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"Grace: Unexpected Expressions of Love"

“Grace: Unexpected Expressions of Love”

(a sermon based on Luke 7:31-39 & 44-50, page 66, New Testament)


Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Pastor

First Congregational United Church of Christ

201 S. Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707

August 9, 2020

In today's Bible story, we meet a bold, passionate, free woman! We see her in action, up-close & personal! It's a story that may make some of us a bit uncomfortable, as it did the men in her day. So I want us to remember (before we go any further) that she's our sister! And she's one of the saints. I think of her as one of my "un-sung heroes" in the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

The story begins with folks complaining that Jesus is a “glutton and a drunkard; a friend of tax-collectors and sinners”! People complain that Jesus doesn't live a frugal, fasting, withdrawn life like John the Baptist and his disciples do, but rather, Jesus eats hearty meals with his fishermen friends and he drinks wine (in the Gospel of John, he even makes wine at a wedding!). Certainly he cannot really be a "holy man." Jesus is, they say, "a glutton and a drunk; and a friend of sinners!"

Now, if that's true (and not just a scandalous slander devised by his enemies!), I wonder why on earth would a Pharisee invite this "glutton & drunkard" to a dinner party !? I would suspect it might be a "set-up" -- a test (at least), or maybe a trap!

It seems to me that all Jesus has to do to change his reputation from that of a "party-hearty kind of guy" would be for him to refuse the Pharisee's invitation! They couldn't very well continue to say that Jesus was "a glutton & a drunk" if he chose not to attend this lavish affair.

After all, Jesus, these Pharisees -- these self-appointed maintainers of civic purity & social order -- aren't really your kind of folks... Are they??

Well, Jesus goes ahead (against my advice!) and accepts the dinner invitation. He shows up among the Pharisee's guests, ready to eat and to drink with them!

As the party progresses, I can imagine that the room heats up with (maybe) a dozen men reclining on couches around a low table. The candles on the table (and torches along the walls) provide a minimum of light … and maximum heat. Generous amounts of red wine flows, but, served at room temperature, it would fail to quench the growing thirst. Hot meat, served sizzling on platters, and spicy Middle Eastern herbs add their aromas to the room. I imagine the men begin to sweat under the beards.

"Pull back the curtain!" says Simon, the host. "Open the doors to the street! We need a breath of fresh air. It's getting a little stuffy in here!"

That's when she came in. … The smell of her perfume, like wildflowers after a spring rain, swept into the room on the cool evening breeze a moment before she stepped across the threshold.

I imagine her clothes were a seductive silk, a shimmering shade of pale purple, with gold and silver thread. Her dark hair was long & loose, uncovered & undone... something which was rarely seen outside the home (!)… You see, the social code among religious Jews in Jesus' day (and among many cultures in the Middle East even now) considered a woman's unbound hair to be an intimacy reserved for one's husband alone!

Who is this woman? … The fact is, I don't know... Her name is not recorded in the Bible. But it seems that she was well-known in her town. Her reputation was summed up in the word we overheard at the table: "sinner!" She's a sinner with a capital "S."

Simon, the host, knows who she is! He says to himself: "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who … and what sort of woman this is … who is touching him -- for she is a sinner!" I wonder how he knew...? Had Simon, perhaps, been involved with her? Or was it just hearsay, town gossip? Although, frankly (I have to admit), her behavior toward Jesus is "sensual."

Perhaps she had been invited to the dinner party as part of the test -- to see if the complaints about Jesus were, in fact, true... After all, he is eating & drinking! (So the gossip about him being "a glutton and a drunk" might continue.) Will he also prove to be a "friend" to this sinner? Will this woman's unexpected caresses (& kisses!) strip Jesus of his holiness?

To find out, we've got to get down eye-level with what the Pharisee sees... and listen in... as servants move between the guests, refilling their cups of wine, replacing the trays of food. What are they saying about this bold woman who came in (apparently uninvited) off the street in the heat of the night? "Look at her! She's not ashamed to show us her hair, nor embarrassed to be here with the men! … I hear she is available... that's what everybody says about her... with a wink, a smirk."

The woman is carrying something... A fine-sculpted alabaster container of scented oil, as would be used in her boudoir... That's what we see. And that's what they say. So, that's what we are led to assume!

But tonight this woman hasn't come to the party looking for free drinks, or dinner, or an evening fling. (!) She's been crying. (!) We watch her move between the servants to the place where Jesus is reclining. She bends down beside him.

The woman bathes Jesus' bare feet with her tears! His feet become enmeshed in the swirls of her hair! A river of salty tears, dried by a river of silky hair... Polite society is hushed around the table. (!) Guests frown as the woman bathes Jesus feet and then dries them with her-self. (Babies are bathed by their mothers, but, c'mon, these are two full-grown adults!! You just don’t do this kind of stuff in public!)

She rubs his feet... (Oh, that feels good!) You know, only a lover would do that, or a professional massage therapist. (Is that her profession??) This woman, apparently, has become comfortable with intimacy! ... Somehow, she's not ashamed! You see why I called her a “bold” woman… a “loose” woman… a “free” woman!

Everyone is looking to see how Jesus will respond to her caress... ? Will he do what's expected of a holy man... and push her away? What kind of "prophet" is he, anyway!? The woman kisses Jesus feet! Kisses him, for heaven's sake! This is going too far! The guests are getting offended. You can just imagine them drawing back from touching her... this woman of passion... flesh & blood, hair & hands & tears.

We see her tears, but there's no telling why she is so sorrowful.

Or are these, possibly, tears of joy and of fresh, free release?

By now the up-tight, always-do-right, Pharisee “holiness” of the host is horrified! You can see it in his eyes as they narrow; as his lips tighten. But he keeps quiet... waiting to see what will Jesus do? Will he do what's expected -- that is, will he throw her out!?? Call her names? Reach for a stone?

You see, the Pharisee's idea of "holiness" (among other things) is caught up in the myth that flesh is evil, and that woman-flesh especially is a curse. The female shape is so sensual & so human (say these men) that God's righteousness is "offended." Hence, they must be covered up!

But tonight, the woman takes no offense. Somehow tonight she is free from all that inhibition; she is a free woman in body, mind, & soul! Free to express herself, her emotions, her devotion... at least until those men write her story, and priests and preachers start to call her a “whore” -- a wanton woman, smoldering with the heat of sexuality -- deserving of punishment, social banishment, perhaps even stoned to death (if she’s caught in an act of adultery).