Thursday, June 17, 2010

Upstaging a Dinner Party

Readings appointed for this 3rd Sunday after Pentecost are I Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Talk about being upstaged! Here’s a Pharisee—a very proper fellow, a man with pretty rigid standards, a host who would insist on certain manners at his table—who has Jesus as his guest.

If you were this Pharisee, how would you want the evening to go? That could depend on who else is reclining at the table with you, and while St. Luke doesn’t tell us who else was invited, we can be sure they’d all be men. The woman we hear about was not an invited guest. She was a walk-in.

But back to the guest list. At some social events Jesus attended, we’re told that his disciples were invited also, but not this time. I’d guess, though, that there were other Pharisees present, and what they were staging at this meal was an opportunity to Meet the Messiah. (That’s what I imagined got said behind the scenes, behind people’s backs, as this host invited his guests, poking each in the ribs and chuckling, “At least he thinks he’s the Messiah! Let’s hear what he has to say for himself.”

One other thing we know about these men gathered around this low table: each would be reclining on a cushion, perhaps side-saddle, legs out to one side, or legs stretched out full, feet bare because sandals have been left at the door.

And all of a sudden there is a woman in the room. She stands behind Jesus at his feet. She is crying.

You are the Pharisee. How is your dinner party going? What do you do?

We’re told that the first thing this host did was to judge the character of this woman. The words may be Luke’s, but he’s conveying the judgment of the host when he says that she is “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” This woman had a reputation.

And she is fearless. She knows she’s not welcome there, but there is where she must be because there is where he is, Jesus, and she is a woman on a mission: to love him, because he has loved her. We’re told no details, but she must have been among the women mentioned by Luke at the close of his story, women who, having been used and abused by men and their society, had met healing at the touch of Jesus. This woman was one of many pioneers of the new life that is found when Jesus Christ is trusted to set us right with God, when we are (in St. Paul’s language) justified not by how good we try to be, but by how good we let him be for us and in us and through us.

Her story is told in two places, here in Luke and, with some variations, late in Matthew’s Gospel. As the early Church came to tell and appreciate the story, this woman’s mission was to anoint him for his burial, says Matthew. That’s the sense they made of this story, at least as an allegory. But there’s something more inspiring that’s happening, and we see it in the moment when she upstages the Pharisee.

She has brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. Doesn’t that sound expensive? Can you imagine one of the guests muttering, “Wonder how she got the money for that?”?

She bends over Jesus’s feet, bathing them with her tears. At the Last Supper, Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples and they would balk at that because it was the role of a servant to wash the dusty feet of guests. This woman does that for Jesus with immense intimacy.

And she uses her hair to dry his feet. When I read this Gospel during the week, I found myself thinking of the human hair being used in the booms to absorb the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico. No more, I’m told: it’s too labor-intensive to do the job now. But for a while, didn’t it feel like a humanizing of that vast tragedy? Some small part of me might play some small role in making right something so wrong… Something like that is going on here.

And it’s not what our Pharisee had in mind. The upstaging is even greater when this gate-crashing woman kisses Jesus’s feet and anoints them with her oil. Talk about making a statement! Anointing had meaning: she could be claiming the right of family to anoint the body of a loved one for burial. She could be claiming the role of a prophet to anoint a king for Israel.

Or she could be a crazy person, and I’ll guess that was the opinion almost all the way around that table. What’s a host to do?

First, he judges the woman as someone to be dismissed. Then he judges Jesus, grumbling under his breath, “Some prophet! He can’t even read the character of a sinner like this one…”

And here is where the story starts to inspire. Jesus draws a breath, turns to his host, calls him by name: “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” Hear the dishonesty in his calling Jesus Teacher. Hear the arrogance (or is it fear?) in the single word, Speak.

His fear is well-founded. Jesus proceeds to tell perhaps the shortest of his many parables, short sayings with sharp edges.

Is Simon a man of wealth, that Jesus catches him with a parable involving money and debt? What the parable is about is forgiveness, and its power lies in how easy it is to imagine relief and gratitude when Mr. Creditor cancels the debts of two people who owe him, one having a debt of $3,000 forgiven… and then to imagine the impact of Mr. Creditor’s erasing a debt of ten times that amount for the other debtor, $30,000. A denarius was a day’s wage, so my figures are in today’s terms, at minimum wage.

They say a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Two debtors in this parable: two people dominate that room in which it’s told. One is a tight-minded button-down host, the other an effusive expressive uninvited guest.

From where Jesus is coming from, they ‘re both sinners. By the terms of the parable, they’re both candidates for forgiveness. This woman off the street has opened every level of her being to the healing and mercy of God in Jesus. By the terms of the parable, she has already tasted the sweet freedom of $30,000 (so to speak) of grace, unearned and undeserved.

By the terms of the parable, you might say that our self-important host is showing about one-tenth her receptiveness, her honesty, her intensity when it comes to wanting a new life, a change of heart, a revolution at the center of the soul. And that percentage may be giving him more credit than he deserves.

But that’s exactly where Jesus comes from. There’s heaven, his throwing-open the embrace of God to everyone. For heaven’s sake, he preaches a whole short sermon to self-important Simon, hoping to introduce him to an entirely new way to define himself, to understand himself, to be justified, to live his life.

This is not how Simon the Pharisee expected his dinner party to go, is it?

That sharp little parable slices open the inspiration the Spirit has for us in this story. Isn’t it there in that verse, “The person who has been forgiven little loves little…”?

There’s the lens for seeing this story of two human beings. One is stiff, cold, proper, judgmental-- and those adjectives are the terms of his bondage. Pressed by Jesus to decipher the meaning of his parable, the best this man can do is to “suppose” that the bigger debtor was also the likelier to let gratitude breed love. “You have judged rightly,” replies Jesus with, I think, a touch of sarcasm.

And at this point, Jesus takes his gloves off and pummels the man, as if making him the main course at his own banquet, scolding him for stingey hospitality, using every one of the woman’s actions to critique the Pharisee’s chosen frozen attitude and behavior. Ouch!

And the other human being in this story is so much his opposite. It took guts for her to step into that force-field of control, none of which she owned, and there find her freedom to weep and wipe and kiss and anoint, violating rule after rule that would matter to all the men at that table, except one.

At the eucharist at Williamstown Commons last Wednesday, I asked the residents which of these two people they’d prefer to spend the day with. Yes, they chose her, the uninvited guest, the enthusiast, the one with a past who knows how to treasure the present, the deeply open one, the richly forgiven extravagant lover, one who cuts to the chase and gets things done.

That this story has been told, these two thousand years, tells us that we have the choices sketched in the story:

To define ourselves, to be justified, as the Pharisee…

To open ourselves, to welcome new life at the center of the soul, and then act upon that, to the point of risk and sacrifice, as the woman off the street…

To forgive, like Jesus, like God the creditor, to whom we owe more than we can repay… God, who by grace frees us from this realm of debt and obligation, into a
relationship of love, an adventure always just begun.