Ordinary 11C – Luke 7:36-8:3, Galatians 2:15-21
Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? (Luke 7: 44)
Several years ago, when I was a minister in Croydon, a visitor came to church one Sunday. After the service I had a conversation with him and he told me his story. His English was limited but sufficient for me to start to understand his experiences. His name was Bosco and he had recently arrived in the UK from Rwanda , which had suffered a brutal civil war followed by a genocide in which up to a million people died – including Bosco’s wife and two young children. Bosco himself had barely escaped with his own life.
Bosco became part of the congregation. He was a great singer and joined the church music group, teaching us a number of songs in Swahili. We did our best to support him in the bed and breakfast accommodation he was placed in while his application for asylum status was being considered by the home office. His English improved, and although there was an understandable sadness about him, Bosco really became part of our community.
You can imagine then how sad we were when we heard that the council were moving Bosco to a shared house in North West London. To help him settle into his new home I wrote to the local Methodist minister who promised he would visit and invite Bosco to church.
I wasn’t able to speak to Bosco again for several weeks. I asked him how it was going with the church. Slightly embarrassed, he told me that he was no longer worshipping at the Methodist church, but had started attending a French-speaking Pentecostal church instead. I asked why – he said to me, “do you know when I went to the church, the minister introduced me to everybody as Bosco – he’s a Rwandan refugee. Paul do you know that made me feel so small? I don’t want everybody thinking of me as ‘that refugee, that asylum seeker.’ So I didn’t go back.”
“Don’t we all just love a label!” observes life coach Claire Maguire.
“We use them all the time to describe someone or ourselves. Be that positive, negative or something in between.
It helps us to define who we are, what we stand for and how we show up in the world. It can allow us to cause allegiances and of course to create enemies. It makes us feel important and included. We love our labels. And I’m a wondering just what your label is.
For I’ve been a keen observer of labels that we give to people most of my adult life. Perhaps because I’ve used them so often to define myself, through different parts of my life. A vegetarian. A raw foodie. A meat eater. A punk. An environmentalist. A scientist. A mother. A coach. And so on. It gives my life a grounding. Something for me to use to be able to interact with people. To find people of the same persuasion and ideas of my own. We wear our labels, after all, like a beacon to attract others to us. To fit in. To be a part of a group.”
Bruce Humphrey writes:
“Labels are wonderful. Labels in the store help us quickly clarify the soup from the nuts, Coke from Pepsi, chips from cookies. Labels save us time. When we are baking, a quick glance at the labels keeps us from having to open up each spice container. When we store things in the garage, labeling the boxes can save us time later when we need to dig something out to use it.
When we move labels from containers to people, however, something terrible happens. Labels can destroy relationships. Once we label a person we usually stop listening. “He’s a Republican.” “She’s a Democrat.” No need to continue the political discussion now that we know. Religious labels do the same thing. “They are Mormons.” “She’s a Buddhist.” End of the conversation.”
Theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard got it right when he said: “Once you label me, you negate me.” By that he meant that labels obscure who we really are; our true selves before God. The fact is, it’s easier to label people than to love them, because love requires looking beyond surface appearances to the real person, in all their complexity and depth. Put a label on someone and we categorise them and put them in a box. Likewise the labels we accept for ourselves and wear, even the well-meaning ones, can limit us.
Claire Maquire comments: this “is one of my biggest problems with a label: it keeps us in a box. And yes, just like a label stuck on a box, it’s very useful to tell us what’s inside, but conversely the label that you use keeps you well and truly inside your box.” So the child who is continually told that they are stupid or ignorant or unlikely ever to achieve much will likely grow into the label stuck on them; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The old adage ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ may be true on one level, but fails to recognize that in their own way words can cause great hurt and damage. I think we’ve all become much more aware of this, and we are a lot more careful about the language we use to describe others, particularly in the areas of disability, ethnicity and religion. So, for example, we know better than to call people with disabilities ‘cripples’, and children of mixed ethnic heritage ‘half caste’, and white people have stopped calling black people ‘darkies’ (the favourite expression of my elderly landlady back in the 1980s). However the same sensibility doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to economic activity and it suits the government to label people as ‘skivers’ or ‘strivers’.
For good or for ill, we all wear labels; these determine how other people see us and even how we see ourselves. What labels do you wear?
In today’s gospel story we come across a woman who wore a label: the label ‘sinner’. Although a similar story is related in all four gospels, it is only Luke who describes her as living ‘a sinful life’. We aren’t given any explanation of what this means; it is often suggested that she was what might be called today a ‘professional sex worker’, but Luke is silent on the matter. What is surely significant is that the story follows immediately from Jesus responding to his critics, who have called him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. Here then is an example of what Jesus’ opponents have found so offensive.
The incident takes place in the house of a Pharisee called Simon. The scene quite possibly takes place in a central courtyard. Perhaps there might have been a fountain. In good weather meals were often eaten outside in the courtyard and we have to imagine that it was open to passers by. It was the custom that when a religious teacher paid a visit, neighbours and local people would come and listen to the conversation. This explains how the woman came to be in a house where she would not normally be welcome – and certainly would not have been on the guest list!
Unlike Jesus, who was an invited guest, although Simon is strangely cool towards him. A good host would demonstrate his hospitality in three ways. The visitor was welcomed with a kiss of peace. In the case of an important visitor or a religious teacher this would not be omitted. Because roads were dirty, water was poured over the feet of the visitor to cleanse them and to cool them from the heat. Then it was usual to burn some sweet-smelling incense or place a few droplets of rose oil on the visitor’s head. Simon did none of these things and had obviously not instructed his servants to do so either. Simon was curious about Jesus and even seemed open to the possibility that he was a prophet. He addressed him politely as ‘teacher’, but otherwise did the minimum that was required.
The woman was just the opposite to Simon. As Jesus reclined at the low table, she came and stood over him. She started to cry and her tears fell on the feet of Jesus. Then she loosened her hair and used it like a towel to dry the feet of Jesus. Simon and the other guests must have been scandalized; a respectable woman would never loose her hair in public, never mind come into such intimate contact with a man who was not her husband.
But there was still more to come. The woman had a bottle of sweet-smelling perfume, which she used to anoint Jesus’ feet. As she was doing all this, Jesus accepted her actions and the physical contact the woman had made. Simon could not contain himself any longer. He said to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
But Jesus knew what was on Simon’s mind and told a parable about receiving forgiveness. And then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
Well that’s a good question. When Simon sees the woman, what does he see? Mark Davis comments:
“Of course Simon sees the woman – he has been loathing this sinner touching Jesus ever since she started. Of course Simon sees the woman – she’s an embarrassment to the sanctity of the table. Simon isn’t blind, he’s angry.
But, does Simon see this woman, whose provocative expression of brokenness and love is greater than her nametag that says “SINNER!” Does he see past the reputation, the scarlet letter that mocks her, the notoriety, to the person whose life need wholeness? Does he see the woman who is not secretly debating whether Jesus is a prophet or not, but who is pouring out herself in worship?
Simon sees and does not see. It’s the ‘not seeing’ that is tragic – for him and for us.”
Simon cannot see beyond the label that society and religious tradition has placed upon the woman. But Jesus sees. Jesus can see her through and through; the hardships she has faced; the whispers behind her back and the gossip of her neighbours; the contempt of those, like Simon, who consider themselves to be righteous men.
Yes, Jesus sees the woman; he knows her shame, and her quest for forgiveness; he knows her faith and her ‘great love’. Do you see this woman, Simon? Jesus does. And he loves her right where she is.
Where the labels have devalued the woman and her self-worth, Jesus’ love gives her value and deems her worthy of love.
Where people have shunned her, Jesus accepts her as she is.
Where labels have passed judgement on her, Jesus’ offers her mercy.
And now she sees herself differently – she sees herself as Jesus sees her – as beautiful. I am not talking about outer beauty, although she may have been beautiful – the scripture doesn’t tell us. Rather, she is transformed in her innermost being into something beautiful.
It is the same transformation experienced by the ex-Pharisee Paul, though he states it in more formal language. As he writes to the Galatians: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).
So where are we in this story? How does it relate to us?
To put it simply, there are times when we are like Simon and times when we are like the woman.
We are like Simon, because too we find it a perennial temptation to label other people. Asylum seekers, benefit claimants, drug addicts, the homeless, the poor. These are some of the labels we attach to people and which enable us to put people in their place. By doing so, we objectify and dehumanize our fellow human beings, created in God’s image. And we may even pray, in the words of another Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables; thank goodness I’m not like them. We even despise people as sinners, unworthy of God’s forgiveness and undeserving of God’s love.
Lord, help us to see past the labels we and others attach to people. Help us to see them as Jesus sees them, as men and women loved by you. Help us to be hands of Jesus, reaching out and blessing, and bringing words of comfort and peace.
And sometimes we are like the woman, trapped by the labels we wear, unable to think and see outside the box. Well, here’s the good news – God loves us and offers us the possibility of forgiveness, transformation and change. Where we are prisoners of our past, God sees only possibilities. Where we feel constrained by what other people have seen in us, God sees only potential. If we turn to him with trusting faith, God forgives us much, bringing restoration and peace and setting us free to love and praise. Like the unwelcome guest in Simon’s house, dare we open ourselves to Jesus and his transforming, forgiving grace, and in turn respond with heartfelt and unashamed love and praise – freed to be the people God wants us to be?