7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the commonwealth of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
After extensive study, psychologist Arthur Aron believes that he can make two strangers fall in love. In fact, more than 20 years ago, he claims to have accomplished that very task in his research laboratory. His process involves a list of 36 questions that participants are to ask one another and discuss. More than that, though, he has concluded that the thing that brings people closer to each other better than anything else is four minutes of eye contact. Four minutes of uninterrupted, silent, simple eye contact creates intimacy and trust and even love like nothing else can.
This week I convinced my spouse to engage in the experiment with me. Even after seven years of marriage, the exercise was a little awkward and uncomfortable. But in the end we found it to be moving and a gift to one another. So I would like to suggest to you that if you can persuade a family member or friend to spend four minutes with you in this way, I believe it is worth a try.
The human rights organization Amnesty International also decided to give it a try and test Dr. Aron’s hypothesis. But rather than bringing together couples in romantic or familial relationships, they invited refugees from Syria and Somalia to sit opposite European citizens from Germany, Poland, Belgium, and the UK. A video of the experiment, posted on their website, showed men, women, and children looking into each other’s eyes. There were some smiles. There were a few whispered questions. There were tears. And then after the prescribed four minutes, the pairs reached out to one another with handshakes and hugs and conversation. Two young girls started a game of tag, remaining connected to one another the best way they knew how. Strangers became friends.
The video ends with a statement in white letters on a black screen: “Over a million refugees crossed into Europe last year. Just like everyone else, they all have their own story to tell.”
Jesus asked the Pharisee, Simon, “Do you see this woman”—this woman, the one kneeling at his feet in an extravagant show of love and gratitude? When Jesus asked Simon, “do you see this woman?” he wasn’t just pointing out that she was in the room. No, that was obvious to everyone, and in fact Simon had already been grumbling about her. Instead, Jesus was inviting Simon to really see her, to get to know her story. What did he know about her? She was a sinner was all. We’re not told what the sin was. She may have been colluding with the Romans to take financial advantage of the poor. She may have neglected the needs of her elder relatives. She may have stolen some bread to feed her family because as a woman she was not allowed to earn her own wages. She may have forgotten that she had really great talents to share with the community and convinced herself that she was not worth anything. Who knows what her sin was? Now, the assumption for generations of interpreters has been that she was a prostitute, which it doesn’t say in the passage, and which is yet another sign of the church’s patriarchal associations of women with sinful sexuality. Funny, isn’t it, that the church is so familiar with denouncing the sin of prostitution but less so the sin that causes the demand for it. In any case, whatever the woman’s sin had been, Simon had presumably only heard rumors of it. He had not talked to the woman directly. He had not taken the time to look in her eyes and find out her story. He didn’t know the suffering that she had gone through or the incredible experience of liberation when she encountered someone who took the time to listen and to introduce her to the grace of God which could actually set her free. All Simon could see from his curved in on himself perspective was a sinner who had interrupted his dinner party. “Do you see this woman?” Clearly, he did not.
It has been troubling to read this Gospel passage—along with the first reading about King David’s abuse of power and taking of Bathsheba—following the news out of California this week. Just over a week ago, a man there, a student at Stanford, was sentenced to only six months in county jail after being convicted of three sexual assault felonies. During the reporting of his trial, alongside his high school senior portrait, there was a lot of conversation about this perpetrator’s academic and athletic potential at his prestigious university and what his conviction would mean for his future. At the same time, many people asked questions about the woman, his victim—what had she been doing? What had she been wearing? Had she been dancing? And other forms of irrelevant speculation.
We need to be honest about unjust systems of privilege that would show more concern for this man’s loss of swimming potential than the harm that has been caused to his victim. We need to be honest that there is a particular kind of culture pervasive in the U.S. that avoids even listening to a victim’s story let alone looking into her eyes and trying to see from her perspective. The woman in the Stanford case has chosen to remain anonymous, which is understandable for the sake of her own privacy and safety. She says she has chosen to remain anonymous also because she doesn’t need labels or categories to prove that she is worthy of respect and being listened to. She is simply a woman who wants to be heard. How terribly sad and convicting it is that being heard is something she or any woman should have to fight for. Her message for the judicial system and for a culture that allows this sort of thing is like the words of the prophet Nathan who confronted an abusive king with his sin: “You are the man!”
And like Jesus speaking to Simon, she says, “Do you see this woman and all the others whose individual stories are covered up by assumptions and prejudices and hate?” Do you see this woman? Take four minutes, at the very least, to listen to her story.
When we confess our sin in worship together, we do so because we know two things are true. One, the wrong we do causes real harm to others, ourselves, and to the world around us. We haven’t listened to one another’s stories. We haven’t sought beloved community in the ways we could. But the other truth is that God is always seeking a new way for us. The forgiveness we receive is not about denying wrongdoing or the harm it causes; it is for the sake of creating a way forward that is life-giving, loving, and inclusive of all people and their individual stories. We tell the truth twice: things are not as they should be; and God, who sees each individual, will not give up on us.
What good news it is that God will be present in the most difficult moments and that no situation we have experienced or can imagine can prevent resurrection life. Being seen and known in that way, with that kind of care and mercy, well, it’s enough to inspire a great love. Thanks be to God.