Meeting Jesus among tears and dusty feet

Luke 7: 36-50
August 30, 2015
Mary Hammond

Decades ago, a man told me that one of the reasons he did not come to church anymore was because he cried every time he came. My response to this confession was, “If you can’t cry at church, where can you cry?” Yet, for his own reasons, this man didn’t feel safe crying at church. Maybe he spent a lifetime keeping his tears bottled up inside. Maybe he felt ashamed, weak, or too vulnerable, crying in the public setting of a church pew.

Recently, Robin Wallace (who joyfully said I could use her name and reflections), told me that she cried every Sunday the first six months she came to church. Here is what she shared with me in an e-mail:
“When I came there that first Sunday, I believe a couple of different things happened…First of all, I felt totally safe. I mean, really, when I think of it, I just began crying at the first note on the piano and stopped during the benediction…every week. And I thought to myself, “I can’t stop crying…” (then realized), “Oh, dear God…I am safe here.” That was an enormous truth and I wept more. I mean, it was like the Holy Spirit turned a faucet on my heart…and the flood of tears came quietly out. I remember occasionally someone might reach up and just softly touch me in a knowing way…someone handed me a tissue once…those moments were huge for me…I felt loved and cared for and safe to cry. No one needed me to do anything or be strong for them…I could just be. And at some point I slowly realized that it would even be OK if I needed someone.”

Tears arise from many emotions. This is one observation author and social worker, Pete Walker, makes about crying in his book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”: “Crying carries the energy of pain out of the body through the physical motions, sounds, and tears of weeping. Crying emotes our pain out in the true sense of the Latin derivative ’emovere’ which means ‘to move out'” (p. 79, Azure Coyote Publishing, 1995).

The Gospel story before us today is intense, as we could tell by the reading itself. It is intimate. It is emotional. It surfaces conflict in the room where it takes place. It is transforming for one person, and yet not for another. It is a deep story, and we can barely touch those depths today in these brief reflections.

We start out at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, who invites Jesus to dinner. The Pharisees are devout religious leaders who generally oppose much of what Jesus says and does. Some, however, are curious and want to know more about Jesus. Simon initially seems to be one of the latter. Yet the story unmasks his heart.

Aside from Simon and his guests, there is another character in the narrative, an interloper. This is a woman, whom The Message Bible refers to as “the town harlot.” Older translations use the phrase, “a sinner.” The inference is the same.

This woman is unnamed by Luke, the Gospel’s author. She is known only by her dubious reputation. Yet she wasn’t born with the name “sinner” or “town harlot.” She was born with the name Leila or Mary, Susan or Barbara, or some other name.

This woman has a story. It might be a tragic tale of childhood neglect and abuse. It might be a testimony of poverty and deprivation. We do not know.

What has this woman done with her vulnerability over the years, to garner the reputation of “sinner” or “town harlot”? Has she stuffed that vulnerability into a deep inner closet in order to survive abuse in private and scorn in public? How many times has she silenced her tears?

Let’s dignify this woman by giving her a name. For our purposes today, let’s call her ‘Leila.’

So, Jesus is attending a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee, who is named in the text, by the way. And in comes Leila. To the host, she is just a “sinner,”or “the town harlot.” But to Jesus, she has a name and a story. She is a person.

Leila is pretty cheeky to crash this dinner gathering. There is more that we could say about that, but we don’t have time. What does she have to lose, anyhow? She enters, ignores everyone else, and zeroes in on Jesus. Not just that, but she is so overcome with emotion when she sees him that she kneels beside Jesus and starts sobbing, so strongly in fact that she waters his feet with her tears. That’s some serious crying.

Leila takes down her hair, a very provocative act in that culture for a woman in public. She then uses her long tresses to wipe her tears off Jesus’ feet and kisses them. Her final act is anointing his feet with perfume.

All of this happens in front of the dinner guests. Can you imagine? Simon, the Pharisee, thinks to himself, “If [Jesus] was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is.”

Hm. “What kind of woman THIS IS.”

Do you know the difference between shame and guilt? Shame is rooted in who we are–feeling defective and flawed, feeling like “If you really knew me, you would not love me.” Guilt, in contrast, is about what we do—the acts that we commit or omit which we have the power and agency to change.

Simon’s thoughts about Leila are shaming. They are about who he thinks she is. To Simon, she is “sinner” or “town harlot.” In this way, Simon un-names her.

Last week, Cindi Byron-Dixon shared the tragic story of a young man her family knows who has made devastating decisions which led to shooting and killing a man in the midst of a robbery. The newspapers have un-named him. Social media has un-named him. He is now “murderer,” and “criminal”…not the strong, principled boy they have known for years, who got caught up with the wrong crowd and spiraled down a tragic path.

Jesus reaches inside Simon’s thoughts, and tells him a story about two men and a creditor to whom they owe a lot of money. One man owes 500 silver pieces, the other 50. Neither can pay up, so the creditor cancels both debts. ‘Which debtor is more appreciative?’ Jesus asks.

This is an easy one for Simon. “The one who owed more,” he replies. Jesus commends this answer. But then he takes the story full circle and relates it back to Leila. Uninvited and unwelcome, she embraces the role of slave or house servant by washing Jesus’ feet. She offers Jesus a lavish welcome and her rapt attention. Her profound vulnerability is bathed in unending gratitude. What has Simon offered Jesus?

While looking at the woman, Jesus then tells Simon, “She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”

Notice that Jesus is looking at the woman–looking in her face, gazing deep into her eyes, I imagine. Jesus is not staring her up and down and judging her like Simon. He is not stereotyping her; he is not sexualizing her. He is not un-naming her.

I have been reading a lot about trauma lately, and it can be extremely difficult for people who have been traumatized to make steady eye contact with others. Jesus, I believe, makes eye contact with Leila. I wonder if she has the ability to look him in the eyes, as well. She has had a lot of men look at her, but most likely, never like this. Surely, the gaze of Jesus is in itself momentous and healing.

Jesus speaks to Leila, “I forgive your sins.”

I imagine that there is so much more Jesus could have said and may have said, either then or later on. Let me throw out some ideas. “I forgive what you have done. You need no absolution for who you are. There is guilt, but there is no shame. You are a person, my beloved. You are beautiful. You did not choose your childhood, Leila, but your future is now in your hands. You are deserving of being treated like I am treating you, not the way other men have treated you.”

What an incredible moment! One might expect the whole padre of guests to stand there, stunned and transformed. But, no! They begin whispering behind Jesus’ back, “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins?”

Another incredible twist of the story occurs. The Pharisees and other guests do not see the woman Jesus sees. They do not acknowledge the meaning of her sobs, the power of her anointing, the bravery of her vulnerability. Leila’s agonizing cry for healing and relief is eclipsed by their theological arguments with Jesus.

Thankfully, Jesus ignores them, keeping his focus on Leila. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” he speaks.

I love this conclusion to the story. It breathes of agency. Leila has brought something to the table besides her broken and torn story. She has brought agency. She has brought faith. She has brought her deepest, most vulnerable self into the public arena of this dinner party as an uninvited guest. She has gathered up years, maybe a lifetime, of silent tears and cried her heart out in public for everyone to see. She has taken the risk that she might be welcomed or judged or both, and it was worth the risk.

When my health started tumbling further down in late 2013 during the final months of cancer treatment, I felt overwhelmed and without any control. I couldn’t plan anything. I didn’t know when I would be struck with hours of fevers and chills. I had already faced so much trauma, with cancer striking on the back of our oldest daughter’s breakdown and suicide. But one morning, I said to myself, “Every day, Mary, take agency for one thing. Just one thing. In that way, you can slowly reclaim your life.”

This made a difference. Each small act of taking agency gave me hope. And for Leila, agency made a difference, too.

Just when we feel overtaken by a major transition that is overwhelming, a death that is unexpected, a tragedy that is unmanageable, a health challenge that is relentless, we, too, can come to Jesus with our little bit of agency. We, too, can seek relief or at least a shoulder to cry on. We, too, can know his blessing, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” Amen.