A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
June 16, 2013
Psalm 32:1-11; Luke 7:36-50
It is interesting how a tiny, two-letter word can make such a huge, huge difference in the way a story is told. But it does… at least in the account we read a few moments ago from Luke’s gospel. When Luke introduces us to the woman who invades Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, in order to anoint Jesus’ feet with her ointment and tears, then wipe them with her long hair, he tells us she was a woman in the city. Not of the city, but in the city. That could pretty much describe any female thereabouts, don’t you think? Leave it at that and Luke could be talking about any woman in the near vicinity.
A woman in the city.
When you say she is a woman of the city, however, that’s a whole different ballgame. It changes things altogether. But Luke doesn’t say that. He informs us she is a woman in the city. I wonder why. Do you wonder why? It is a small, subtle but very important difference made by these two little letters, is it not?
Having said that however, and just so there isn’t any confusion about the kind of woman she is, Luke quickly sets everything straight and lets us know she is indeed a sinner. What does that mean?
Well, we all know – and if we have no one else for this, we have the Apostle Paul to bring it to our attention – that we are all sinners. All of us, without exception. Paul even went so far as to describe himself as the “chiefest” of sinners… though we can’t help but think that he might be just a tad self-deprecating when he says that. Still, if Paul’s that bad off, how much worse must we be? Is it Luke’s point that being described as a sinner doesn’t really set this woman apart from anyone else? Could be. After all, earlier in his gospel, he uses the very same word to describe Simon Peter.1
Of all people, Simon Peter! Does Luke mean this woman is your average, run-of-the-mill sinner? If so, why even bring it up? Why use the word to describe her?
But we all know – don’t we? (wink, wink) – that there are sinners and then there are sinners. You know what I mean.
And now we’re getting to the nub of the matter.
Maybe Luke doesn’t want to come right out and say it, but we can’t help but think it (the children have gone downstairs, haven’t they?… not that they’d be listening anyway) that she is a dirty little prostitute. We are not told that specifically, but come on… it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure this out. And despite the fact that Luke is rather kind to her by describing her as a woman in the city and not of the city, when you think about it, all you have to do is look at her… I mean, she dresses like a prostitute, and her makeup is so thick you could pave a road with it. Check out the jangly, gaudy jewelry, the boozy breath, and my goodness, she’s got on enough perfume to choke a camel. And she let’s her hair down in the presence of the men, something that only a prostitute would do in that day and time. She’s that kind of sinful. In fact, regardless of how Luke wants to frame it, we can’t help but be convinced that she is truly a woman of the city,
As you well know… well, most of you know… our daughter Emily and her family live in Macon, Georgia. Needless to say, during the last twenty years or so we’ve pretty much memorized the route between here and middle Georgia. For a long time Janet and I would take I-40 to Memphis, skirt the west side of the city, and then head southeast on Highway 78 through Mississippi and Alabama. But then they started all that construction over in White County, so we began detouring around it on Highway 70. That takes us through the little towns of Carlisle, Hazen, and DeValls Bluff. You know what? We’ve come to enjoy that portion of the trip. There’s really no prettier place than the Arkansas Delta, especially in the early morning. Then, we found that taking Highway 49 to Helena, through Oxford and down to Tupelo was a more direct route. It takes about the same amount of time, but it’s shorter. There’s very little traffic, we don’t have to jockey around all those big trucks, and we don’t have to go to Memphis with all the choking traffic and the traffic lights.
But do you want to know one reason why we don’t go through Memphis any more? The prostitutes. They ply their trade along the road around the honky-tonks that line portions of the highway through town. Some of them look younger than teenagers. It just broke our hearts to see it, so we don’t go that way anymore.
In the story Luke provides us, Memphis has come to Simon’s house and she can’t be avoided. And while the “woman in the city,” this sinner, kisses Jesus’ feet while anointing them with the oil she has brought with her – I would call that a premeditated act, wouldn’t you? – Simon the host isn’t thinking about her, he’s casting inward aspersions at his invited guest. “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.”
This situation calls to mind at least a couple of thoughts. One is that it obviously doesn’t take a prophet to see what kind of woman this is. Anybody, even those who are slow on the uptake, could see what kind of woman she is. After all, Simon isn’t a prophet – just a Pharisee – and he knows. Why would Jesus have to be a prophet to figure out the nature of her “business”? Anybody could do that.
Another thought is, how does Luke know what Simon is thinking? Is Luke a mind-reader? No, but Jesus is. We are told elsewhere that he knew what was in the hearts of those he encountered, and attitudes, such as the one Simon had, begin with the heart. Jesus knew instinctively what his host was thinking.
It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to consider a story like this, one from scripture, that is, unless we are willing to place ourselves within it. If you had been there – better yet, if you had been the host – how would you have reacted? First to the woman, and then to the manner in which Jesus allowed her to do what she did?
That question leads to yet a couple of other thoughts. If Simon recognized her for what she was, why didn’t he just kick her out? It’s his house. He can do anything he wants. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to rudely show her the door… and maybe even plant her face on the sidewalk as she is pushed out? Teach her a rough lesson? Why does Simon tolerate her presence? Maybe he’s taking some perverted pleasure in watching how Jesus reacts to all of this. He’s enjoying the fact that Jesus is being put on the spot. “Boy, just wait til my buddies over at the lodge hear about this!” Evidently, his motive for having Jesus come to his home in the first place is less than sincere. He wants to check him out and no doubt put him on the hot-seat. Now, he doesn’t have to do it. The woman from Memphis does it for him. It’s a win-win for good old Simon.
We mentioned that it was a premeditated act, didn’t we? What does that mean? It means the woman had one reason for invading Simon’s house and dinner party, and one reason alone. She came in order to be forgiven. And she knows that Jesus is the One who can do it. From everybody else she gets scornful looks and a rude reception, but from Jesus she receives unmerited grace. She has come to Simon’s house, uninvited by her host, to express her love to the Forgiver, who is more than happy to receive her.
You are probably aware that there were certain protocols in that day for this kind of social gathering, customs that were quite different from the way we do things today. If you hosted guests in your home, you had a pan of water and a towel available with which to wash their feet. Streets were dusty and folks wore sandals. That part of the world back then was more akin to the Oriental world than the western, like ours. In many parts of the east even today, when people enter a home, they remove their shoes. Not only is it a matter of hygiene, it is a show of respect. Back then, feet were washed in order to remove the road dust. It was a means of housekeeping, yes, but it was also the customary and kindly thing to do. And Simon let Jesus sit at his table with dusty feet.
The host, as a sign of affection and true hospitality, would give the kiss of peace to his guests. Not Simon. Evidently, he felt that Jesus was of a minor station in life, and he didn’t want to lower himself to the level of the peasant Galilean carpenter. That alone would lead us to think he had an ulterior motive in inviting Jesus to his home… perhaps to check him out and question him. Simon could then report to his fellow Pharisees so they could determine how best to deal with the upstart rabbi.
Regardless of what his reasons might have been, Simon — according to the customs of the day — treats Jesus poorly. But the woman does not. She accords Jesus all the graciousness that Simon fails to give. Simon is sitting there thinking, “I can’t believe he is letting her touch him like that,” and Jesus knows what’s going on in his mind. So, Jesus does what Jesus does best… he tells Simon a story. It is not long, but in its brevity Jesus gets right to the point.
A creditor had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, the equivalent of about a year-and-a-half’s wages. The other owed fifty, less than two month’s wages. “When they could not pay,” Jesus says, “he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
The answer is obvious and Simon can only respond accordingly. “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt. I suppose…”
And just so there isn’t any confusion on Simon’s part and he doesn’t understand the point of Jesus’ story, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter. As a physician would cut open a patient in the operating room, he takes his scalpel and surgically compares Simon and the sinful woman. She washed his feet with her tears, Jesus reminds him, when he, Simon, offered his guest no water. Simon gave Jesus no kiss of peace and greeting, but she never stopped kissing his feet. She anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, another custom Simon had refused to follow.
Contrast her sinful life with the righteous Pharisee. His sins — at least according to his way of thinking, and maybe ours as well — are few. She doesn’t have to journey far into her memory to recall her many, many sins, while he will have a hard time remembering the last time he did anything wrong. But because she has been forgiven for so much, her love for Jesus is large. Because he, Simon, needs no such forgiveness, his love, not to mention his hospitality, and his heart, is small.
Simon invited Jesus into his home, but did not treat him with respect. This unnamed woman, without speaking a word, asked Jesus into her heart, and in doing so sought and found forgiveness. Where do you think Jesus would rather be, in Simon’s home or in the woman’s heart? And what does that teach you and me?
It tells me that Jesus probably wouldn’t avoid Memphis.
Lord, indeed we are sinners all. Our prayer, our hope, is that our gratitude is as big as your forgiveness. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Verlee A. Copeland, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 143.