Our lessons today bring us up squarely against one of those ways in which the language and world of the Bible confronts our world most profoundly. The Biblical world uses the term “sin” to express the chasm that separates human beings from their creator, and in our texts today, we see “sin” in all of its complexity and all of the suffering it causes. From the Hebrew Bible, there’s the story of King Ahab coveting and seizing a commoner’s vineyard. From Paul’s letter to the Galatians, our reading begins with words that shock us: “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” And the gospel presents the story of a sinful woman who receives forgiveness from Jesus.
Our culture is full of people who commit egregious acts: crimes against other humans, against loved ones, against the world. Celebrities and politicians make news weekly with stories of affairs. We have seen the effects of rampant greed and now for nearly two months we have watched as the Gulf of Mexico is destroyed by corporate greed, malfeasance, and neglect. We are quick to lay blame, to seek redress through courts of law or public humiliation, but loathe to name any of those acts, except the sexual ones, perhaps, as “sin.” Our therapeutic, feel-good culture makes the word “sin” stick in our throats. We can hardly speak it, except when we do so ritually, harmlessly in the confession.
For the biblical world, sin was a reality. It was not simply a mis-step, a little lie, a peccadillo, a mistake. It was real, almost at times, for some biblical writers like Paul, it seems to have had its own being. It certainly had power over humans, over us. Sin was not only something that affected the individual, however. It also changed one’s relationship to the community. That’s certainly what lies in the background of the gospel story and it also may lie behind Paul’s term: “Gentile sinners.”
The gospel story ends with a question: “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question leads us into the heart of the story, and into the heart of the story’s context, the meaning Luke wants us to take away when we read it. Our focus should be on Jesus, on his actions and his words, but so intriguing is it that we want to know more. We want to know who she was, what she did. We want to know the nature of the sins she committed. It’s a familiar story, beloved for the high drama and the interactions between Jesus and the other characters. Intriguing as well, because there are so many questions we want to ask, things we want to know.
This story is even more puzzling because it is one of those rare gospel stories that is recorded in all four gospels. Part of its mystery lies in the very different ways each gospel writer tells the story. Indeed, we heard a version of it earlier this spring, just before Easter. We heard John’s version of it, set in a very different context. John sets it in a different home, at a different time. In John’s telling of it, it takes place at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It is Mary who anoints Jesus. The act itself in John, as in Mark, is connected with Jesus’ death and burial. It also provides an occasion for conflict between Jesus and Judas Iscariot over the right use of money.
Luke has shifted the story chronologically. In his gospel it does not occur close to Jesus’ crucifixion. Instead, we are still fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. Because of the chronological shift, there is also a shift in meaning. Now the woman’s act of pouring oil on Jesus’ feet does not foreshadow his burial.
To understand Luke’s intention with the story, we need to pay attention to the setting in which he has placed it. It comes from chapter 7, a few verses after Jesus brought the widow of Nain’s son back to life. There is another important episode that separates these two stories. John the Baptizer, who is in prison, has sent some of his disciples to Jesus, to ask if he was the Messiah. Jesus responded by telling them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
After their departure, Jesus speaks extensively about John the Baptizer, concluding,
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; 34the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
Reading these two stories together leads us to the questions that John’s followers and those who witnessed the anointing asked. Who is this man? Who is Jesus? And by what authority does he do these things? By what authority does he say these things?
Immediately after those words of Jesus, begins the gospel we heard today. Jesus is invited to dine at the home of a Pharisee. No doubt, Simon invites him because he regards Jesus as someone with whom he can have a meal and a conversation, that they share values, and concerns about ritual cleanliness.
But suddenly that easy relationship is upended. Into this room of men, dining and eating together, comes a woman who has transgressed. Identified as a sinner, she threatens to make the entire assembly unclean. A woman, she transgresses the boundaries of gender. On top of it all, she invades Jesus’ personal space, and touches him, bathes him in what can only seem to be a seductive manner.
While at table, this woman, identified as a sinner, comes and anoints Jesus with oil. The story, then, serves to demonstrate the truth of that earlier remark. Jesus is a drunkard and a glutton, and a friend of sinners. It’s a doubly scandalous act. The host, Simon the Pharisee, takes note of it and wonders why Jesus did not rebuke her.
In the conversation that follows, the meaning of the act, and of the story become clear. Simon wonders to himself why Jesus, if he was a prophet, didn’t know the sort of woman she was. Jesus answers his unspoken question with a parable to show that greater sin means greater forgiveness, and leads to greater love. Jesus goes further, though, using the woman’s actions as a way of criticizing the hospitality of his host, pointing out her more gracious behavior. In the final interchange, Jesus speaks to the woman. His words are unsettling: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Hearing the parable set in the story, we understand what Jesus is saying. The one who has more need of forgiveness, has greater love. But for us that message rings hollow. Our culture is one where forgiveness seems an empty word. We are treated from time to time to spectacles in the media of celebrities or politicians who are caught, usually in some sexual indiscretion. And then the public ritual occurs: the politician with his wife at his side, mouthing platitudes, pleading for the electorate not to abandon him. Occasionally, if the behavior is especially egregious, we demand more. The withdrawal from the race, or from the public eye, at least for a while. But not too long, lest the media lose interest.
Forgiveness, too, in our church. The familiar words of the confession of sin: “We confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed, things we have done, and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as our self.” The words roll easily off our lips, rarely touching the depths of our soul, no matter how much we might need forgiveness, we don’t really ask. The plea for forgiveness comes from our lips, but not our hearts.
This gospel confronts us with the reality of sin, the reality of forgiveness, and the reality of love—God’s love of us, and the possibility of our love of God. We don’t know what happens to either Simon or the woman after this story ends and Jesus leaves the scene. We have Jesus’ words to her, “Go in peace.” We know that because of forgiveness, she is restored to the community, once more a part of that larger fellowship in which she lives.
But perhaps there’s more. Our gospel reading didn’t end with this story, but with the first few verses of chapter 8, in which Luke tells us about the women who followed Jesus from Galilee, alongside the twelve, women who ministered to him. That’s what this woman did as well. She provided for him out of her resources.
In these verses, we see not only Jesus’ power over sin, his ability to forgive, we see also the emergence of the new community that he calls into existence, a community in which all are welcome, men and women, good and bad, a community called together in his name. It is that community that calls us to faithfulness, calls us to invite all in, no matter their gender, or status, or lifestyle. It is that community, to which we belong, and which demands we open our hearts to Jesus’ forgiveness, and open our arms, offering forgiveness, and love, to all.