A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on June 13, 2004.
Based on Luke 7:36-50 (Proper 6, Year C).
When was the last time you saw someone create a scene? We’ve all witnessed these on occasions. Perhaps we’ve even created a scene or two ourselves over the years. Toddlers are especially gifted scene creators but they don’t hold the monopoly on them. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant where someone has argued loudly with a waiter or seen a domestic dispute on a rush-hour train or unsuccessfully tried to return an item without a receipt, you know what I mean. To create a scene is to draw attention to oneself by acting outside the norms of social convention. That’s the textbook definition, I guess. But we generally know a scene when it’s created. It’s pretty clear. Because someone creating a scene makes us uncomfortable. It makes us embarrassed on behalf of the person creating the scene and we feel badly for the other person involved, no matter who is truly at fault. We like to see conflict dealt with in a more rational manner.
The woman in this morning’s gospel story has created a scene. This woman, this sinner, has ruined Simon’s dinner party with her unseemly actions.
This was probably a quite a formal affair. A Pharisee like Simon was part of society and so people with high social standing would have been present. It’s not clear why Jesus was invited to this banquet but he would have been considered an interesting guest. Since he was so talked about it probably reflected well on Simon that he was able to bring in this popular, well-known figure. Jesus was a bit of a celebrity by this time so, even though they didn’t agree with him on many matters of faith, the other Pharisees would have been impressed that Simon was able to get him to attend.
A bit of background is helpful here because a dinner party in ancient Palestine was a much more public event than what we think of nowadays. It wasn’t your standard private cocktail hour, dinner, dessert, and post-meal pleasantries that we’re accustomed to. The invited guests like Jesus would have been ushered into Simon’s home. At the same time the uninvited townspeople would have crowded around the walls outside to get a glimpse of the Pharisee and his guests. So the presence of uninvited people, such as this sinful woman, wouldn’t have been unusual. This wasn’t a small, private affair behind closed doors. This was an event and a spectacle for all to see. And such a visible party would have brought great prestige upon Simon and only increased his own social standing in the community.
Now at such banquets, the guests would have been reclining on pillows, supported by one arm, usually their left, and eating with their other hand. Their feet would have been away from the mat on the floor on which the food would have been spread out before them. So this woman could have easily approached Jesus’ feet.
So, what really caused a scene at Simon’s party was not the mere presence of this woman, but her actions. In a spontaneous act, she weeps on Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair to wipe his feet, and then anoints them with ointment. There are several social faux pas going on here. First, the woman has already been identified as a sinner. So by the ritual purity laws any contact with her makes the other person unclean. Jesus, of course, has been accused in the past by Pharisees as one who “eats with tax collectors and sinners.” This proves the point. Secondly, a woman never let her hair down in public. Social convention dictated that this just wasn’t done. And finally, a woman touching or caressing a man’s feet in public was scandalous in its own right.
So this woman creates a scene in a very public place. The point is not to draw attention to herself. She’s not creating a scene to be noticed or to ruin a dinner party. Her action is simply the authentic response of a sinner to God’s grace. She literally and figuratively throws herself at Jesus’ feet. She throws herself upon the mercy of God and her cry is heard. Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It’s not such a bad thing to make a scene to get God’s attention. You don’t have to disrupt a neighbor’s dinner party but you can make a scene through prayer. You can let go of the normal prayer conventions and make a scene. If it is an authentic plea for God’s help, for the intervention of God’s grace in your life, Jesus will respond. And we, too, can hear those words of Jesus directed at us: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Part of this Pharisee resides in each of us. We are worried about appearance. We are overly concerned with what people will think of us. At the expense of decorum, we don’t want to cause a scene. And yet life and faith and prayer sometimes demand that we do.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004