RCL, Proper 6, Year C
It’s an odd fact that holiness of life and awareness of sin go together. St. Paul, for example, writes that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I’m the biggest sinner of all" (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB). And St. Francis of Assisi is reported to have said: "There is nowhere a more wretched and miserable sinner than I."
It might seem strange that persons whose lives embodied heroic virtue could say things like that. But all of the saints share this view. Indeed, one of the marks of sainthood is having a keen awareness of the gulf that exists between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. The saints know that the biggest thing blocking us from God is believing in our own self-sufficiency. And so, as one writer notes, "the greatest of sins is to be conscious of no sin; but a sense of need will open the door to the forgiveness of God, because God is love, and love's greatest glory is to be needed" [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke Revised Edition (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 95)].
In today's Gospel reading, Luke introduces us to a woman who is painfully aware of her sinfulness and her need for God's forgiveness. And acting on that need, she shows us what it looks like to fully grasp the amazing grace that is ours in Jesus Christ.
It all started when Jesus went to dinner in the home of a respected religious leader by the name of Simon. Suddenly, an uninvited guest showed up. It's a woman that Luke tells us "was a sinner" (Lk 7:37). We’re not told exactly what that means, but down through the centuries many have thought that the woman was a prostitute. And it's apparent from Simon's reaction that her reputation was well known in that city.
We don't know how this woman got the reputation of a sinner. Maybe she had a husband who died, leaving her penniless and without a home, thereby forcing her into a life of shame and degradation just to get by. Or maybe she brought it on herself by making one too many bad choices and now there's no returning to a socially respectable life. Regardless of how it happened, one can only imagine her feelings of desperation and fear. She was an outcast, a person living on the margins of society, someone that was shunned and looked down upon, someone that others used and threw away in disgust, someone with no hope for a better life.
Somehow, trapped as she was in this living hell, this woman knew about Jesus. Maybe she had heard the stories circulating about a rabbi who treats men and women with equal respect, a traveling preacher who shows mercy to sinners, and who reaches out in love to the lonely, the sick, and outsiders. Maybe she witnessed one of his miracles, like the raising of a widow’s son from the dead or one of the many people he healed. Or maybe she had heard him teach, saying things like, "Do not judge others, and God will not judge you" (Lk 6:37), or, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Lk 5:32), or, "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (Lk 6:21b)
However it happened, she encountered God's forgiving love in Jesus. He had touched her at the core of her being, reassuring her that she could not be reduced to her circumstances or the awful things she had done. Jesus had helped her accept that the label "sinner" was not her true identity, that she was, in fact, a daughter of Abraham, and a precious child of God worthy of love and healing grace. We don’t know how it happened, but Jesus changed her life.
And so when she found out that Jesus was at supper in Simon's house, she knew she had to get to him. She had to tell him how thankful she was that he had freed her from the prison of sin and social ostracism. She needed to let him know how grateful she was to be given new life and hope for the future.
And so she found the courage to risk what little she had left in her life by crashing a male-only dinner party. Words failed her and so she started sobbing. And with tears streaming down her face, she got on her hands and knees and let the tears wash over Jesus' feet. And then she dried the tears away with her hair, started kissing Jesus' feet, and anointed them with ointment.
If this sounds like strange behavior to us, it would have been absolutely scandalous in Jesus' day. A strange woman with a sinful reputation touching a purportedly holy man in public, letting down her hair, and kissing and anointing his feet?! It's outrageous!
But the woman doesn't care what anybody else thinks. Because what she's doing is an act of thanksgiving for the presence and the power of Jesus in her life. It’s an act of worship, of completely giving herself to the One who gave himself for us. Nothing else matters, because she once was lost, but now, thanks to Jesus, she has been found by a love that makes her worthy and whole. And in response to the woman's gratitude and love, in response to her willingness to quite literally lose herself in absolute trust in him, Jesus says: "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Lk 7:50).
It may not be this dramatic, but we all have times in our lives when we reach the end of our rope, times when we find ourselves sinking in circumstances beyond our control or dealing with consequences for our actions that we'd rather not face. At those times, our need for God comes screaming to the surface.
Have you ever done anything that you feel so ashamed of that even the thought of others knowing about it conjures up fear?
Have you ever thought to yourself, "If people only knew what I really think and feel, they would reject me"?
Have you ever felt trapped by painful circumstances you can't change?
Do you know what it's like to be shunned by others, to feel the hurt and embarrassment of being brushed aside as unworthy of love and friendship?
Have you ever knowingly done something wrong and it's damaged relationships with people you care about?
If we find ourselves in those dark places, if we know what it's like to say with the Psalmist "my sins have overtaken me" (Ps 40:12), and if we find ourselves giving into fear and believing the lie that we don't matter and that we’re unworthy of love, then the woman in today's Gospel reading is our guide. She shows us what to do. No matter what it takes, no matter what boundaries need to be crossed, go straight to Jesus. Go straight to the One who loved us so much, that before we had even though about turning to him, he died so that we may live. And even if the words aren’t there, even if we don’t know what to say, let it all out. Let all of the pent-up pain and fear and frustration and anger come gushing out. Let the cleansing tears of repentance flow. Let Jesus touch your heart, forgive your sins, and so fill you with his grace that you know beyond any shadow of doubt the healing power of his love.
It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. The only thing that matters is that Jesus loves us, that we’re safe from the condemning judgments of others in his presence, and that the past does not dictate our future. Change is always possible. God continually offers us redemption and new life. For in Jesus Christ, there is always hope, there is always forgiveness, and there is always a love that makes us worthy to be called sons and daughters of God.