This Sunday, our story from Luke’s gospel recounts the incident in which Jesus’s feet are washed by the notoriously sinful woman. The story was (and is) shocking, because it is a story of the breaching of barriers between those who benefit from privilege and those who do not.
The main part of the story deals with a meal at the house of a Pharisee—only belatedly given the name of “Simon.” A woman behaves in a shocking way—and most of the people around the table expect Jesus to know who exactly this woman is, and to rebuke her for her improper actions. It’s important to note that the woman is identified not by name, but only as “a sinner.” Unlike every one else in the story, she alone is identified with such a pejorative. We’ve got a Pharisee named Simon; we’ve got a Teacher named Jesus; we’ve got those who are at the table (and supposedly righteous folk); we’ve got women who were healed by Jesus and became his disciples regardless of rules about the proper behavior of women; and we’ve got a “sinner.” Then, as now, her status as an outcast in the eyes of the community of decent folk is understood as robbing her of her claim to full humanity, especially because she is not just a woman but a woman condemned by the common opprobrium of the community. And we still behave the same way. Here we sit, two thousand years later, imitating with the wrong characters in story, still prone to self-congratulations and self-righteousness, too eager to condemn others while demanding mercy for ourselves. We still want to insulate and separate ourselves from others rather than practice the radical hospitality of Jesus that recognizes no barrier as insurmountable except stubborn hardness of heart.
There’s a lot of talk lately about barriers and walls in our American political life. Yet, when looking over this passage, I noticed a lot of tacit walls being taken down stone by stone. We start with walls to protect purity and privilege-- the Pharisee maintained his purity by erecting a virtual wall between the notoriously sinful and himself. In his head, even though he has invited Jesus under his roof, he starts trying to toss Jesus over this proverbial wall when he thinks he has found proof that Jesus is a fraud. Jesus points out that the Pharisee, in his zeal to maintain to maintain his wall, has violated all the norms of hospitality. Jesus breaches the wall between the Pharisee’s thoughts and the action of the story, demonstrating that this is no ordinary wandering holy man, but at the very least a prophet—and we’re in on the secret that Jesus is so much more than that.
It’s always been a puzzle to me how the Pharisee gets so condescending about the woman approaching Jesus at his own table and under his own roof. This woman has broached the wall of “polite society.” The story makes clear that the Pharisee certainly was familiar with the woman and her reputation, yet somehow she got into his house and is now making this scene. As a matter of fact, perhaps he resents the fact that his dinner invitation to this wandering teacher has resulted in all the riffraff of the town from pressing into his doorways. The Pharisee fears being overrun and defiled by being brought into contact with people who do not meet his requirements for decorum and decency. In the Pharisee’s world, only those who behave in certain ways have the right to come inside the walls of regulations he and his fellow Pharisees have created in order to keep themselves pure and undefiled. From beginning to end, it’s also interesting that the female characters outnumber the male characters. It’s not often that happens in scripture-- and there goes another wall.
Jesus smashes a proverbial wall when he allows a notorious woman to touch him in a very personal, humble way, shocking the sensibilities of that time and that place. Yet rather than be shamed, she is forgiven and sent away, freed and healed by the authority of Jesus himself. Another wall cast to the ground. Even at the end of our gospel passage this week, we see Jesus breaching a wall again by hanging out with women who have required healing from him.
But here’s the problem with walls: as much as we think they keep “undesirable” people out, they also keep the fortunate ones penned in. In the end, both are in a cage. And even a cage of your own making is still a cage. Walls hold us in and limit us as much as keep others out. We like to think that walls will keep us safe, or at the very least will keep our possessions safe. We ignore the fact that for every story in which walls protect people, there are two stories in which walls are used to imprison people. With every wall we make, we overlook the fact that we have made ourselves feel ever more alone and therefore vulnerable.
In forgiving and loving the woman who anoints his feet, Jesus reminds us that the love disciples are called to embody is a love without limits, or we all stand condemned. The story of Jesus is all about dismantling walls—certainly not building them. Jesus was constantly violating boundaries and deliberately moving into liminal spaces in order to realign the thinking of the religious authorities about what God’s love was really about. Jesus came preaching repentance to all, because, as Romans 3:23 reminds us, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have sinned, yet grace is available to all as well—if we are willing to trust in grace rather than some sort of human calculus Jesus was constantly tearing down walls- between clean and unclean, between the poor and the privileged, and in our story today, between those who congratulate themselves on their ability to determine who is “in,” and who is “out--” who is a “sinner,” and who is “righteous.”
(This was first published on Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on June 10, 2016.)