Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Jesus and Women”
June 16, 2013
Sermon preached by Mike Henry
Based on Luke 7:36–8:3

Now this is one of dozens of stories in the Gospel that involves Jesus in his interacting with women. This is an area that I have studied for years because of the type of ministry I have been involved with, especially the street ministry in Chicago working with Women out of the Night.

First century Palestine, when Jesus established his ministry, was not a pleasant time or place for women. The woman is “in all things inferior to the man,” states the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Rabbi Judah, a contemporary of Josephus, said “a man must pronounce three blessings each day: ‘Blessed be the Lord who did not make me a heathen...blessed be he who did not make me an uneducated person and blessed be he who did not make me a woman.’ ” Jewish Rabbis in the first century were encouraged not to teach or even to speak with women. Jewish wisdom literature tells us that “he that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna or hell.” One reason for the avoidance of women was the belief that they could lead men astray: “From garments cometh a moth and from a woman the iniquities of a man.” In view of this low status of women, it is not surprising that they enjoyed few legal rights in Jewish society. Women were not even allowed to give evidence in a court of law. According to the rabbinic school that followed the teachings of Rabbi Hillel, a man could legally divorce his wife if she burned his dinner. And so goes life in the first century for women: conceiving children, preferably boys, raising the children and staying out of sight in your dwelling. Actually that attitude comes into play for some women in modern day North America. In our Gospel story Jesus was invited into the home of Simon the Pharisee for a banquet. Now, let’s pause for a moment. Jesus would have been invited into Simon’s home which means he would have been invited into a large open courtyard of the house. Jesus knew who he was dealing with as he approached the house of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus came into the courtyard and Simon greeted him, but did not give Jesus the common courtesies expected, especially courtesies that would have been given to a Rabbi. Normally, when a guest arrived in your home, you would embrace them, hug them, and touch them in a friendly way. But Simon did none of these. That was strange. That was not cool. When Jesus came in, he normally would have offered Jesus water with which to bath his feet or have a servant girl wash his feet. Simon did not offer water or a servant girl to wash Jesus’ feet. And normally, Simon would have offered olive oil to soothe his hands and feet, but Simon did not offer him olive oil either. So there was a coolness from Simon towards Jesus. Jesus came in and the text says that Jesus reclined at table. So imagine Jesus sitting here on a pillow on the floor, his body stretched out on the pillows on the floor. A low table with short legs was set in front of him. In that scene, a woman who scriptures say was a sinner, which usually refers to the fact that she may have been a prostitute comes in behind Jesus and kneels at his feet. She kneels at his feet and she begins crying, crying not a little bit but so much that her tears actually wet Jesus’ feet. She then takes her hair long dark brown hair which would have been braided around her head, unbraids it and lets it down. She starts to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. People were stunned. People were speechless. No one knew what to say. The woman was doing something which was very improper, letting down her hair like that in public, crying her tears over Jesus’ feet. It was all improper. It violated the rules of civil etiquette. And then this woman starts kissing his feet. How strange. But not so strange to people who understood in Jewish custom that if somebody has saved your life, you would come to that person and kiss their feet. So that she was kissing Jesus’ feet implies and reveals that Jesus may have rescued her earlier. Perhaps, Jesus had saved her from prostitution. All are perplexed and speechless at her behavior. The text then says, “Simon said to himself, ‘If Jesus was truly a prophet, he would realize what kind of woman this was. He would know what was inside her heart. He would know what a terrible sinner she was and Jesus would have nothing to do with her.’ ”

Jesus, being a prophet and reading Simons’ heart knew that Simon’s heart was filled with self- righteousness. Simon was looking down at this woman for Simon felt that he was several cuts above her. Jesus, knowing what was in Simon’s heart then said to Simon. “Simon, I need to tell you a story. There once were two men and they were both in debt to a money lender, a banker. The one was in debt five hundred denarii or five hundred days of wages and that is being deeply in debt, to owe someone almost two years of wages. The second man was in debt for fifty denarii or fifty days of wages, less than two months of wages. The money lender forgave both people their debts. Now, which of the two would be more appreciative to the money lender?” Simon the Pharisee said, “The one who was forgiven the most, I suppose.” I love the intonation of the words, “I suppose.” The Biblical text continues. Jesus, looking at the woman, said to Simon, “Simon, I came into your house and you gave me no water for my feet but she has been bathing my feet with her tears. I came into your house and you did not welcome me with a warm embrace but she has been kissing my feet. I came into your house and you did not give me oil to anoint my hands and feet, but she has been anointing my feet with precious oil.” Jesus then added these profound words, “The person who has been forgiven much, loves much. A person who has been forgiven much, has much compassion in their heart.” Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. Whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” Jesus said to the woman, “Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven.”

What a story. What an incredible story.

For me, the key to the story is one line. If you read the story carefully you notice that Jesus had been talking to Simon but he had been looking at the woman. Jesus turns to Simon and says revealing his key spiritual genius, “Her sins are many and they have been forgiven therefore she has great compassion.” You see, there is a connection when you realize your many sins have been forgiven with compassion. When you realize that about yourself you then have great compassion. We find a similar situation in the Gospel of John 8:1–11 and the story of the woman caught in adultery. Again, Jesus was in conflict and confrontation with the Pharisees who had a need to minimize their own sinfulness and a need to maximize other people’s sinfulness. The woman in this story is not named. Despite this she is very real, a symbol of ideas and attitudes that are timeless. Though she was a real woman living in 1st century Jerusalem she is anonymous, so that anyone knowing her would not be shamed. It is early morning, and Jesus is at the Temple, ready to teach whoever comes to listen to him. Some respected Jewish leaders bring a woman to him. She is said to have been found guilty of adultery and the leaders (scribes and Pharisees) challenge him to find a solution to a problem: what is to be done with this woman who has been found guilty of adultery, a capital crime? Jesus parries their question by asking them, in essence, to examine their own consciences to see if they themselves are guiltless. The authority of his words and his presence obviously affects them. They are silenced at last. One by one, beginning with the most respected man among them, they melt away into the gathering crowd. Eventually, Jesus is left alone with the woman still standing in front of him. Jesus then speaks to her. “Where are your accusers?” he asks. “Has no one seen fit to condemn you?” She simply answers, “No one, sir.” “Then I do not condemn you either,” says Jesus. “Go on your way, and do not sin anymore.” Can you imagine the feelings inside this woman after Jesus speaks these words; the burden that was lifted from her? Although Christ worked with the cultural traditions of the first century, he ignored the limitations that had been placed on women by their culture. Women were free to follow him and to take part in his ministry to the world as we see in chapter 8 vs. 1–3.

So you’re probably saying okay, another nice story about Jesus, so what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that there are dozens of stories in scriptures that show Jesus lifting up the dignity of women and that Jesus included women in his ministry. Jesus talked to and let women touch him. As a Rabbi this was a major prohibition. And for him to talk to women, especially foreign women as we have seen him do in the story of the Samaritan women at the well, a woman who had been married a number of times, was unprecedented. This woman was so taken by her conversation with Jesus that she went back to her village and brought back crowds of people to witness this extraordinary man. And as you heard earlier in this sermon, Jesus takes up the cause of poor female prostitutes and confronts the wealthy and well established religious leaders of his time to quit being hypocrites. Over and over again Jesus is lifting up the cause of women who, in his society, had no status to speak of. We see in scripture that women were allowed to be disciples and evangelists. Women helped to financially support Jesus’ ministry. Who was there at the cross when he died? Who visited his tomb at great risk to check on his body while the male disciples were hiding behind closed doors? Women were the ones that Jesus chose to pass on the message of his resurrection. His first three appearances were to women. Are we starting to see a theme here?

When I was in Chicago, our ministry worked with female sex-workers. One of the things that we were trying to do was lift up their dignity and inspire self-confidence and self-love so they would eventually want to come off the street. We would always be there with them, no matter how bad things got at times, to help lift them up and walk with them through their suffering. Stacey, our legal advisor and a lawyer who worked at the University of Chicago law school, would be on the street with us at times to take up their cause and defend them in court and on occasion she would take them to a nice restaurant to celebrate their birthdays which would normally never happen to them otherwise. You see, we would celebrate their lives. You know it’s all about dignity. Jesus knew that!!!

Are you starting to feel what I’m talking about? Jesus turned the world upside down when it came to women. He was so far ahead of his time in his day. But even now in the 21st century Jesus’ message still applies, even though the church has not adapted to the message that Jesus was trying to convey to us. After two thousand years, we still don’t get it. You read now that Catholic sisters are challenging the Vatican to wake up and come into a new age. In the progressive protestant church where we have female clergy, the Methodist, some of the Lutherans and the United Church of Christ are still a long way in recognizing women. The average lifespan of a woman clergy person is still only five years. Congregations and their male counter-parts are not giving them the support they need to be an equal parter in ministry. So now you’re probably saying, hey this is Fathers’ day, why do we need to hear this sermon today? Well you know as fathers and grandfathers, we need to be telling our daughters and granddaughters, young women and old that Jesus was all about equality for women and equality for women within the church. If the nuns and the women of the Catholic Church and the women in the Protestant church decided one day to get together and take a sabbatical from church and study this issue, the church as we know it would collapse. This is not rocket science. We just have to continue to read scripture and see how welcoming and inclusive Jesus was when it came to women. Women make up a majority of those who attend church and women hold up half the world. And so be it!


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