Sermon for Sunday, June 16th, 2013
Proper 6, Year C
Luke 7:36 -8:3
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
This morning’s gospel lesson, the story of the sinful woman, has long been one my very favorites. When I returned to the church many years ago, after a number of wayward, wandering years, it was easy for me to identify with this woman in a very personal way. You see, in the bad old days of my life before my heart broke open to God’s amazingly generous grace, I had a lot of shame about a lot of things. So much shame, in fact, that I wouldn’t allow myself to hear, much less respond to, God’s call for me.
But slowly, gradually, I worked my way back to the church. And one day I heard this gospel story being read and I knew that if I ever actually encountered Jesus face to face, that’s exactly what I would do: I’d fall at his feet weeping with gratitude–just like Luke’s sinful woman. I could picture it so clearly!
Years later I shared that experience with my spiritual director. He smiled thoughtfully, placed his hand on his chin, and asked, “Then what?”
“What do you mean, ‘then what’”? I asked.
“Well,” he said, “what happens next?”
I had to admit I’d never even thought about that; the image had always ended with me weeping at Jesus’ feet, wiping them with my hair. Yet what an amazing question: What would happen next? So I imagined myself back in the scene.
“I guess Jesus would reach out his hand and help me to my feet,” I ventured, delighted at the discovery. “Then, he’d embrace me! He’d embrace me, and he’d wipe away my tears and tell me he loved me.”
Oh, what a healing moment!
And what a gift my director had given me by inviting me to use my God-given imagination to explore how that scene might unfold. It’s a scene I can return to over and over again in times of doubt or need or confusion. And I can take it even further—what happens next? How is God calling me today to respond to such extravagant love, to such generous grace? How am I saying “thank you” with my life?
I didn’t know it at the time, but my spiritual director had just introduced me to a practice of prayer championed by St. Ignatius.
Luke’s story of the sinful woman is one I often use now to introduce people to this practice, because it’s one that is so evocative that our imaginations are invited into the scene almost immediately. We can be the sinful woman, or one of the dinner guests — or as I later discovered, Simon the Pharisee. So, to introduce you to what it’s like to pray with scripture this way, and how fruitful it can be, I’d like to give you a kind of guided tour of my journey not as the Sinful woman, but as Simon.
To start with, I really didn’t want to imagine myself as Simon the Pharisee. He is, after all, set up as the bad guy in the story. But one day when I was praying with this passage that was clearly the invitation the Holy Spirit was offering. So despite my resistance I gave it a try.
I started by reading the chapter of Luke’s gospel before this one, and the one after it. I was looking to see if the context of this story would give me any insight to Simon. I wondered why he had invited Jesus to his house for dinner that night. Could it have been one of those traps the Pharisees were so famous for setting for Jesus, like the question about paying taxes to Caesar? But no, it turned out it was the Sadducees not the Pharisees who set those traps, and it wasn’t until much later in Luke’s gospel anyway.
Then I noticed that just before this scene, in a story about John the Baptist, Luke had made a point of telling us that the Pharisees refused to be baptized by John—John, who was proclaiming a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” By refusing John’s baptism, Luke said, they had “rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”
So I wondered if Simon was one of those who’d refused to repent, refused to even acknowledge his sin, much less his need for forgiveness. And I wondered what it meant to “reject God’s purpose” for oneself?
Now, notice that I hadn’t even started imagining myself as Simon yet, and already I was being invited to reflect on something that would never have occurred to me otherwise: How had the Simon in me, the Simon I had so much resistance to identifying with, rejected God’s purpose for me? How do I continue to reject God’s purpose for me and why? How do any of us?
Then I entered the story, trusting my imagination to fill in the blanks. As Simon now, I imagined my house—what it looked like, what the air felt like, who was there, and what that night’s dinner smelled like as it was cooking.
I found myself curious about this strange teacher who I found both offensive and compelling at the same time. He had blasphemed and broken the Sabbath. He was ritually unclean. Yet he possessed such a gentle authority and assuredness. Something in me wanted to know more about him. And now here he was in my house.
I don’t know what got into me that I didn’t welcome him properly as was our custom. Was I afraid of what my other guests would think of me? Was I too busy making sure that everything was perfect, the table perfectly set, the pillows perfectly fluffed? Was I so wrapped up in myself that I was blind to the needs of another?
Each of these questions was fertile ground in which to reflect on my sins and shortcomings: people-pleasing, perfectionism, self-centered fear.
Then I watched dumbstruck as the sinful woman barged into my house uninvited through the open passageway. No longer someone with whom I could identify, through the judgmental eyes of Simon I saw her as coarse, crude, and garish. Unclean, indeed! It was all I could do not to cringe as she fawned over Jesus’ feet with her tears and her filthy hair. This woman to whom I had so easily related: Through Simon’s eyes, she was disgusting! Why didn’t Jesus stop her, I wondered?
Then I realized how I was judging her, void of even a hint of compassion—and how I was judging Jesus for putting up with her! But Jesus read my thoughts. “Simon,” he said, calling me by name, “I have something to say to you….”
It was a shockingly dark, horrible feeling to “own” how judgmental I had just been in Jesus’ presence. I wanted to tell myself that it was just the character of Simon, not me, but again I knew the Spirit was inviting me to pause here to reflect and to make it personal: Toward whom am I judgmental in a Simon-like way? Why? What do I get out of it? How often do I not even notice I’m being that way? Can I pray for the grace to remember that I’m always in Jesus’ presence, for the grace to notice when I’m being judgmental, and for the grace to pray for compassion towards the subject of my self-righteous critique?
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” Jesus says earlier in Luke’s gospel. “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.”
I went back into the scripture, listening as Jesus told the story about the two debtors. I answered his question correctly—that the one with the bigger debt would love more if the debt were forgiven. Then I felt my blood rising. Was it Anger? Embarrassment? Humiliation? Jesus was comparing me (unfairly, I thought) and unfavorably (I was sure) to this woman. She had bathed his feet, he said. She had kissed his feet, he said. She had anointed his feet, he said. And I had done nothing. I had done nothing but stand in judgment. I definitely felt humiliated–publicly humiliated in the privacy of my own home. All eyes were on me, but I said not a word. I was so overcome with emotions—many confusing and conflicting emotions.
“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” I heard Jesus say. “Hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Well, at first the Simon in me felt feelings I’m embarrassed to share with you. I was so jealous of this woman’s relationship with Jesus! I felt as if he loved her more than me, she was closer to him than I, more “together” and spiritually mature.
So here was yet another place to pause and reflect on my own brokenness–on the sin of spiritual ambition and pride.
Then I re-read those sentences again, and for the first time I realized Jesus was speaking to Simon, to me, with incredible love! He was speaking so gently, patiently and compassionately! I could hear in his voice how much he wanted me to understand that it was because she’d experienced such generous forgiveness that the woman now experienced such generous love, not the other way around. And he was inviting me to experience it too!
This woman knew her sins were great, she knew she’d been forgiven, and she was overwhelmed with loving gratitude in response. I was ashamed of myself as I suddenly realized my own need for forgiveness.
I vaguely remember the other guests gathered at the table grumbling among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But now I just wanted to cry at Jesus’ feet too, in loving gratitude for teaching me so patiently and so gently. I saw that I, Simon, had at least as much need of forgiveness as this woman. I’d just been too self-righteous to recognize it.
Then a truly remarkable thing happened: As Jesus helped the woman to her feet, I saw the Simon in me reach out my hand to help her up. And do you know what she did? She graciously accepted my hand. It was the last thing in the world I would’ve expected. The forgiven woman took my hand—me, Simon, the one who had judged her so harshly! She took my hand and offered me her forgiveness.
I think at that moment I could’ve wept at her feet. But Jesus just embraced the two of us, smiled, and said, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”
And leaving the stunned expressions around the table behind us, we walked out together–forgiven and forgiving, healed and reconciled, to follow Jesus wherever he would lead.
I knew then why it had always been so much easier for me to relate to the sinful woman than to Simon. After all, whose sin was the greatest, really?
So now I wonder which character in this story each of you identifies with most easily? I wonder what unexpected gifts God might be inviting you to discover through the practice of this sort of imaginative prayer? And I pray for the grace that we may all embrace Christ’s forgiveness today—and every day–that we may be free to love, free to forgive, and free to follow—wherever Christ leads. Amen.