Text: Luke 7:36-8:3
Since being out of school and in the real world and moving to a new town, I have learned an abundance of approaches on “how to meet someone” that will result in not really getting to know that person at all. Said another way, I have unintentionally become fluent in small talk. You know, the kind of talk that basically produces one-dimensional conversations, and even relationships. True adulthood.
For example, just after I moved to Raleigh, I was invited to hang out with a group of women my age at the park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I somehow, within three minutes of meeting these women accidentally launch into full on interview mode. Going around the circle practically asking each woman, one by one, what they did – as in, where they worked. I thought I was starting conversation, but I remember watching each one visibly cringe at the question. Not only does next to nobody want to be talking about work on a beautiful day at the park, but probably more importantly who wants to be pin-holed and defined, right off the bat, by what they do for a living.
My intentions were good but my assumptions and strategy were horrible! Needless to say, nine months later I have only a meager Facebookian friendship with one of these women.
Learning, or figuring out, or getting to know, or seeing people for who they are is no small task – or small talk.
Today’s story, for many I’m sure, has been a story read and heard and preached on in, well, excess. It does, after all, pop-up in all four gospels, though dressed a little differently; there is some individual expression to each telling of this story. The author of Luke and Acts, who we’ll just call Luke, is super smart and literarily trained. He writes the opening four verses of this book in a highly stylized way, formal and refined, familiar to the well-educated citizens of the Roman Empire. And then he switches and varies writing style – like driving a stick shift through Judea – changing sentence structure and speed per situation and per location of each episode inside this 24-chapter book. This smarty even cities his sources in the birth narrative.
It’s as if Luke is not only making a case for the gospel’s universal-inclusive-everyone significance inside the stories but he’s doing it also with the stories. He’s writing in aristocratic airs and southern slang, neighborhood gossip and yes even grocery-store small talk. Luke is extremely concerned with both accessibility of the gospel and accessibility as the gospel.
Luke’s biography of Jesus is logical and deliberate. There are more “types of people,” a larger variety of labels, present and interacting with Jesus in this gospel account than any of the others.
Marion Soards says in the introduction of the new Oxford Annotated NRSV – yes seniors, that’s the big red one the congregation gave you last month – that, if you become actively involved in Luke, you will find specific signals, that will provoke specific questions, that will then be answered once the whole book has been read.
My friends, I am afraid, that this gospel is a workbook. It is a workbook intentionally designed to emphasize God’s universal compassion for each reader and to quote Marion and to give our graduation gift one more shout out, “it is primarily interested in communicating that we all will find profound personal significance in becoming people who live in a manner consistent with God’s intentions for the life of all humanity.” In a nutshell: peace and wellbeing, to and for all.
And so, for our backdrop, just before we see today’s lesson about Simon, Jesus, and an emancipated woman, Jesus is talking to a crowd and he says, “You people! To whom will I compare this generation? You all look at my cousin J.B., who eats no bread and drinks no wine and lives out in the desert and you label him ‘as having a demon.’ And then you look at me, who eats and drinks with everyone, everywhere and you label me ‘a glutton and a drunkard who hangs out with the bad crowd.’ You people!”
Luke then shifts gears right into today’s episode telling us that Jesus has been invited by one of the Pharisees to his house for a fancy dinner party. We know it is fancy because of the particular Greek verb for reclined that Luke uses.
This is a banquet and it has been publicized and advertised. E-entertainment, Hollywood-access, and CNN are covering this thing. It is no surprise that when the event came, the woman in our story was able to find Jesus. She walked in, went straight to him, and wept. With tears running down her face she washed his feet, loosened her headdress, unbound her hair, and dried his feet. She then kissed and poured perfume on them.
Scholars note that Luke is careful here to tell us of her tears. This is to be read as a literary signal to caution any interpretation of this scene as erotic.
The hosting Pharisee’s instinctual thought is the common cultural assumption of the time, “true prophets know the true character of those they are dealing with. Let’s see if Jesus can tell that this woman who is washing his feet is a whore.”
Evidenced by the mini-parable about the debtors that Jesus then launches into, indeed confirms Simon’s assumptions: Jesus does in fact know the true character of who he is dealing with, Simon just didn’t quite realize that Jesus was dealing with his character.
Oh how often this happens in our lives!
After tongue tying Simon in a mental rubix-cube, point by point running a replay of his hospitality-less greeting, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “I can see that your past is behind you and that your faith has freed you, continue in peace.”
This scene, those words, are so profound!
Fitzmyer who wrote the Anchor commentary on this says “Jesus does not deny that her sins have been many, he acknowledges that she is no longer under the burden of them.” This woman is living and walking and expressing in freedom; emancipated and unbound.
And Jesus attempts to show Simon that when we, as human beings, all of us, know forgiveness – that when we know what it’s like to move out of our past, to be freed from our prisons, whatever they are, when we know in our bones our resurrection – then we cannot help but live life in this manner; expressing freely in our own ways, and in our own timing great love.
Simon is witness to an extraordinarily beautiful moment of humanity and Jesus tries to help him see it.
To be fair, Simon is not wrong at the alarming nature of this woman’s banquet attendance and behavior. It was, without a doubt, socially inappropriate. But in this whole episode Simon is so preoccupied. He’s holding the banquet of the season for the prophet of the century at his house. There are so many roles and labels, so many socially-constructed-what-do-you-do-for-a-living-categories, so many types of people going on here. We’ve got a pharisee, a prophet, a sinner, a teacher. If we read this week’s lesson in the workbook carefully, we’ll notice that Jesus, just before and throughout this episode is addressed and identified by people using one social label after another, and yet Luke writes Jesus as addressing each person, simply calling Simon, “Simon” and this woman, “woman.”
Simon is so wrapped up in the social appropriateness or inappropriateness, in the what people do for a living, Jesus’ reputation, this woman’s reputation, and probably making sure CNN gets his good side – that he misses it. He totally botches his hosting duties and totally misses this breath-takingly beautiful, bold, tender scene of humanity and gratitude and great love.
When we small-talk our way through life, living preoccupied with God-knows what and we default to organize those around us and their behavior into socially constructed categories; and often potentially like Simon, we do it subconsciously or ignorantly, rarely maliciously – remember Jesus’ reaction to Simon was one of revealing and highlighting not rebuking and correcting. But when we do this: small-talk our way through life and live preoccupied, we miss out. We miss it. We see things only clothed in our own cultural norms instead of authentically as the unbound, emancipated, breathtakingly beautiful creation that we all are. You, me, and the trees.
My friend Ashlee and I got really lucky one night. We went out for Mexican and it was a gorgeous evening so we decided to sit outside. And after we were done eating and still finishing our drinks this man walked up from around the corner. My instinctual thought, the common cultural assumption, was that this man was homeless and he was about to hit us up for cash. When he stopped he pointed at our salsa and said, “I bet that’s good dip. Is it good dip tonight?”
We paused for a minute and said, “Yeah it is… Do you want some? Here’s some chips.” He said, “Oh yeah! Definitely.” So he grabs a chip and takes a healthy scoop. But then he then stops with the chip mid-air and I start to see his eyes roll into the back of his head. I think to myself “Oooooh, no, this man is about to pass out drunk.” He then begins muttering something and after a few sentences, I realize it’s a blessing; a prayer of gratitude for the meal sandwiched around some deep confessional sentences I couldn’t really make out. He then rolls his eyes back forward opens his mouth wide, in which I detect only two upper bicuspids, shoves that chip in there and somehow crunches big. “Mmmmm!” He says, “Mmmm! MMM MMM MMMMMM!” Ashlee and I shocked at how good the bite tasted to him, shocked at how good in fact tonight’s salsa really was, that we offer him some more. But he simply waved a good bye, gave a thank you nod and on he went.
An extraordinarily beautiful moment of humanity, unbound. Emancipated from our typical assumptions, preoccupations, and cultural categories.
A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when we could not pay, he cancelled the debts for us both.