26 November 2015

If Jesus only knew

Christ and the Sinful Woman,
by Elena Cherkasova
Recently we went to the Cosmas and Damian Church near the Kremlin to buy some books. In the church bookstore, Judy was struck by this icon of the scene in Luke where the sinful woman kisses and anoints the feet of Jesus. This fascinating image now hangs near the door to our kitchen.

Here's the story from Luke, chapter 7, verses 36 through 50.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, 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."

Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

"Tell me, teacher," he said.

"Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"

Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven."

 "You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little."

Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
I love this story for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it manages to convey both grace and realism at the same time. The grace is unconditional: "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Period.

But at the same time Jesus presents Simon with a very unsentimental comparison between the two debtors. It's another reminder of Jesus' upside-down kingdom where the first will be last, and the last first.

Two other points struck me on this Thanksgiving Day.

First, I tried (and will continue trying) to put myself in the woman's place in this scene. I've been forgiven, and I would like to wash Jesus' feet with my tears and wipe them with my hair. No, not literally, but I can work on this question: what prayer and what action would be an equally worthy thanksgiving for the grace that turned my life around and gave it meaning? How can I thank God sufficiently for my new family? ... by which I mean all the people in the world who are also figuring out how to live with God at the center. And, if "sufficiently" is not possible, can I at least abandon all pretenses and all worries about the rest of the audience as I pour out my honest tears?

The second point is more or less the reverse: I put myself in Simon's place. Whom have I examined and found wanting? I don't think I have been so arrogant that I questioned Jesus' ability to see people for who they really are, but how often have I taken one small aspect of a person and used that small aspect to minimize them? Maybe this person is on his or her way to a fateful meeting with God, and my attitude should, at the very least, not get in the way! When Jesus points at the sinful woman and resets my perspective, am I ready to repent and experience the same uninhibited joy that she shows? Or will I keep grumbling with the crowd, just as I used to do? ... "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

The central paradox of this amazing scene for me is that salvation is free but it isn't cheap. Look what that woman did! In a society that set a huge store on social position and reputation, this woman must have realized that as soon as she set foot in that company, people would be thinking about "what kind of a woman" she was. Sustained by her faith, she crashed through barriers too numerous to list, all in order to express her love. That sounds very costly to me. However, Jesus not only tells her that her sins are forgiven, but that her own faith (not his magic, nor his decree) has saved her. That's it! No doctrinal tests, no bait-and-switch, just immediate and radical affirmation.

I like to think of her as my sister.

Finishing the pumpkin puree.
How Americans in Europe are celebrating Thanksgiving. As for us, we continued the tradition we first began in 2008: preparing a Thanksgiving feast for our colleagues at the New Humanities Institute here in Elektrostal. The turkey was represented by Judy's amazing turkey cardamom braid. Judy made cranberry sauce, pumpkin bread with a layer of tvorog, wild rice, pomegranate jello salad, and an apple-cranberry-raisin crumble. All in the service of love and wonderful conversation.

Elizabeth Bruenig says that, in Texas if not everywhere, the refugee issue is a religious liberty issue.

After hearing all sorts of happy Thanksgiving talk, maybe you need an antidote. Try this short piece by Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich, "The Man Who Flew Like a Bird." Translated by Jamey Gambrell, who (among many other works) compiled and translated Marina Tsvetaeva's marvelous Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922.

This Open Culture entry places Jimi Hendrix firmly in the blues pantheon.

Big Daddy Wilson turns romantic. Enjoy...


Marshall Massey said...

“Sustained by her faith, she crashed through barriers too numerous to list, all in order to express her love. That sounds very costly to me.”

It sounds very single-minded to me, in the best possible sense of that word. (And we might recall other passages in the NT that exalt “singleness” and condemn “double-mindedness”. I think this woman is an example of what that is all about.)

“No doctrinal tests, no bait-and-switch, just immediate and radical affirmation.”

Yes. And given the tendency in so many quarters of the church to equate “faith”, pistis, with belief in certain teachings and ideas, this gives me great pause. Could the early Friends have been right in equating “faith” less with belief and more with faithfulness and follow-through?

Thanks for a good posting.

Johan Maurer said...

Marshall, your comment drew me to Kierkegaard's book, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing: Spiritual Preparation for the Office of Confession. (You're probably not surprised.) I've just gone skimming through the book and found many points of contact with the woman's experience in Simon's house, and with your comment. For example, the very end of chapter 3: "[God] does not reward the impressive with admiration. The reward of the good person is to be allowed to worship in truth."

Marshall Massey said...

No, I haven’t read Kierkegaard, so I’m not qualified to talk about that. I was merely relating the story to my own experience. But I thank you for the reference!

Unknown said...

Golly! is she 'outed' or what!? */;D