1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a – Elijah condemns Ahab for his complicity in Jezebel’s arrangement of Naboth the Jezreelite’s murder, in order to get his vineyard, next door to Ahab’s palace. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15 – The prophet Nathan condemns David, with a story of a rich man and a poor man with one little lamb. David: “This man deserves to die.” Nathan: “You are the man!”
Psalm 5:1-8 – Listen to what I say, O Lord. Hear my prayer.
Psalm 32 – Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Galatians 2:15-21 – For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Luke 7:36 – 8:3 – Sinful woman with alabaster jar forgiven. Women follow Jesus: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
If you would like posts on Galatians passages, check these out:
- May 29, 2016, P2C, Galatians 1:1-12
- June 5, 2016, P3C, Galatians 1:11-24
- June 12, 2016, P4C, Galatians 2:15-21 (June 16 is also Father’s Day)
- June 19, 2016, P5C, Galatians 3:23-29 (June 19 is Juneteenth)
- June 26, 2016, P6C, Galatians 5:1, 13-25 (July 4 is Independence Day)
- July 3, 2016, P7C, Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16 (July 4 is Independence Day)
It is weeks like this when I was tempted to preach three sermons when I was in the parish. The choice of Old Testament readings is compelling. In both texts, kings use their power to victimize the less powerful and are confronted by prophets. Do faith leaders today have the courage to confront public political leaders for abuse of power? Does “separation of church and state” mean church and state do not speak to each other? How do we carry a moral voice into the public square?
Then we have the Galatians text. Paul seeks to snatch the church from the jaws of legalism. “I died to the law, so that I might live for God,” Paul says. “If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” Paul believes that Christ died, in part, to free us from the law. This deserves sermonic treatment. Since I treated Galatians the last time around, I am going to resist this one as well and take a look at the woman with the alabaster jar.
This is our third week in Luke 7. On May 29, we had the healing of the centurion’s son (7:1-10). Last week we had the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (7:11-17). This week, skipping over the question from John the Baptist (Are you the one?), we encounter an intriguing woman with an alabaster jar (7:36-8:3). Here’s the text:
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “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.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “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 answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said 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. 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. 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 he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
This text fits well with Paul’s concern about legalism in Galatia. For Paul, Christianity is about being in a trusting (faith-full) relationship with God in Christ, not about following Torah. Paul is a Pharisee, which means literally, “one who is set apart.” Set apart for what? Some say, “Set apart from the Gentiles.” They were separatists. No fellowship of any kind with those who do not keep the law, not even eye contact. Others say, “Set apart for the law.” This was Paul’s understanding. As a Pharisee, Paul was once set apart for the law, but now he says he has been set apart for the gospel. (Romans 1:1)
Compare this story with Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. Luther Seminary New Testament Professor Sarah Henrich points out that Luke’s story appears early in his narrative, unlike the other gospels. There is no apparent connection to Jesus’ death and burial in Luke’s account.
In our Luke passage, Jesus goes to the house of a Pharisee named Simon. While he is sitting at the Pharisee’s table, a woman comes in. Luke tells us she is a “sinner.” What does Luke mean? Anyone steeped in Pauline theology knows we are all sinners. Those of my Lutheran tradition have it drilled into our heads that we are simul Justus et peccator, at the same time saint and sinner. But Simon, in Luke, would not have seen it that way.
Luke uses the word “sinner” over a dozen times, usually ἁμαρτωλός. Jesus is criticized multiple times in Luke for eating with and being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. When he goes to the house of Zaccheus, people complain that he has gone to eat the house of a “sinner.” In fact, this may be a primary way of characterizing Jesus’ ministry, along with this healing work.
For a Pharisee, “sinner” is probably just a way to describe someone who does not keep the law. This woman does not observe Torah. It is interesting how desperately people want to make a prostitute out of this woman. Why is that? There is nothing in the text to indicate that she is a prostitute. It’s almost as if commentators (mostly male) want her to be a bad girl. To my knowledge, Luke only uses the word for “prostitute” once, and it is in reference to the wandering prodigal son, who devours his father’s assets with prostitutes.
I can think of no prostitutes in the New Testament. Centuries of commentators have tried to make Mary Magdalene a prostitute, in the West anyway. Eastern Christians consider Mary Magdalene to be an apostle. Again, it’s almost as if we want her to be a bad girl, so we can lick our lips on the salacious possibilities. A great book study to consider is “Bad Girls of the Bible;” Liz Curtis Higgs points out something patriarchal is going on with our need to have the salacious bad girl.
The woman anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, kissed them, washed them with her tears, and dried them with her hair. As I pointed out last week, Jesus interacts with women in a way that would be astonishing in his culture. (John 4:27) Just interacting with this woman alone would be scandalous, let alone the kissing, the oil, the hair, and so on. Smug Simon says, “If this man was a prophet, he would know this woman is a sinner.” And there we have it. The clash between what the Pharisee considers to be the central thrust of religious faith, and what Jesus considers to be the central thrust of religious faith.
Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. He tells the story of a creditor who forgives two debtors, one who owes a large amount and one who owes a small amount. “Which debtor will love the creditor more?” Jesus asks. “The one who was forgiven the greater debt,” answers Simon. “Correct.” Jesus, then compares Simon’s welcome to the woman’s welcome. He is clearly comparing the two of them. Thus, Jesus subtly implies that Simon is a sinner too, perhaps not as much as the woman. She is the one who is being forgiven a great debt. He is the one who owes a lesser debt.
Hospitality is very important in this society, and in many Eastern societies to this day. Western readers in industrialized countries consistently underestimate the importance of moral and religious obligation of hospitality in the Bible. You cannot refuse a traveler a place to stay and a meal. It is a religious duty. “When I was hungry you gave me food…”
[When] 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. 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. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.
Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. The one who is forgiven little, loves little. Luke set up these dual comparisons constantly: scribes vs. sinners, the tax collector vs. the Pharisee, older brother vs. younger brother. Jesus has a soft spot for sinners. They tend to love more. The so-called righteous ones can be pretty harsh.
Those around seem stuck on the fact that Jesus forgives sins at all. Jesus remains focused on the woman, telling her that her sins have been forgiven because of her faith, evidenced in her love it seems.
Our text ends with the first few verses of chapter 8. Keep in mind that Luke didn’t put these chapters in. They are added later by interpreters. For Luke, this is just the segue to the sower and the seed, and an editorial comment about the women surrounding Jesus. Don’t be tempted to gloss over it. It is worth consideration.
The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
We are told that besides “The twelve,” there are some women traveling with Jesus. Luke seems unsure what to do with them. Are they disciples? How does that work in a male-dominated society where women cannot vote, own property, inherit, and so on?
There is Mary Magdalene. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward (who will be at the empty tomb, Luke 24:10), Susanna, and many others. Of interest is the statement that they “provided for them.” “Them” probably refers to the twelve. So Jesus’ traveling ministry is being funded by these women of means. The word “provided for” is διηκόνουν (διακονέω, to serve, from which we get our word “deacon”). They served them likely indicates providing food and shelter, out of their means. If Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, she would have considerable wealth.
David Lyle Jeffrey, in the Brazos’ commentary on Luke, reminds us that women couldn’t enter a synagogue and pray. Their role was limited in so many ways. And yet they had a role among Jesus’ disciples, one that perhaps would be hard to explain to Simon the Pharisee or even to the target audience of Luke’s gospel. In just a few chapters, we will have the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10), where even Martha will get upset at Mary who “sat at Jesus feet and listened to what he was saying.” If that’s not a disciple, I don’t know what is.
Simon devalues the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar, perhaps because she is a sinner, perhaps because she is a woman, or perhaps both. Can a woman keep Torah? The problem is that he devalues her, for whatever reason. Jesus honors her.
For Jesus, the primary division among people is not sinner and non-sinner or male and female. It is forgiven little and forgiven much. He indicates what Paul will make plain: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The distinction between sinner and non-sinner is irrelevant, therefore. There are no non-sinners. And while the distinction between male and female physically may be important, spiritually it is not. Jesus lifts her up in a way that Simon probably can’t comprehend.
The homiletical possibilities are endless: forgiveness, judgement, judgmentalism, sinner, saint, male, and female. Galatians 3:28: hospitality and love. I say kudos to the unnamed, unclean, silent woman, who had the courage to enter a men-only dinner, because she knew there was at least one who would welcome her, love her, and receive her gratitude. May we show such love for sinners and vulnerable folks in our midst.