June 12, 2016
One of my preaching professors used to say that when a difficult passage of scripture is read in church, you can take a pass on it once in a while. But if, when a difficult texts are read in church, you preach on something else every time, he said, your congregation will know you’re chicken. Your congregation will know, on some level, that you are not willing to talk about difficult things. And if you can’t talk in your preaching about difficult things that happen in scripture, he asked us, how can your people trust that you will be willing to talk about the difficult and important things that happen in life?
It’s a necessary question for a preacher to ask herself.
This week particularly, I wish I had kept in better touch with that preaching professor, because I would like to know what advice he has about preaching, when two of the passages of scripture read aloud in church are difficult texts.
All of that is to say, there are problems that need addressing in the story from the First Book of Kings, about Jezebel and Ahab, about Naboth and the field that is his inheritance. And there are problems that need addressing in the gospel lesson about Jesus and the Pharisee and the woman with the alabaster jar.
As I’m preaching one sermon today, rather than two (my preaching professor would likely have something to say about that as well), I ask your forbearance about the fact that I’m going to take a pass this go-round on Jezebel, in order to take on the Pharisee who encounters an unanticipated guest at his dinner party.
“If this man (Jesus) were a prophet,” that Pharisee thinks to himself, “he would have known what kind of a woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.
The Pharisee has invited Jesus to eat with him. So Jesus goes, and takes his place at the table, and this unnamed woman – who, we’re clear, is a sinner…the writer of this text goes to the trouble of telling us that now a couple of times – she comes to Jesus, crying enough tears that she can wash his feet with them, using her hair to dry his feet afterwards, kissing those now-washed-and-dried feet, and finally anointing him with costly and beautiful oil.
I can only imagine the discomfort of witnessing such a demonstrative and intimate act. It seems like too much, like the kind of thing where people’s eyes widen a little as they notice it taking place, then breaking eye contact, perhaps with a nervous chuckle that says “well, this is surely not what I expected at a Pharisee’s dinner party…”, the studied concentration on a glass of water, or the grapes that guests eat as they recline at the table, or a crack in the floor, or any single thing except for that thing that they can’t not look at, this moment that is unfolding before them. It seems like too much. And it is, for that Pharisee (“Does he even know what kind of a woman this is?” he grumbles to himself. “Is he really even a prophet? Because if he were, he would know…”).
Exactly what kind of a woman is this?
She is a sinner, we hear twice. We know that her sins are many, even, because Jesus says so when he schools that Pharisee in his judgment.
And let’s be real here. When a woman in the Bible gets called a sinner, that quality tends to be interpreted in a particular kind of way. Like Mary Magdalene, this nameless woman with her alabaster jar is most frequently portrayed in word and image as a prostitute, as a woman of moral failure, and certainly as somebody who shouldn’t be anywhere near a prophet of proper standing at a Pharisee’s dinner party.
In fact, though, this is not what the actual language of the actual text actually says – not about Mary Magdalene, and not about this unnamed woman. In fact, the very same Greek word for sinner that is used to describe this unnamed woman, is also used by the author of very same gospel to describe…the apostle Peter, at the time Jesus calls him to become one of the first disciples.
Now, I hear Peter described as a number of things: impetuous, unthinking, occasionally rude, and even, through his three denials of Jesus, as disloyal. But I can tell you that I have never heard the apostle Peter described as a prostitute.
So exactly what kind of a woman is this woman who has entered the Pharisee’s house?
“What kind of a woman?” indeed. That’s the sort of question that has been blasted across social media in recent days, thanks to a difficult and important text of its own, written by a woman with the courage to expose that question for what it is. “What kind of a woman?” is the sort of question that lays bare the sin that it is, to blame a woman attacked while at the same time protecting her attacker for the sake of his supposed potential. It’s the kind of diminishing question that causes women to blame themselves for wearing the wrong thing or being in the wrong place or having the wrong number of drinks or dancing with the wrong person or saying hello in the wrong way.
“What kind of a woman?” is the sort of question we ask, when we look for something that enables us to hold a person – a person – at arm’s length…like the Pharisee must want to do, when that woman, with her tears, and her hair, and her alabaster jar, shows up and makes people uncomfortable at his party.
“What kind of a woman?” is the sort of question we ask, when we seek to discount a person as something less of a person than a commodity, a consumable…a disturbance.
“Simon,” Jesus asks that Pharisee: “Do you see this woman?”
Do you? Do I?
And what kind of a woman is she?
Well. Here’s what this difficult text actually tells us: She is the kind of woman who bathes a person’s feet after those feet have gotten dirty and tired from a long day of walking. She is the kind of woman who brings oil that is costly and beautiful to anoint a savior. She is the kind of woman who shows great love. She is the kind of woman who has been saved, by faith.
And I don’t know if that Pharisee ever does manage to see the woman with the alabaster jar. But I’d stake my faith on the fact that Jesus does. Just like he sees Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Susanna. Just like he sees a woman who has been attacked after going to a party. Just like he sees you. Just like he sees me.
What kind of a woman is she?
She’s the kind of woman who follows Jesus.
 Verlee A. Copeland. “Proper 6, Luke 7:36-8:3, Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 143,145.