Thursday, June 9, 2016
Sin Has No Bell Curve
In Luke 7:36-8:3, when Jesus went to Simon the Pharisee's house for dinner, "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," learned that the rabbi was there, and she went to meet him. She wasn't invited over for the meal, but that didn't stop her. She had something she needed to do. In the middle of the meal, she found Jesus at the table and began to caress his feet. Moved with emotion, the woman wept enough that her tears began to bathe Jesus' feet. She took down her hair and dried them with the locks. Then she took the perfumed ointment and rubbed it on the rabbi's feet. It was, in all respects, a sensuous moment.
Yes, Luke introduces her as "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," but let's leave that alone for now. Just start with the fact that in that culture women didn't touch men, and men didn't touch women. Ever been to an orthodox synagogue? There's a reason men sit on one side and women sit on the other. Add on top of that that the woman used her hair to dry Jesus' feet--her hair, which, as Paul stresses in 1 Corinthians 6, deserves special attention. Ever seen a conservative Muslim woman wear the hijab? There's a reason their hair is covered. Finally, don't forget that we're talking about Jesus' feet. The washing of feet, as the Last Supper narrative makes clear, was a duty reserved for servants or slaves. Jesus' criticism of Simon isn't that the Pharisee didn't wash his feet--that would have been preposterous--but that Simon didn't give Jesus any water for his feet. The feet were dirty--literally and figuratively. They weren't touched in mixed company. A lowly servant would take care of that because, in most cultures, interactions with servants is assumed to be defined by an imbalance of station, which means that there would be no risk of sexual interaction. This, on the other hand, was something to see.
This woman's gesture was obscene. And she didn't care. She had to do it. She didn't care what happened to her. She didn't care what people thought of her. She had to do it. She was burdened by something that she knew Jesus could take away. Luke frames this story by introducing her as "a sinner." The word used to describe her is "ἁμαρτωλός," and Luke uses forms of that word 18 times in only 9 stories: the calling of Peter, who describes himself as a "sinful man," to describe the company Jesus eats with, when Jesus teaches people to love their enemies because even "sinners" love those who love them, in Sunday's gospel lesson about the woman, when Jesus question the sinfulness of those whom Pilate had killed, again to describe those who are accompanying Jesus, in the prayer of the tax collector, who called himself a sinner unworthy to lift up his eyes to heaven, to identify Zacchaeus in the eyes of the religious elites, and finally in Jesus' prediction of his death at the hands of "sinful men." Notice that in all of those stories "sinful" or "sinner" is used to distinguish an individual or individuals from the expectations of society. This wasn't an assumed title. It was a label given by humble people to themselves or by society to those whom they thought should be humble.
But are they any different than you or me? We are all sinners. Even the Pharisees in Jesus' day accepted that. The label, however, seems to belong only to certain individuals. But does it? Explaining to Simon this lavish, obscene gesture by the sinful woman, Jesus tells a parable about two men with debts--one small and one large. Simon sees right through the analogy and identifies quickly that the one who is forgiven the larger debt will love his master more. But is that how it works? Is sin proportional? Is our loving response proportional to the sins that have been forgiven?
I want to push back against this story--or at least a dominant interpretation of the story. I don't think the issue here is the size of the sins that are being forgiven but the willingness of God to forgive one who is defined by her sin. If Simon the Pharisee were to sin, there were specific remedies for that in the temple cult. But where would this woman even start? The label Luke gives her suggests to us that she cannot shake that title. She is a sinner who cannot simply show up at the temple, seek forgiveness, and start over. But Jesus offers her something else.
Jesus is the one who welcomes sinners. Jesus is the one who eats with them. He touches the unclean and, by so doing, makes them clean. He pronounces forgiveness of sins as if he were standing in the place of God. He has the power to transform this woman in a way that is denied her by the religious society in which she lives. Jesus shows us that sins are not quantifiable. In his reception of them, there is no difference between a Pharisee and a tax collector. "Those who are well have no need of a physician," he taught us.
We are all sinners. We are all defined by our sin. It makes no difference whether you are defined by society as a sinner or praised by society for your faithfulness. You're still exactly the same. The remarkable thing is that Jesus is just as welcoming of the former as the latter. That is the reason for her tears. That is the reason she offers herself in this humiliating gesture. Jesus has given her what no one else could--acceptance. For Jesus, it doesn't matter how sinful she is. For Jesus, we are all the same.