What kind of sinner is the woman in today’s gospel? The one who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints him with oil… What has she done? What is her sin?
We don’t know. The text doesn’t say. And yet we do… because centuries of traditions and innuendos have passed along to us that this woman is a prostitute or had committed some type of sexual sin that requires an act of such extreme repentance.
What about Mary Magdalene, mentioned at the end of the gospel passage today. Luke says that Jesus cast seven demons out of her—Jesus healed her. But is she also some sort of “woman of ill-repute”? Not from the text… (nor, might I add, in the text is it at all implied that she is Jesus’ wife, no matter what Dan Brown claims in the DaVinci Code). It’s the centuries of Christian tradition that takes women who do radical acts of faith and carves out their dignity by making them sound dirty or illicit.
What about Jezebel? What’s her sin? So much of this fascinates me today, because if you ignore this morning’s story, I bet you’d have a similar answer for what Jezebel’s sin is as you would with Mary Magdalene and the unnamed woman in today’s Gospel. She’s a painted lady, right—some sort of harlot? If you get called a “Jezebel” today, it’s not a compliment. And yet—if you read the actual text, Jezebel’s sins are twofold: first, she is a foreigner, she is not a Jew, and so she worships Baal, and convinces her weak husband, King Ahab to worship Baal as well. As you can see from today’s text, (House of Cards episode) Ahab isn’t exactly a paragon of moral strength and fortitude. Her other sin is depicted today—she utilizes her power as the Queen to underhandedly kill Naboth so that Ahab can steal his vineyard.
So Jezebel’s sinfulness has nothing to do with her sexuality; it’s never even implied in scripture that she was unfaithful to Ahab, though God knows based upon his whininess in today’s passage, it would certainly be understandable. Jezebel’s sinfulness is her worship of the god of her people—Baal—and the murder of Naboth.
Now, before I go where I’m going next with this, I want to be clear: murdering people who interfere with your plans when you are ruling a nation is wrong.
But here’s an interesting thing. Our lectionary—the assigned, three year series of biblical readings for our worship—has two Hebrew Bible options for reading this season. Track 1 follows the arc of Elijah and Elisha’s minister. Track 2 has a series of readings that highlight themes in the Gospel readings. This year we’re using Track 1, hence today’s story. But if we were using Track 2 this year, today’s Hebrew Bible reading would be the passage where the prophet Nathan confronts King David over his sin with “committing adultery with” Bathsheba (which is a Biblical way of saying he did not receive consent from her), and having her husband Uriah killed so her can marry the now-pregnant Bathsheba.
You see why this is interesting? These stories are so similar—both rulers have someone killed so that they can get what they want. David is beloved by history as the epitome of the great—if flawed—king. Jezebel becomes a watchword for women who wear too much makeup and don’t know their place. I don’t mean to minimize the important differences in the stories—David sins, but still loves God, and he repents. Jezebel doesn’t follow the ways of the Lord, and she certainly doesn’t repent. But I think they point to fundamentally different ways of approaching women’s sins and men’s sins not just in scripture but in how we have been interpreting the scripture for thousands of years, and how we today have been conditioned to hear the scripture. I hear “David” and I have been conditioned to think “Great king, did some bad stuff too, but one of the bright lights of Israel’s history,” not “rapist and murderer.” I hear Jezebel and have been conditioned to think “vindictive harlot” instead of “Strong female leader.”
And that conditioning goes beyond the Hebrew Bible. When I was at Bible study with my colleagues ten days ago, I expressed my frustration that the woman who acts powerfully—Jezebel—is remembered only as sinful, and the woman who I perceived as being as passive and submissive—the woman in Luke’s gospel today--is viewed as the ideal. My friends pushed back: the sinful woman who walks into a party of hostile strangers where she is not invited and proceeds to do this radical and intimate act of hospitality is neither passive nor submissive.
Huh. It made me see the story in a different way—my concerns are still there.. she’s still on her knees, she’s still silent, she’s still nameless. But now I see her courage. Now I see her confidence. I always imagined her standing next to Jesus as he lectures Simon with her eyes downcast, kind of melting into the floor. But maybe she looks up at Simon through her tears; maybe because she has been freed of the sins that are weighing on her heart. Maybe she looks up at Jesus, smiling radiantly in her gratitude that her sins—whatever they are—have been put away.
What I’m realizing from both today’s lessons and the traditional interpretations of them and my own experience of hearing the occasional confession is that the sins we believe we have committed—the sins that we point to in our own lives and those of others—are not always our actual sins. Sometimes it’s obvious… but often, to get down to our real sins takes discernment and introspection and a careful reading of our lives—as we may see from our need to do a careful reading of the scripture today to see what’s really going on. Just as we make assumptions about the various sinners in today’s readings and in the King David story—where sometimes we attribute sins through our conditioning, and sometimes we ignore sins because of our conditioning—we do the same thing in our own lives. We hide sins, even from ourselves; or we display sins proudly in the hopes that no one will look any deeper to see what else is there.
But without that soul searching, there can be no grace.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? (I know I’m taking people to a dark place today but that’s where the readings have taken us) What’s the sin—or the sins—that weigh on your heart, and that you can’t imagine ever being forgiven for by God or the person or people you sinned against? I don’t want you to tell me, but I want you to hold that image in your mind and heart. What does that sin prevent you from doing? What relationships is that sin—even if it was long ago—holding back or breaking?
And now imagine what it would be like to have that sin gone. Put away. Forgiven. By both God and human beings. Imagine what it would be like if that sin no longer had power over you.
That’s grace. That’s mercy. And that’s what Jesus is offering today, not just to the woman but to Simon and to us. It’s hard to imagine what such freedom might feel like. And it might bring us to tears, or to our knees. If we are thankful enough. And if we are willing to express our thanks in the hard, messy, uncontrolled business of repentance and forgiveness. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so good today. We are justified not by our lack of sins, but by our faith: because we are ALL sinners in need of grace. And in fact, the person with the greater sins, instead of being vilified, is celebrated, because they’ve come farther. Their gratitude is over the top, public, embarrassing.
We have received that same gift of grace as the woman in Luke’s gospel. How will we respond in thanksgiving? I’d love for you to sit with that this week… how can I show my thanks for the grace that has been shown me?