What does it feel like to be welcomed? To have someone greet you at the door with open arms? To smell freshly baked cookies coming from the oven? What does it feel like to be welcomed? Is it warm and inviting? Safe and secure? Does it make you grin from ear to ear? Does your soul do a happy dance on the inside? Just take a moment and think of the people and places that make you feel welcome. Notice what kinds of feelings this evokes.
Now, what does it feel like to be unwelcomed? To have the sense that someone has turned their back on you? To feel the unspoken gesture: “Talk to the hand…’Cause no one’s listening!” What does it feel like to be unwelcomed? Is it sad or painful? Rude or mean? Does it make you feel unloved and unappreciated? Does your soul feel like it’s going to shrivel up and die? Just take a moment and think of the people and places that make you feel unwelcome.Notice what kinds of feelings this evokes.
So, given the choice, I’ll take a wild guess that you would prefer to feel welcomed rather than unwelcomed. Am I right? I thought so!
Most churches like to think of themselves as welcoming places. It’s easy to put up a sign “All Are Welcome” but it’s harder to put into practice. If we went around this room, I’m certain there are a number of us who have been made to feel unwelcome in churches, whether it was intentional or not. You see, I’m convinced it’s not just mean people who make us feel unwelcome. There are lots of good-hearted people out there who love Jesus but who have also made us feel unwelcome. We probably need to confess this morning that there have been occasions when we have made someone feel unwelcome in church, whether it was intentional or not. I’m sure we’re all guilty of it. I know I’ve done it before. How about you?
So let’s be honest. The church is not a perfect institution, it’s a work in progress. If everyone could act like Jesus all the time we wouldn’t need a Savior. Amen? So how do we tip the balance? How do we become more welcoming? Well today’s gospel lesson
is a beautiful story about forgiveness and gratitude. I believe that when we grasp these two concepts, and make them a part of our lives, it changes us just like it changed the woman in the story. The end result is that we’ll become more welcoming because we have experienced the amazing and life-transforming forgiveness of Jesus.
So let’s get on with the story! There are four versions of this tale, one in each gospel. [Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13, Lk 7:36-50, Jn 12:1-8] If you ask most people who’ve heard this story before they’ll tell you it’s about Mary Magdalene who was the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet. Guess what? This description is about as accurate as Eve giving Adam an apple in Genesis 3! First of all, Mary Magdalene is not mentioned anywhere in any of the four accounts. Only Mary of Bethany is mentioned in John. Furthermore, there is no mention of prostitution in any of the four gospels. So let’s set that aside immediately!
I won’t bore you with all the gory details of how these four versions are different. You can look them up for yourselves if that’s interesting to you. What I’m interested in this morning is Luke’s version of the story. He is saying something very specific that is completely unique to his gospel. This is where we will spend our time together.
The setting of Luke’s version of the story is a dinner party. It’s being held at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus is on the guest list. As we try to picture this dinner party, we need visualize something more than simply having a few friends over for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. This is serious stuff. It’s a lavish, catered affair. Only the A-list of synagogue and society are invited. It’s more than eating food and drinking wine. It’s also an intellectual conversation where everyone tries to outsmart the other. If you’ve ever seen the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” it gives you an idea of the type of conversation that would be heard at this kind of party. I can picture Simon stressing out over the guest list, deciding who would sit where which indicates who is the most important guest in the room and who is not. So, as our story begins, Simon is a frazzled mess. He wants everything to be PERFECT. The WELCOME mat is out. The guests have arrived. The servants are buzzing around the room. Food, drink and conversation are flowing. Everything is going SO SMOOTHLY. Simon starts to relax a bit.
And then…SHE…SHE comes into the room! “I know I did not invite HER!!!!!” Simon thinks to himself. “Apparently she did not read the “No Trespassing Sinners” sign outside my door. Who does she think she is? She is NOT WELCOME here!”
Luke says that “a woman in the city, who was a sinner [NOTE: the Greek word used here does NOT imply she was a prostitute. It simply means she was a sinner, unclean. Whatever her uncleanliness was, it was apparently widely known by those at the dinner party.] This woman who was a sinner “stood behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment” from an alabaster jar she brought with her.”
Now, I need to impress upon you that from a cultural perspective, this woman didn’t simply interrupt the party. She brought the festivities to a screeching halt! Everything about her actions is inappropriate: 1.) She is an uninvited guest. Nobody likes a party crasher. 2.) She is a woman. She should be in the kitchen cooking and serving the food 3.) She touched a rabbi. Oh no, she didn’t! Oh, yes she did!
The guests at the party would have thought “Who does this woman think she is? She’s totally inappropriate! Simon should throw her out into the street like the piece of trash she is!!!!”
Luke tells us that when Simon saw the catastrophe that had become his dinner party, he said to 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.” In other words ” This woman shouldn’t be here. She is not worthy of your time, Jesus. The fact that you don’t recognize this says a lot about the kind of person you are.” Indeed, it does! Simon put up his unwelcome sign. But Jesus put up his welcome sign.
In order to diffuse the tension in the room, Jesus tells a story, which is something he often did when things got all hot and bothered. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon did the math in his head which was hardly a difficult calculation. The answer being a forgiveness ration of 10 to 1. So Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
This is where the story gets really interesting. Jesus turns toward the woman at his feet and says to Simon, “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.” In other words, “Simon, you haven’t even met the bare minimum of hospitality tonight. You think your welcome mat was laid of for me earlier this evening but you didn’t even take the time to wash my feet which is the bare minimum the Torah requires. This woman, whom you judge as a sinner, unworthy of your time, and unworthy of God’s forgiveness, has gone above and beyond the call of duty, treating me as a special guest, a cherished loved one.”
Jesus continued, “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.” What Jesus is saying is that Simon has been a horrible host. Simon is worried about rules and regulations, etiquette and appearances. Jesus’ concern is relationship: His relationship with Simon and his relationship with the woman weeping at his feet. In essence, Simon had posted a “No Trespassing” sign while Jesus had laid a Welcome mat at his feet.
As the story continues Jesus does something that is provocative and unexpected. He says to Simon, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then Jesus turned to the woman and said “Your sins are forgiven.”
When we first look at what Jesus says to this woman it might appear that he has forgiven her sins because of her lavish act of hospitality. However, the NRSV mistranslates the verb tense in the sentence where Jesus says “Your sins ARE forgiven.” I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but I am convinced this sentence should read “You sins HAVE BEEN forgiven” to match what Jesus said two sentences earlier. This might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but this makes a big difference in how we understand what Jesus is saying.
David Lose, who is the president of Gettysburg Seminary, put it this way: “I think we typically take such pronouncements in a present-tense kind of way, Assuming that Jesus is offering forgiveness right in that moment, as a response to the woman’s devotion and, perhaps, supplication. But in this case I don’t think that’s how it played out. I think Jesus had already met this woman, already forgiven her sins, and that she is now demonstrating her extreme gratitude, unable to hold back, unaware or uncaring of the surprise and stares and even disapproval of everyone else.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Lose’s observation of this text. The original Greek language supports it. Jesus obviously encountered this woman before the dinner party and forgave her sins. Her act of hospitality is an act of gratitude for the gift Jesus had already given her. It was such a valuable gift that she is willing to bring the dinner party to a screeching halt in order to give thanks to Jesus.
“Your sins HAVE BEEN forgiven.” This is the word of grace that Jesus spoke to the weeping woman at his feet. He speaks this same word of grace to us today. Do we believe it? Do we REALLY believe it? The good news of our gospel lesson is that Jesus has already met us out on the street! He placed his WELCOME mat at our feet and said to us, “Child of God, I love you! I gave my life for you and for all my children. I know you’ve made lots of mistakes and you’re going to make a WHOLE LOT more. But guess what? I declare to you that your sins HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN. It’s a done deal, once and for all. It never needs to be repeated again. The only thing you need to do is accept my gift and say Thank You. like the woman with the alabaster jar, Gratitude is the only possible response..You do not need to grovel at my feet and beg for forgiveness. You don’t need the approval of the Simons of this world who will judge you and tell you you’re unworthy to receive the gift. Forgiveness has already been offered. So enjoy it, give thanks, and live your life in my love, mercy and joy. Your faith in me and in my gift of forgiveness has saved your from the condemnation of others. Go in peace!
Friends in Christ, I hope our gospel lesson touches you in a profound place in your life today. When we can receive the good news that Christ has already forgiven us, hat this is a free gift we cannot earn, our hearts will overflow with gratitude. When this happens, a transformation takes place in our lives. Suddenly we become more welcoming of others. We are less like the Simon’s of this world who are always judging, criticizing and condemning, and we become more like Jesus! Isn’t that the goal we’re all striving for? AMEN? AMEN!
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck.