“Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
May only God’s word be spoken, and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!
Once upon a time, in a southern city similar in size to Omaha, in the right neighborhood on the right side of town there was an Episcopal church with all the right people who dressed in all the right clothes and drove all the right cars. It was a well-to-do place as long established in the community as it was long steeped in tradition. The Families had been members there for generations and the patterns of worship well established and unchanging. One day a shocking thing happened in this monumental Episcopal congregation: a visitor. He calmly strode down the aisle and sat down in about the middle of the pews. Oblivious of the indignant looks of those that passed by who normally sat in that pew and equally oblivious of the looks of shock from those that could not believe he had to audacity to sit in so-and-so’s pew, our dear visitor knelt down to pray before the worship began.
Despite a few ruffled feathers at this new comers presence things settled down a bit and the service was moving along fine until the sermon. About an eighth of the way through the sermon the visitor said out loud in a moderate volume, “Praise God!” The people around him were just about to drip off into their traditional mid-sermon naps, so they were not sure it actually happened. Things kept going along and they began to journey towards dreamland again when again in a louder voice the stranger in their midst said, “Praise, God!” This time it was loud enough that not only were the people around him sure it happened, the usher in the back of the church perked up and took notice as well. The priest kept preaching and a few minutes later the visitor once again hollered, “Praise God!” At this point an usher rose and stately walked down the aisle stood over the man and said, “Sir, we don’t praise God in this church.”
We laugh at that joke because we know that in whatever context we are in there are unwritten rules of conduct. Whether it is at the office or at school, the golf course or a sporting event, the bridge club or even at church, we know there are things done and things just not done.
It was no different in Jesus’ day. There were commonly accepted cultural norms of how to act in public. Therefore when we read our gospel today, we should not be shocked by the Pharisees’ shock at the actions of the woman of the story. See in Jesus’ day women weren’t allowed to speak to men in public, much less touch them. So when this woman washes Jesus’ feet we are talking about an action far more culturally appalling then shouting praise God in an Episcopal Church.
So, as I was meditating on this passage this week, I began to wonder: Why did she do it? What would posses here to walk into this room of men, risk, literally, her life, and perform this profound, ostentatious—dare I even say—erotic public display of affection.
As is always a good idea, when one is puzzled by something in scripture, I reread the text. As I was in my fiftieth of sixtieth time through the text, I think I caught a clue to our dear lady’s motivation. Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” I think the word ‘hence’ may be the most important word in that sentence. Her sins have been forgiven and she responds by loving.
This leads me to make two points to you today. First, good works are not the path to salvation rather they are the response to salvation. The apostle Paul writes about this a lot in both his letters to the Galatians and Romans. In our passage today he writes, “Yet we know that a person is justified—that is to say saved—not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Here Paul is referring to the law of God given to Moses. In other passages he brings up the figure of Abraham who received the promises of God well before there was ever a law of God to follow. Indeed the Hebrews who followed Moses out of Egypt did not have the law either, but received it as guidance of how to respond to God’s gracious act of liberation. We do nothing—indeed we can do nothing—we do not possess the ability to earn God’s love. The love of God, the redemptive life giving power of God, is given us freely out of the graciousness of God. The woman of our story does not anoint Jesus’ feet in order to gain salvation and forgiveness; rather she is forgiven and then anoints Jesus’ feet in response, which leads me to my second point.
When we experience the grace of God, when we know the forgiveness of Christ on a deep level, our loving response often does not fit in with the unwritten rules of the day. The liberation of our bondage by God often produces responses that are dramatic and disruptive. Whether it is giving money to those who beg, or food to those who are hungry; whether it is being an advocate, a voice for people who unwritten rules say should keep their mouths shut or the idea that we as a people never have the right to violently take a life; or even shouting “Praise God” in church, responses to the grace of God will often make us uncomfortable even angry. But that leads us to a question.
Who in the story are you going to be today? Who in the story am I going to be today? Who in the story is the community of All Saints going to be today? The “sinful” woman who is so appreciative of what has been given her that she is willing to risk it all to act out her love for God or the Pharisee who can’t get past the way he thinks things ought to be in order to participate in the love Christ in his midst.
I know whom I want to choose to be, and I know whom I hope that All Saints chooses to be. In the words of our baptismal covenant, I pray that with God’s help I and we will be the sinful woman. Amen!