town KNEW she was a sinner. Everybody in the whole town KNEW her faults. Everybody in town KNEW that she missed the mark, that she didn’t keep the WHOLE law, and now, here she was TOUCHING one of his guests. And not only that, his guest, this Jesus of Nazareth, didn’t seem to care! “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!” What in the world is going on?
Jesus pretty much read his mind, speaking to him, addressing him by name, even. “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon recognized what came next – teaching story, a question, a test of his own to take, administered by Jesus. The scene is set where a creditor has two debtors. One owed an unimaginable amount 500 denarii, that is, the wages from 500 days of work. The other, 50 denarii, that is, the wages from 50 days of work. The creditor cancelled both debts. Simon expected the question to be about the law – the law of interest on debts even the law of debt relief – but this Jesus, this Jesus of Nazareth, asked instead about love. Pardon my reference, but what’s love got to do with it?
The answer, though, for this object lesson, is obvious. The one who has received the greatest grace, the one who has seen her life restored in greater measure, the one who had been looking at a life sentence to repay the debt accumulated, would know the most relief, would be overwhelmed with the greatest joy, would love beyond anyone’s imagining.
She would know no “acceptable” way to give thanks. She would know no reasonable way to show her gratitude. She would know no polite way to express the love that filled her heart, because there is no polite way to express that kind of love. We have tried. People of faith have tried for thousands of years to find an appropriate way to give thanks and show love, but somehow our efforts have turned this woman's passion, this woman's unbridled outpouring of tears and love and compassion and gratitude into tidy alleluias and thanks be to Gods.
How has that happened? I think one way it happened is that we have forgotten that we are this woman. All of us here, women, men, boys, girls, children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged adults, seniors, all of us here, are this woman. We've forgotten it because we don't like to think of it. I don't like to think of it. I don't like to think of myself as a sinner. That's the way they wrote it - sinner! It's such a strong declaration. Somehow, it sounds more harsh than a person who sins. In fact, one of the prayers that is said at funerals includes the petition to God, "recognize a sinner of your own redeeming." I have a hard time saying it because it sounds so judgmental.
But here's the reality. We're sinners. We are people who sin. We are people who, in one way or another, day after day, fall short of the glory of God. I don't say this in a hellfire and brimstone, Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the hands of angry God" kind of way. I say it honestly. I say it not to induce guilt into all of us that will cause us all to come crawling forward on our knees begging for mercy. I'm not saying it to pull out of any of us some sort of groveling, desperate response. I'm saying it because none of us is perfect. God created us all in the image of God; God declared us all good, but that good gets muddled up by our own intentions. That good gets smeared because we think we can live this life our own way. That good gets buried because we don't think we're enough to even be called good, so we look at ourselves with our own eyes and try to fix what God already loves. We take matters into our own hands. We are sinners.
She was a sinner. Everyone knew it. Simon knew it. His other guests knew it. The whole town knew it. Jesus knew it. Of course, she knew it. And knowing it is what set her free. Knowing she was a sinner, one who sins, is what drew her to Jesus. Knowing she was a sinner is what made her trust him. Knowing she was a sinner whose life couldn't be made whole by her own efforts, whose efforts couldn't be made pure by her own intentions, whose intentions couldn't change anything by her own actions, she put her faith in something else. She put her faith in Jesus.
Jesus who didn't let the letter of the law keep him from feeding the hungry. Jesus who didn't let the rule of the Sabbath stop him from saving the WHOLE life of a man with a withered hand. Jesus who shared bread and table and conversation and life with sinners. Jesus who could forgive sins. She put her faith in Jesus and before she even got to him, before she even touched him, before she even heard him speak words of forgiveness and peace to EVEN her, she knew she was forgiven by him and filled with his love. Filled with love beyond what she could contain in her life. Filled to overflowing, so that love burst forth from her body in her tears that flowed from her eyes to mingle with the dirt on his skin, in her hair that softly dried his feet, through her hands that massaged the rough and tired toes with ointment that heals and soothes. She knew she was forgiven and she searched him out, she followed him, and she burst into his presence, not invited by those who would rather separate her from themselves, but welcomed by him whose grace she received. she came to the table where he reclined and poured out her love for him.
She knew she was forgiven because Jesus sat at tables with people just like her. He sat at tables with people just like us. He sits at this table with us! Often we think of this table as a reminder of a particular table, a particular meal - the last table and the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. It makes sense, because that’s the meal where we get the specific instructions that whenever we will eat this bread or drink this cup we are to do it remembering Jesus. It makes sense that when we eat from the loaf at this table, when we drink from the cup that is poured here we will remember that particular meal, but it isn’t the only table at which Jesus reclined to eat.
But it isn’t the only place where he ate bread, communed and shared life, ate and shared loved. The Gospel according to Luke could be summed up as one dinner party after another. Jesus was ALWAYS eating. And when he ate it was often with the wrong people by everyone else's standards, because Jesus eats with people just like us. People who are imperfect, people who don't hit the mark every time, people who fall short.
This table table that is set before, this is the table where Jesus welcomes sinners. This is the table where Jesus meets us with his grace, with his forgiveness, and with his love. And when we recognize that’s exactly what we need and exactly what we will get, we can respond with great love, too.