PENT4C16 – 06.12.16
Who is Jesus? Our Sunday school students believe that Jesus is: love, joy and happiness, family and friend, a sacrifice for us, hope and forgiveness, teacher, for everyone, part of nature and life, and will always watch over us. That’s a pretty thoughtful and comprehensive list!
Who is Jesus? That is the question we have been asking for the past three weeks as we explore stories from the Gospel of Luke. The author of Luke has been attempting to answer that question through the stories he relates about Jesus’ ministry. We have learned that he healed the slave of a centurion without even coming near the man. Because of the faith that the centurion had in Jesus’ power, he simply said the word and the man was healed. Then Jesus intervened out of compassion when he encountered a widow who was about to bury her only son. Although the widow did not ask Jesus for his help, he revived the young man knowing that his death would leave her completely vulnerable. The people who saw those events wondered, “Who is this man?” His own disciples were not sure of who he was, and even John the Baptizer questioned if he was the one that they had been waiting for, the one for whom he was preparing the way.
Captivated by his powerful teaching, they knew he was a great rabbi. As witnesses to his healing power and his ability to revive those who had died, they guessed that he was a great prophet, perhaps even the prophet Elijah returned to life. His own response to John the Baptizer was that John knew the signs of the messiah, so if these things that Jesus was doing fulfilled those signs, then he must be the messiah.
In today’s gospel we learn of a more scandalous episode in Jesus’ ministry. This story is told in all four gospels, but in three different versions. Mark and Matthew agree with Luke that there was a dinner party that was crashed by an unknown woman, but in their version the story took place two days before the Passover, in the house of a different Simon, Simon the leper, and the woman poured the oil over Jesus’ head. The disciples became angry over the waste of expensive oil, but Jesus praised the woman for her good deed.
In John, the story also takes place two days before Passover, but in a very different place and under different circumstances. John tells an eyewitness account of a dinner at the home of Jesus’ friends, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany. Mary is the one who pours the oil over his feet and Jesus praises her for understanding who he truly is and indicates that her action is in anticipation of his death. Judas is the one who gets angry over the waste of money on perfume, even though he is a thief. .
Luke includes this story much earlier on in Jesus’ ministry. We aren’t sure if Simon the Pharisee is a friend who wants to learn more from Jesus or if he is an enemy trying to trick him. Simon and his guests are reclining at table, when this woman, a ‘sinner,’ enters the home of a Pharisee, a person of authority, uninvited. We don’t know if Jesus knows her, but it appears that Simon knows who and what she is. She pours oil over the feet of Jesus and unbinds her hair to wipe his feet which are wet with the oil and her tears. She continues to weep and kisses the feet of Jesus. The woman does not give any indication of why she is doing this. Her action, whether or not she was a woman of ill repute, would have been scandalous. Aside from the fact that she crashed the party, a Jewish woman would never have uncovered her hair before strangers, nor would she have touched a stranger’s feet.
This is a different kind of healing – the woman’s sins are forgiven; she is saved. Jesus does not question her or ask anything of her. But Jesus tells her that because of her scandalous actions, which were in reality acts of great love, her sins, “which were many, have been forgiven.” It is almost as if that is the easy part, a response that we have come to expect from Jesus. More complicated is the role played by Simon. Jesus seems to have known that he was always under intense scrutiny. Simon wants to know who Jesus is, but he does not think Jesus is a prophet because he lets this sinful woman touch him. Jesus is not only a rabbi and a healer; he appears to be a mind reader as well. He can tell from the look on Simon’s face and read in the silence at the table that the Pharisee would reject the woman outright and believe that she was unworthy of God’s forgiveness. By telling the story of the debtors, Jesus points out that Simon does not understand the true nature of God’s love and acceptance. Yet Simon does understand that if a large debt is forgiven, that person who owes the debt will love the one who forgives.
Then the question comes up again. Luke tells us, “Those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘”Who is this who even forgives sins?”’ How did we answer that question? The responses include: “Jesus is my Lord and Savior. The last one I talk to before sleeping and the first one upon waking. He is always with me!!” Jesus is: ‘inspiration, comforter, compassionate, best friend, savior, teacher, model of who we should be, always with us,” and from a three year old “the Son of God!”
The common thread in all three versions of this story is that the woman, whether unknown or his beloved friend Mary of Bethany, is not doing something scandalous or wasteful but performing an act of love. The woman understands who Jesus is. Jesus wants us to realize that we are all like the woman and the debtor. She has come to Jesus with a large debt of sin. We owe God a debt that is impossible to repay. Our healing comes when we, like the woman, understand the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” and our response is to kneel at his feet and pour out our love. Amen.