Woman and Mystery

Pent. 2
LK. 7:36-50

The story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints His feet is a striking one. It is vivid and dramatic. Like many of the stories in the gospels, this story is complex. Is it about God’s love or the woman’s? The story has been interpreted in various ways, often reflecting the culture or interest of the times. For Liberation Theology interpreters, the story shows that Jesus has a special place for the disposessed and that those of the establishment seldom receive God’s grace. For scholars of a Feminist interpretation, the story underlines the special place of women in Jesus ministry and their exploitation by a misogynist culture. Both sides used this story to support their point of view in the battle between the Puritans and the establishment. The Reformation and Luther cited the passage to support the importance of grace over law. Reading the passage this week, and having looked at the commentaries, it appears to me that regardless of the various possible interpretations there are four constants. First of all the primary focus is on Jesus and not the woman. Jesus is shown to be important, unique and a prophet - one of whom it can be said that God is with Him. Jesus has tremendous power. There is an aura of power around Him - a sense of the Tremendum. Secondly there is a sense of the mysterious, of the Mysterium. Jesus is expected to be a seer (prophet). Ironically the woman is also a seer. She sees who He really is. There is a sense of the supernatural, the ineffable, that which is hidden and revealed, of the incomprehensible. Overall the emphasis is upon Jesus as unique and upon the Mysterium Tremendum which defines him. Jesus is seen as wholly other (completely other) and as Holy Other (having elements of the divine). The Holy Other is set over against the ordinary, work-a-day world of the Jews.

Thirdly the woman had intuitive power. She intuited Jesus’ power, holiness and compassion. She recognized His power in that she knew that He could do whatever He wanted to do. Jesus was not restricted by the mores and folkways of His companions or His host. She recognized His holiness in that He could go right to the essence of a person1s character, to one’s soul. She recognized His compassion in that she knew that He could forgive her. What had the woman done that was so bad? Apparently she broke the laws regarding fornication and therefore ritual cleanliness as well. She violated one of the Commandments. (Unspoken is the fact that her men had done so as well.) Her sins were the result of her sin, her falleness, which we all share. Here sin is defined as giving oneself deep down undue regard (see St. Augustine re. sin.) In our everyday terms we would say that her deep inner drives and hungers had corrupted her and in effect drawn her farther and farther away from God. Conversely, along with this self-centeredness and brokeness there is also a longing to be whole - for the wholly other. In addition there is a deep longing for holiness - to have a sense of purity of will and to escape the pain of the grip of the devices and desires of our own hearts.

It is out of the pit of despair and indignity that the woman finds a boldness to respond to Jesus. She steps forward and gives Him public honor by washing his feet and anointing his head with precious oil. She gives Jesus more than the necessities of food and drink, she gives Him esteem and adoration. In the presence of purity the extent of her brokeness is heightened, she is moved to tears, and is freed to trust (to have faith). That trust in turn allows her to receive forgiveness. She is no longer fighting the compassion of God.

The woman’s gracious actions have significance beyond themselves, for they foreshadow the purification of Jesus before his sacrifice upon the cross, and they foreshadow the anointing and cleansing of Jesus following His crucifixion and preceding His ascension.

Fourthly I think that the woman recognizes and honors the profundity of what is happening. She sees that she and the others are in the real presence of God. She responds naturally with extravagance and grace. She emulates the glory, which is the presence of that which is pure, compassionate, good and holy. Because of the profundity of the presence of the Holy One of God, the folkways and mores of the Pharisees, their laws which were formulated to help believers live as God would have them, fail. The rules of the road lack the profundity of mystery when one is in the presence of that which is Holy. They lack the profundity of forgiveness for real sin, not just the acceptance of weaknesses and misdirection.

You and I live in a culture which has a heightened sense of failure. Failure is the sin of our society. We live under the cloud of fear of failure as opposed to fear of sinning. Murder and mayhem are attributed to grievances and inequities. Often we don’t do things not because they are sinful but because they are stupid. Mistakes in a marriage are more often attributed to having made a bad match or lack of communication than to having failed to have straightened out the relationship of our soul with God. We live at a rapid pace on the surface, rather than moving in the depths. If we are to believe the magazines and media the prostitute who came to Jesus was living a “life style.” She had failed to make a “good career choice,” but if she was happy with it, then that was okay! Since she wasn’t happy, she must have made a dumb choice or been exploited. If we are to be a little more sensitive, then we might say that that her career choice led to a corrosion of her integrity, her self-esteem and her core self. Our culture, even when it is moralistic, somehow lacks a sense of the deep hunger of the soul for communion with the Holy Other, for that which is pure and substantive and feeds the soul.

I fear that in our lives as Christians we all too often fall into the trap of the Pharisees of following the rules of the road, maintaining the mores and missing the mystery. For example, last week I spoke with a parishioner of another parish who referred to her priest as “Bill.” “Bill” did this and did that. The man had spent twenty years handling the blessed body and blood of Christ, hearing confession, administering the sacraments, representing Christ at the altar, and healing the poor in spirit and he was just plain “Bill?” Not Mister, or The Reverend, or pastor or father? “Bill?” The inference was that the rector was just like the rest of us, and that we can have an easy relationship with him. I understand the necessity of maintaining accessibility and open lines of communication. I know it is important to be pastoral, open and caring. But the office merits respect. Likewise, the holiness of what goes on here in this sanctuary is awesome. A too familiar, too casual, too cavalier, or too routine attitude discounts the gravity, profundity and mystery of what takes place within the Church. Likewise, fussiness and lists of rules can hide the importance of what you and I do. We must be welcoming and warm, open, accepting and gracious. But we must beware trivializing what happens in our prayers, our preaching our teaching, and in our sacraments.

Like the woman who ministered to Jesus, you and I come into the presence of mystery and holiness because of an incredibly deep hunger in our souls. We come to have our souls fed and to find forgiveness not only for our mistakes, and not only for our sins, but also for the sin that abides in each of us and with which we grapple when we experience the dark night of the soul. Like the woman who ministered to Jesus, acknowledge your sinfulness and be bold. With the tears of your heart and with the matter of your soul allow your self to receive the compassion of God and His forgiveness. Then go forth from here and glorify God through your acts of love towards others. - Amen