Saturday, June 12, 2010

Women of Ill Repute

Here's tomorrow's homily. This one was tough: I had to cut vast tracts of stuff about Mary Magdalene, not to mention the parallel women-washing-Jesus' feet passages in the other three Gospels. I'm not sure that what I came up with hangs together. I do love this hospital story, though; it's still one of the most moving things I've seen in the ER.

The readings are 1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a and Luke 7:36-8:3.


This morning’s readings star two women of ill repute: Jezebel, whose name has become shorthand for “wicked woman,” and the nameless sinner who anoints Jesus. (The second woman, by the way, isn’t Mary Magdalene, despite longstanding tradition linking the two. That topic could be a homily in itself, but it’s not what I want to talk about today.) Both women are undeniably powerful. Jezebel, from behind the throne, rules her husband so completely that she’s able to command murder. The woman in the Pharisee’s house, meanwhile, is economically independent, wealthy enough to afford costly ointments. While we can guess that she’s made this abundant living from men, she doesn’t hold herself to male rules and restrictions. Pharisees, the pillars of respectable society, were famous for their strict observance of purity laws. They might have been scandalized by any woman touching Jesus, but for a woman in this particular profession to do so, after bursting uninvited into the house, would have been truly horrifying.

Beyond their gender politics, these two stories clearly contrast judgment with forgiveness. Jezebel lies, connives, and commands murder to get more land for her husband, King Ahab. Confronted by Elijah, Ahab expresses no remorse. Jezebel and Ahab act in contempt of God’s laws, taking whatever they want, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Elijah accordingly delivers God’s judgment, promising, “I will bring disaster upon you.”

The woman with the ointment, in stark contrast, gives, freely and generously. What prompts these lavish gifts? Just before this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has healed the centurion’s slave and raised the widow’s son from his deathbed. Everyone in the area knows about these miracles. Furthermore, Jesus has repeatedly defended himself against respectable people who criticize him for spending time with sinners. “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” he tells his detractors. “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

A man who heals slaves and forgives sinners: no wonder this woman of ill repute loves Jesus! The sequence of events, though, is initially confusing. Jesus tells the Pharisee that “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” The word “hence” implies causation. The woman has shown great love, Jesus seems to say, because her sins have been forgiven. But she shows this great love before he formally forgives her, before he turns to her with the words,“Your sins are forgiven.”

Maybe, then, his words only confirm what was already true? Maybe the woman was forgiven even before she barged into the house? Maybe she knows she is forgiven, feels it, and pours out her lotions in sheer gratitude?

As he bids the nameless woman farewell, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you,” and I think faith is the heart of the matter. This wealthy, but disreputable, businesswoman has heard the stories about the healer who loves and forgives sinners. She has faith that he will love and forgive her, too, that he already loves and forgives her. Her faith gives her the strength to burst into Jesus’ presence, into the house of a respectable man who will certainly not welcome her.

This story shows us that forgiveness requires two elements. The first is repentance: we have to be sorry for what we’ve done wrong. The second is faith: we have to believe in forgiveness before we can feel it. Jezebel and Ahab demonstrate neither repentance nor faith. The woman with the ointment illustrates both.

Some people fall in between: truly sorry for what they’ve done, but with no faith that they’ll be forgiven. Sometimes, in their shame, they don’t believe they deserve forgiveness. Their shame only deepens if the people they’ve met have been more judging than forgiving, have acted more like the Pharisee than like Jesus. People who already hate themselves may shrink from "respectable" people they believe will judge them: anyone in authority, anyone with power, and, sadly, anyone associated with religion.

Most of you know that I volunteer four hours a week as a lay ER chaplain. The ER is often noisy, full of crying kids and moaning adults. One evening a few years ago, the decibel level was much higher than usual. We had a full-blown screamer: a patient howling in such agony that the sound bounced off the walls and made everyone a little crazy.

I rushed to the room to see if I could help, and found a young woman, in her late teens or early twenties, howling and writhing in the first bed. Her frantic mother sat by the bedside, stroking her daughter’s forehead, trying to comfort her child. When I told them I was the chaplain, the patient turned sharply away from me, and the mother, tight-lipped, shook her head.

I left. Outside, a nurse told me the story. The young woman was on Methadone to kick a heroin habit. The Methadone clinic had decreased her dose too quickly. As a result, she was now in withdrawal, in tremendous pain, screaming nonstop. The nurse begged me to do something to help. "Junkies feel so horrible about themselves, and I'm scared this kid will just go out and use again." But when I went back into the room, the patient wouldn’t even look at me, and her mother just gave me a helpless shrug. I realized that because I was the chaplain, the young woman expected to be shamed or lectured.

As an addict, she may already have had such experiences. ER staff are notoriously dismissive of anyone struggling with substance abuse. Everyone in the department, though, sympathized with this particular patient. She was clearly trying to get off heroin. She was a victim of bad medication management. And –- unlike most addicts -– she was accompanied by a caring, well-dressed and well-groomed relative.

Our sympathy didn’t matter. She couldn’t see it, didn’t give us the chance to show it, because she shrank from all of us.

The second bed in that room held someone else from a stigmatized population: a burly fellow with prison tattoos, including swastikas. He had company, too. He'd been brought in by a woman, wife or girlfriend, who looked as if she'd had a hard life of her own. The well-dressed mother sitting next to Bed One could have stepped out of a corporate boardroom; this woman, in contrast, looked as if she might have worked on the streets, a ragged descendent of the woman who covered Jesus’ feet with ointment.

The nurse assigned to the room was non-white, and understandably nervous about those swastika tattoos in Bed Two. The noise from Bed One was unbearable. It wasn't a good room. I found myself avoiding it, and the nurse probably wanted to do the same thing.

And then I went by the room on my way to somewhere else, and heard -- nothing. Silence, sweet peace. My ears rang from the lack of noise. I ducked inside to see what had happened, and found the tattooed patient’s female companion leaning over Bed One. She was giving the young woman a backrub. The patient, now quiet, had finally relaxed, and so had her exhausted mother.

"Thank you," I said, amazed and grateful, and the woman smiled up at me.

"I'm a masseuse,” she said. “Massage really does help people calm down."

The young woman had accepted the backrub because this other woman was a peer, an equal: someone else dealing with real or perceived staff judgments, someone who wasn’t going to lecture or shame or judge an addict in withdrawal. The hard-bitten masseuse had succeeded in offering comfort where a host of highly trained, respectable medical professionals –- and one volunteer -– hadn’t had a chance. “The last,” as Jesus reminds us, “will be first.”

Scripture doesn’t tell us what happens to the woman with the ointment. All we know is that she leaves the Pharisee’s house, forgiven and thankful. But I’d like to think that she began her own healing ministry, reaching out to those without the courage to barge in on Pharisees, or even to call out to Jesus in the street. I’d like to think she worked among the shamed and hard-bitten: those who felt unworthy of forgiveness, or who feared judgment by respectable society. I’d like to think she brought the Gospel to people who couldn’t have heard it from anyone else. “He forgave me,” she might have said. “He’ll forgive you, too, if you let him.”

And what of us? This Gospel challenges us to put aside our own respectability, to use our experiences of shame and vulnerability to heal others. It asks us to be wounded healers, to admit the ways in which we are broken, that all may be made whole. It asks us to remember and reclaim the lowest moments of our lives, and to reach out in love to those who live there still.



  1. Beautiful story, powerful message. Good work.

  2. Beautiful. I'm still crying.

  3. i read this when i got home from church.

    what struck me first is that you and my pastor made exactly some of the same points and made some of the same comments about the readings, even though the two of you went in different directions with the sermon.

    hers was a sermon to mark the 25th anniversary of her ordination, and it was particularly striking for me to read yours in contrast to hers.

    ours was a joyful service, with some hoo-hah and representatives from the wider United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ and i can't begin to imagine the tone of your sunday service, but somehow both of you struck those same chords in a way that was to me unexpected and startling.

    it IS a beautiful story, and i read it a number of times, dumbstruck.

    and then i sent the link to my pastor.

  4. "This story shows us that forgiveness requires two elements. The first is repentance: we have to be sorry for what we’ve done wrong. The second is faith: we have to believe in forgiveness before we can feel it."

    I think that this is a wonderful centerpiece to the homily, and cuts to the core of so many issues. It also brings up so many memories of my mom. Please indulge me while a share brief snippets. They may or may not form a narrative, but they do highlight your point.

    My mom, a heroin addict, sought to repent but had little faith that she would be forgiven.

    I remember when she was in the early stages of addictions, only marijuana and alcohol, she asked me if I believed in God. She had already attempted suicide more than once at this point and had never seen the "calling light" that so many describe. I told her that I did, but I didn't tell her why. She expressed surprise at my belief. I was the first in the family to go to college. I liked philosophy. I am tremendously skeptical of the supernatural. I was supposed to be an atheist in her mind. I wasn't, and am not.

    My mom's shock still resonates with me as an example of despair.

    When my mom first tried to overcome her heroin addiction, she was a part of a 12 step program. As one of the steps, she had to let everyone know that she was an addict and apologize for the many harms she had caused others during her addiction. I remember her saying, with great trepidation and fully expecting anger and rejection, "Christian, I am a heroin addict." My immediate response was to ask if she was okay and what she was doing to recover. She was surprised by my lack of anger. But I didn't feel anger. I felt sorrow. There is nothing so sad as someone you adore asking you to forgive them for betraying you.

    Though my mom went through the steps, more than once, I don't think she ever actually had the faith that she was forgiven for her actions. Not just by me, but by anyone. Her lack of faith in forgiveness magnified her own self-criticism to a degree that she was never able to recover. She died an addict and from addiction.

    Had she had faith in forgiveness, she might have understood that you don't need to forgive yourself to repent. You need to believe that others are capable of forgiveness. Then you can work to atone for your sins, even while acknowledging your own sin. God forgives, and extends his grace, all we need do is have faith.

  5. oh, my goodness gracious, Christian!

    i am crying now.

    there's a lot i don't know, but i do know this: we may all of us be forgiven. all of us. we are all welcome at the table if only we have the graciousness to accept the invitation.

    when i come to sit tonight in prayer, i will reserve a few moments for you, your mom, and all around you.

  6. Christian: Thank you so much for sharing these painful memories. I remember when your mother died, too early, and I pray for peace for you.

    And thanks to everyone else, too.

  7. Berni9:24 PM

    That's a terrific reflection. It was very moving and really hit the major points.


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