It was Ronald Reagan who once said, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” And today’s Gospel scene, although non-American in time and culture, also marks a point of change, or the beginning of something new. A dinner party somewhere in Galilee.
Jesus, as a guest at the house of Simon the Pharisee, was approached by an anonymous woman of dubious reputation who … well, we’ve all heard the story as it is narrated by Luke in highly erotic terms. Simon the host, a most respectable member of the establishment, is beside himself with indignation, but Jesus puts him in his place – while assuring the woman that her sins are forgiven.
The story is carefully structured by Luke. He writes deliberately in order to say two things. First, that Jesus has divine authority, and second that Jesus is breaking with conventions.
Oh, we’re given a parable as well – a mini-parable as it were that tells us of forgiveness, and how the one with greater debt is the more grateful when that debt is wiped clean. And even Simon the Pharisee has to agree with Jesus in this matter.
But in the middle of all of this is a most wonderful line, a question – haunting, memorable, loaded with unimaginable significance. Turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
Do you see this woman?
The truth is that to most (if not all) who were in that room, and they would have been men, that woman would have been socially and religiously invisible. In those terms they simply would not have seen her.
The taboos lined up against this woman were quite formidable.
First, she was a woman. That’s not stating the obvious but rather reminding people that her sex made her automatically inferior to first century males. Add to this that she is in the company of Simon, a religious leader who was considered superior to other men, and we begin to see the size of the social gap here being revealed.
Second, she had broken with convention – good and polite manners and a social code that forbad a woman entering the dining room of an all-male dinner party. Shocking, isn’t it? But it gets worse.
Third, she had broken the rules of purity by actually touching a man at table, by anointing Jesus’ hands and feet. This is beyond the pale. But, behind it all…
Fourth, she is a woman “in the city who was a sinner.” And we all know what that means!
Do you see this woman? I’m afraid we see her all too clearly. Get her out! Get her out! She's trouble!
But Jesus turns to this woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Those are more than words of absolution. Set against the gospel as a whole they are words of affirmation and acceptance.
Jesus is fully accepting of a woman at a gathering of men.
He is also fully accepting of this particular woman, known and considered unacceptable by the establishment.
He reached out in love to this woman who had anointed him in love, and made her welcome.
He therefore breaks all religious and social rules, and in so doing brings a loving and forgiving God into the otherwise judgmental and discriminatory table company.
But this is nothing out of the ordinary. Wherever we look at the story of Jesus, from whatever Gospel version or angle, we find exactly the same thing. When Jesus enters a situation, a debate, a scene – he deals with it, and resolves it in a way that is, by the norms and standards of the world, often quite unexpected, and totally unconventional.
If only we could do the same.
For we are very good at hosting dinner parties. In fact we have got it down to a fine art, and take pride in our guest lists and general good manners and respectability.
And of course we like meeting new people at our table, but they must both know their place and pay attention to our ways and conventions. Oh, and did I mention that they must agree with us. And as for uninvited and unexpected people approaching the table – well, we’ll see about that!
But the Christian Church at times has forgotten, or seems to conveniently ignore that one table at which a disreputable woman stepped forward and was made whole by Jesus. She stood, and stands as the recipient icon of acceptance, forgiveness and love, and represents all those to whom the Church must reach out, embrace and welcome, no matter who they are, no matter what others may think of them.
Do you see this woman? I hope and pray that we really do.