Several years ago, I knew two couples, both together for some time, both obviously in love, but noticeably, they had very different relationships. The first couple was so sweet, I mean, sticky sweet. They were like school kids who giggled together, as if they had these inside funny jokes, they held hands wherever they went, and when they looked into each other’s eyes man, you knew they were in love. The other couple was equally in love and yet, there was a tension, uncertainty, and uncomfortable anxiety between the two of them.
I asked one of the partners from the second couple (tension, anxiety) one day, how things were going for them. I knew them well, and we all talked openly about our relationships with our spouses, so it was not an out of bounds question. He said, “You know Eric, I am so unworthy of love from my spouse. She is so wonderful, loving, giving, and she sacrifices so much for me. I imagine she would die for me, and I am not worthy of that kind of love. I feel like I must work hard, give all I can, to make her happy, so I can keep that kind of love.”
On another occasion, I asked one of the partners in the first relationship (sticky sweet) why they seemed so at ease with one another. She said, “A long time ago, we decided to quit trying to earn each other’s love by doing, buying, and manipulating. We decided that the love we share is a gift and we finally decided to live with arms wide open, be grateful, and just receive simple love.”
In today’s gospel reading, we hear a story of Jesus and a particular encounter he had with two people around a dinner table. It is a story about hospitality, reconciliation, and love. The scene is this, Jesus was the dinner guest of a Pharisee, a religious leader, a person well versed in the Law. Eating with someone in first century Palestine was very special. You would usually not invite a guest to come under your roof, unless you had or were establishing a relationship of trust, mutual respect, and a commitment to honor each other. Hospitality 2000 years ago, went way beyond today where we strive merely to make our guests feel comfortable and well fed. Hospitality was a part of the honor system within that society, and it signified a covenant between householder and guest. As the householder, when someone came under your roof, they came under your protection, were recipients of your respect, and that relationship extended beyond the meal.
The guest’s role was to speak highly of your patron, and to bring honor to his house. There were symbols and rituals that became signs of this covenant between householder and guest. The washing of desert, sand-laden feet upon entering the home, the offering of the kiss of peace, and the anointing of a person were all outward signs of this covenant of honor.
If you notice the story, none of this happened to Jesus upon entering the Pharisee’s house. He merely entered, and took his place at the table. Then something scandalous happened. A woman, a sinner as she was labeled, entered the house with an alabaster jar, which was obviously an expensive, precious gift she had brought, and then she knelt down, washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears, and then anointed him. It was scandalous, but at the same time, it was a radical symbol of love, honor, and respect. First, it was a scandal because she had her head uncovered in public, but there was another significance to this act as well. In a reading from the Old Testament, we learn why. Numbers 5:18 says, “And the priest shall take the barley and offer it to the woman, and shall take away from her the head-dress on her head, that she may be judged with her head bare, and deprived of the symbol of modesty, which all those women are accustomed to wear who are completely blameless.” (NRSV) She uncovered her head to wash Jesus’ feet, but the Pharisee, well versed in the law I imagine, understand the significance of this act. Then, she touched Jesus’ feet! That was unheard of for a woman to touch a man with whom she was not married. Finally, she anoints his feet … more scandal. Now all this does not go unnoticed by Simon the Pharisee who in the story exclaimed, “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.”
The real motivation for the dinner invitation comes out. Simon wanted not to bring honor and protection to Jesus, but to find fault in Jesus, and it is motivation and response, which is really at the heart of the story. Simon, by his failure to see his own need for grace, and the willingness to receive it, AND give it, he misses the greatest lesson of this encounter with the Lord. Jesus, said with a little moxie, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” The parable of the debtors cuts to the heart of the matter, we all are sinners, we all miss the mark, we all mess up the relationship with God and with each other, and yet, when we cannot save ourselves (because we can’t) God’s grace abounds and all are reconciled to God, and all in God’s time. Now, the story takes another turn, and I love this part. Jesus reminds Simon, that the woman at his feet, showed him the depth of hospitality, the covenant of protection, the symbols of honor that Simon failed to show.
Hang on now, the story is getting better. Jesus looks at her and says, “”Your sins are forgiven.” Now, when I first heard this story many years ago, I thought, “OK, she showed Jesus’ love by doing this for him and because of that, she was forgiven.” WRONG! The word forgiven in Greek is ἀφέωνταί, which is in the form of perfect, passive, indicative, which in this grammatical form, it is different from what we find in the NRSV. The words are, “Your sins, they have been forgiven you.”
I believe that the woman offenses were forgiven long before she entered the house, and Jesus was merely acknowledging that fact. Nothing she did earned, manipulated, or coerced Jesus to forgive her. It was her trust that led her to Jesus in the first place, and it was by faith, she accepted she had been forgiven. The washing of feet and anointing was the outward response to Grace, she had so clearly received and was later acknowledged. The point is, you cannot earn grace, it is a gift from God that is experienced with gratitude, it is a gift that we can only receive, it is a gift that moves us to respond with love, in kind.
My friend, the “sticky sweet” spouse and the woman with the Alabaster jar lived with arms wide open and their lives and acts of love and service became a response to grace, not a means to earn it. The woman in today’s gospel was aware of the forgiveness she had received, long before she arrived at the door of the Pharisee’s house, and Jesus acknowledged it with these words, “Your sins have been forgiven.” This is our story, and we like them, each week receive acknowledgment of God’s forgiveness in the words of absolution, then we share in the Great Thanksgiving, the meal of gratitude, Holy Communion, and then we are sent out into the world to respond with love, with all in whom we come in contact. On one of mine and Terri’s parish visits a month or so ago, I heard a song sung by Amy Grant and James Taylor, which helps me understand, and accept, this gift of God’s grace. The chorus of the song goes like this:
Don’t try so hard
God gives you grace and you can’t earn it
Don’t think that you’re not worth it
Because you are
He gave you His love and He’s not leaving
Gave you His Son so you’d believe it
You’re lovely even with your scars
Don’t try so hard
That is the life of the church, the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and despite our struggles, our brokenness, our uncertainty, I think it really can be easier to live in Christian community than it seems sometimes. I think we try to rest in God’s promises, if we respond in grace to the grace we have received, and if we merely live with “arms wide open.”