I am sure you have all had occasions when it occurs to you to wonder if you are invisible. At a stop sign when the person in cross traffic blows on through without stopping – chatting away on their mobile phone, never aware that they could have killed themselves and you if the timing had been just a bit different.
Have ever been patiently waiting in line at some sort of service desk and the salesperson looks up and speaks to the person behind you. “I can take you now.” Wait...what about me? Holding up your empty water glass the bus boy in the restaurant tops off the glasses of all the others at your table and then calmly walks away.
Feeling invisible is not a good feeling. Although these are just petty annoyances, behind the flash of anger you feel is a kind of hurt, which says, hey, don't I count for something too? Several years ago the Supreme Court heard a case concerning a paraplegic person who had been fined for not making a required court date. It seems there were no elevators or ramps in the courthouse and short of crawling up the front stairs, the defendant had no way of getting into the court room. Apprised of that fact, the judge had levied a fine anyway. A building with no access for people who are disabled is a building that has rendered a portion of the population invisible. Even those on the Supreme Court who question the role of government regulations had to agree. That is why legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act is necessary; for the people whom the system had heretofore rendered invisible.
One of the reasons this story in the house of Simon the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke is so intriguing to me is the way in which the writer has set up the events. Jesus is invited to dinner. We don't know much more about Simon the Pharisee. He is probably not a bad guy; after all he is extending the hospitality of his table. He is clearly interested in getting to know this itinerate teacher and healer and has sought an opportunity to do so in the best of Middle Eastern fashions, by preparing a meal.
A woman, unidentified, comes in (let me point out, it is not Mary Magdalene or any other women named in the Gospels...nor do we ever meet her by name). She begins to massage Jesus feet with ointment, and while weeping, it says, she bathed his feet with her tears. Now if you were a host, wouldn't you say something? Anything from “Pardon me, Miss. May I help you?” to “Hey, get out of here, whoever you are...you are interrupting my dinner party.”
Instead, Simon is silent. It is if this whole scene is not really happening...if you observed Simon's reaction to her, she is invisible too. Luke tells us that Simon is using this as a ploy, however, to catch up Jesus in an unseemly breach of etiquette...or even a violation of the code of purity that was so much a part of the life of practicing Jews in this time period. Simon watches to see what Jesus will do.
Jesus was in the business of changing lives, not condemning. He was in the business of rescuing...reviving and restarting lives, not punishing or labeling. This woman, about whom we know so little, was extravagant in her display of love toward Jesus. “She brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.” Extravagant, from its Latin root means “to go outside of boundaries - to overstep limits.” This woman who was an outsider, one of the officially invisible, she has broken through the boundaries to the inner sanctum of a Pharisee's house. But more than that, she has crossed the line that limits her “kind” to certain behavior. Simon responds to the scene as we would assume. He is both incensed at her temerity and he is thrilled by the fact that he has shown up his guest. “If this were really a man of God, he would know what kind of woman this is.” Simon feels on course with his assessment of the situation and feels vindicated. He is secure with his “insider” status.
Luke gives us several stories about changing boundaries - about the outsider becoming the insider – in fact the whole of the scriptures does as well. Do you remember the story from last week when a woman of Sidon, the Widow of Zarephath becomes the agent of salvation for Elijah? Deuteronomy reminds us to be kind to strangers, for in them you may welcome God.
What does this boundary between outside and inside represent? One commentator explains it this way, “The boundary represents the natural and human order--in this case the social and religious order--that is maintained largely by a set of cultural assumptions. Although human beings accept this boundary-setting order, God is not bound by it and constantly pushes its limits in order to further adapt that order to more of the reality of God. When Jesus crosses this boundary, therefore, it is a reminder that our social and religious assumptions about God and about the reign of God, no matter how well founded, are just that, our assumptions. God constantly undercuts human arrogance and human presuppositions about who is in and who is out, about what is true and what is false, about what we think will happen and what indeed happens. According to Luke, just when we think we have God and God's ways figured out, and often precisely at that moment, watch out! We are likely to be headed for a fall.”
This unnamed woman is one of the “bad girls of the Bible” as New Testament Educator, Barbara J Essex, has called them. Essex, who wrote a book by the same name seeks to highlight the numerous times that the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, use women such as Jezebel or Delilah as foils for the agents of God. Elijah sees Jezebel, wife of Israel’s king Ahab as the source of evil in the land and predicts that her body will be thrown to the streets and her blood licked by the dogs. That was in undercurrent in last week’s story from 1 Kings as well. These women set a precedent for the assumption that the church has lifted up time and again over the ages, that women, starting from Eve, are the root of all evil, that it is best to render them invisible both in the telling of the stories and living out the faith of the Bible. Yet, Essex points out, they each have a story...a story that for the most part is rarely heard.
The nameless woman in Luke's story is often depicted with the same assumptions. The church I served in New Jersey had a large, oval stained glass window that pictured a woman receiving a blessing from Jesus. When I toured the church for the first time, one of the members of the search committee with which I was interviewing noted, “many in the congregation think it is unseemly to have that window in here.” When I asked why, he looked at me with incredulity and said, “Well, she was a prostitute, wasn't she?” That label has been affixed to Mary Magdalene over the centuries, too, even though there is not one single word in the New Testament upon which to base that assumption.
The issue of invisibility is important here, as this and countless other stories are told from the Bible. The Catholic Church still maintains that Jesus had no women disciples or apostles and yet there are many named, along with Mary, Joanna and Susanna, referenced at the end of this story and Lydia and Priscilla who are very involved in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Invisibility has meant that these women have been ignored...and ignored as well has been the testimony to their extraordinary faith. Jesus looked at the women in Simon's house and said, “Woman, your faith has saved you, go in peace!”
What is the implication for us? Paul Tillich preaching on this passage asks, “Why do children turn from their righteous parents and husbands from their righteous wives, and visa versa? … Why do many turn away from righteous Christianity and from the Jesus it paints and the God it proclaims? Why do they turn to those who are not considered to be the righteous ones? Often, certainly, it is because they want to escape judgment. But more often it is because they seek a love that is rooted in forgiveness, and this is what the righteous ones cannot give. Each of us who strive for righteousness would be more Christian if forgiveness and being forgiving were what we strived for instead of some idea of being good or righteous.”
A man arrived at heaven and was shown into God's office for judgment. One office wall was a huge window looking down on earth. The earth was beautiful with its blue waters, green forests, and white clouds. On the table in front of the window, there was a pair of glasses. They must be God's glasses. No one was around, so the man tried them on and looked at the earth again. This time the beautiful earth disappeared altogether and what he saw was only hunger, poverty, sickness, and so much inhumanity that he could not bear it. He heard a voice behind him, “Please, take off my glasses.”
The man did so, immediately. After a long pause, the voice gently asked, “What did you see?”
“I saw hate, corruption, and evil!” the man answered. “No beauty?” “Well, did you feel any love or compassion?” the voice asked.
“No!!!” the man said. “After what I saw, I would destroy the whole planet without any hesitation or regret!”
Then God said, “That's why YOU can't use my glasses. You may not see what I see, unless you can feel what I feel.”
Ever hear of compassion fatigue? After two years of slow recovery from the flood of two years ago today, you see it in the folks who have allowed themselves to forget that block after block just over the river still remain nearly deserted – spotty reconstruction with many homes still boarded. The work is happening – volunteers still flock here from all over the country (550 AmeriCorps workers are here for a week with the plan to build 11 new houses, reconstruct three in Time Check, and paint and repair dozens just up the block in Wellington Heights) yet many Cedar Rapidians just take another route to and fro and fail to respond to their neighbors with the same generosity as these outsiders – fail to even see the need.
The “bad girls of the Bible” are part of the larger communion of the saints...those who have gone ahead for us to make a way so that we might learn to see – to feel as God sees and feels. They have a lot to tell us and show us, much more than I can cover this morning. Just think of the implications of a Christian tradition that has been so quick to render out of bounds the needs, the concerns...the extraordinary love of those whom the church has deemed outside the realm of acceptability...those who have been rendered invisible. Think how these righteous church traditions have skewed the way we look at many contemporary scenes and people.
Do we see the anguish of a Palestinian woman grieving the starving child in her lap, or do we only see one who is the mother of a potential “suicide bomber?” Do we see the bright potential of the children playing around a hydrant on a hot, city street...or do we see only a growing welfare role? “Why must those gay or lesbian folks keep getting in our face about their justice issues.... why can't they just keep it to themselves.... stay invisible?” Is the complexity of pain and confusion of an abused or battered spouse really seen or heard...or do we just say, “Why don't you just leave if you are so unhappy?” Many questions are raised...but here is one nugget for us to take from this story this morning.
When the invisible become visible to us that is a moment when, like it or not, we are suddenly seeing as God sees. Sometimes the rush of the world places the invisible right in our midst as the Cedar River did two years ago today….other times, we need take the risk, and pick up God’s glasses ourselves. When we do, when we come to understand, when empathy begins to rule our decision-making – we have joined the ranks of discipleship.
Very likely, somewhere in that process as we take our first steps – reacting, acting, loving, doing for another, we are going to hear a voice saying, “Friend, your faith has saved you; go in peace!” Go in peace. Amen.