I grew up around sinners. No, not the common garden variety, as in “we’re all sinners” kind. Real sinners. The kind that my mother warned me to not fall into company with, the kind that folks crossed the street to avoid. I grew up around Sinners, with a capital “S”. The young single woman whose pregnant stomach stood out like a giant red letter for all the world to see. The enterprising fisherman whose arrest left four children fatherless because he was smuggling cocaine in the belly of his boat. The convicted sex offender. The drunks and the misfits and the ones who were no longer deemed acceptable – these were frequent visitors in our home, the kinds of people my parents called friends. More than once I recall waking in the night as one man, cried loudly in our dining room, drunkenly pouring out his heart to my father enumerating his many transgressions and detailing why he, of all people, did not deserve a second (or 100th) chance. Perhaps it was a consequence of living in a small town where everyone’s business was fit for public consumption and as such we just knew the worst about everyone. Or, maybe it was that my parents were particularly generous hearted folks, always seeing the best in others. Whatever the case was, I did not grow up knowing what others called “pleasant company.” No, as I say, I grew up around sinners.
We don’t talk much about sin these days – particularly in the Episcopal Church. Unless we are talking about the social injustices of a world bent on power and money, unless we’re critiquing some system out there, away from us, where the rich and the powerful exclude and exploit. Unless we keep it at a safe distance, we don’t often talk about sin. And, I suppose we don’t talk about it all that often, because Sin is personal, it is intimate, it is not respectable. Sin, as society defines it, is something that contradicts social norms. Sin is coarse and vulgar and best kept hidden. Sin is embarrassing.
The gospel talks about sin – a lot. In today’s lesson Jesus has been invited to a meal by a Pharisee, Simon, and one gets the impression that such a meal is inclusive of all the religious elite in town. Jesus is interesting. He has been preaching and healing and prophesying, and the learned and elite are intrigued by him. They have come to listen and to challenge, to engage in enlightened discourse about the theological trends of the day with the new guy, the young Turk from Galilee. This is a respectable gathering. This is pleasant company.
And, in the midst of that pleasant company enters a woman, who Luke simply identifies as a sinner. She begins to do unseemly things, intimate things. She weeps at Jesus’ feet. She showers him with tears and then in complete contradiction of the social norms of her day she lets down her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with expensive ointments from an alabaster jar, wiping and drying his feet with her long tresses and kissing them.
You might imagine the scene. Jaws drop. Throats choke on expensive food half-chewed. Lips splutter on fine wine. Who does she think she is? And better – Doesn’t Jesus know who she is?!? Luke never specifies what her sins were, but the reaction of Simon is enough to tell us that her transgressions were public and common knowledge. Simon mutters a critique of Jesus – “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.”
And Jesus’ offers a rebuttal in the form of a story. Suppose, says Jesus, suppose a creditor had two debtors – one owed 10 times more than the first. Imagine then that these debtors both could not pay their debt and the creditor graciously cancelled both. Who would love the creditor more?
The answer is obvious. For the one who more is forgiven, the love would be greatest.
And then Jesus points to the woman at his feet “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.”
Did you catch that subtle interpretation that Jesus pulls. While our lesson today concludes with Jesus proclaiming to the woman that her sins have been forgiven, it appears both in the story Jesus tells, and his interpretation of the woman’s acts, that Jesus believes her sins were already forgiven when she walked through the door – hence she has shown great love, he says. Her generous outpouring of love and worship and devotion at the feet of Jesus is indicative of the grace she has already experienced. She is responding in love and joy and gratitude. She is a sinner, as Luke tells us. But, she has been forgiven. And, she knows this, at the core of who she is, she knows that she is loved. She is not bound by sin.
And her prodigal outpouring of love and devotion stands in stark contrast to the religious elite, to the pleasant company around Jesus, who are the ones who intellectually know that God forgives, that grace abounds, that love is the very essence and nature of the divine – they know this, and yet their actions, or, rather, their lack of action speaks of a spiritual ignorance. By Simon’s lack of hospitality, it is clear he has not experienced God’s forgiveness at the core of his being.
And, the woman’s response is one of hope. Her actions, at the feet of Jesus are clearly the sign of a person who is free. Her generosity tells the world that she will not be defined by her mistakes, by her failings, by her shortcomings – her actions tell the world that she will live in hope – she is defined by grace.
So little of what we see and do in this world is defined by grace. Even in the church we get so tied up in knots trying to do things the right way, trying to respect the traditions and remember the rules. I had to chuckle when Pope Francis was elected, and he held Maundy Thursday services in a youth prison.
As you know, Maundy Thursday services have as a feature the ceremony of foot washing, a service that echoes with imagery from today’s gospel lesson. Usually the pope would select one or two representatives from the wider church whose feet he would wash in a symbolic way as an indication, very respectfully, of his being a servant to all. Usually these are held within the confines of a church or within the Vatican itself.
To hold the services elsewhere was enough to rankle traditionalist. But, when Francis opted to wash the feet of several common criminals, including those of young women and a Muslim, traditionalists were outraged.
One prominent Catholic Theologian wrote “He is violating our traditions!”
The Pontiff had set a “questionable example” he did not conform. The traditionalists could have just as easily written –
“Does he not know these are sinners?”
The reality is that sin is a condition of being human, of being fallible and weak and of failing. As the Prayerbook says, Sin is that moment when in our weakness we choose ourselves, we choose selfishly, and thus distort our relationship with God and others, and precisely at that moment we are not free. But, our tradition also teaches, and if we would but listen, we would know it at the core of our being, we have hope, God has redeemed each and every one of us. God has opened the way of new life to us.
As the Pope concluded that Maundy Thursday celebration –“thank you boys and girls, for your welcome today. I am happy to be with you. Go forward, alright? And do not let yourselves be robbed of hope, do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! Understood? Always with hope. Go forward!”
So is the same offered to us this morning. We are not in pleasant company – as much as we might like to be. We are sinners in the hands of a gracious and forgiving God. Go forth in hope. Grab your alabaster jars, let down your hair, you are forgiven – Go in peace to love and serve the world. Thanks be to God.