Thursday, October 12, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 2

Reflection on Luke 7:36-50

As I pondered today’s reading from the Gospel According to Luke, I was struck by the image of the woman who came to Jesus, knelt at his feet, wept, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry his feet with her hair. And then, she kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. This reminded me of the tradition at Maundy Thursday services of washing people’s feet. For me, it is always an incredibly humbling experience to have someone else tenderly wash my feet and then to dry them with a soft towel. I also find it very humbling to actually wash the feet of another person. While I find this simple act to be humbling, I also find joy in washing another’s feet. There is great joy in being able to be of service to another – to wash and soothe the tired feet of a fellow traveler on life’s journey

Now in Jesus’ day, it was the custom to provide water to one’s guest so he could wash his feet after a journey in sandals along dusty roads. This was a sign of hospitality and of providing refreshment to weary travelers. Generally, water was merely provided. The guest would have to wash his own feet, which was fine, as the feet were considered to be an intimate part of the body. If the host was wealthy and had slaves, one of the slaves might be directed to wash the feet of the guest.

Admittedly, the actions of the woman, who is characterized as being a sinner, are a little over the top, even given the customs of the day. She was not a slave in the household, so had no official standing for washing anyone’s feet. In fact, she was an uninvited guest in the home of the Pharisee. No one seemed to know who she was, other than the fact that she was a harlot. She did not use water to wash Jesus’ feet. She used her own tears. She did not use a towel to dry Jesus’ feet. She used her own hair. And then, as if that weren’t enough, she actually kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with ointment, with expensive, perfumed oil. The woman completely violated social convention. Touching someone’s feet was considered an intimate, act, carrying sexual overtones. Similarly, a woman letting down her hair also carried sexual overtones. Everyone in the room, with the exception of Jesus, was scandalized by the acts of this brazen woman.

So why did this unnamed woman do such scandalous things? We aren’t told how or why, but somehow, she knew who Jesus was. She knew that he was the key to her salvation, that he was her savior. Her actions demonstrated her love and gratitude. In a moment of abandon, she expressed that love and gratitude in a completely unconventional and unorthodox way – in a way that defied all social convention. She abandoned every shred of dignity she might have had and unashamedly professed that love and gratitude not with mere words, but in her very actions. And in so doing, Jesus saw that she truly loved him and that she was truly grateful for what he would do for her – for the forgiveness that he would grant her. She probably didn’t know it at the time, but deep in her heart of hearts, she has such profound faith in Jesus that could only be expressed in action.

In the eyes of the Pharisee, the woman’s actions were not only scandalous, but they also represented a challenge to his honor. The woman had honored Jesus in a way that he did not. Even more so, the woman honored and loved Jesus in a way that he could never bring himself to do – through intimate actions that would have not only violated social constructs but which would have destroyed his standing as a person of wealth and prestige, his standing as a Temple authority. The Pharisee was so wrapped up in what was proper and what was “demanded” by his position in life that he was not able to recognize his need forgiveness. As a result, he gained nothing. The woman, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. She recognized her need and received forgiveness joyfully and in abundance. Her selfless, loving response is accepted as faith, which results in not only her forgiveness, but also in peace.

Two thousand years later, we still have the same dilemma as illustrated in the Gospel lesson. Like the Pharisee, we invite Jesus in. But how far are we willing to go to gain the forgiveness and the peace that he offers – that are ours for the asking? Do we play things safe and live by societal expectations, or do we go against those expectations and give in to the passion deep within us and act in love and gratitude made possible by faith to embrace Jesus in a most intimate way?

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