Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 16, 2013

Really Paying Attention        Doris Page 

Some years ago, I decided to take a class called “The Art of Pastoral Care”. In this class we learned how to listen to people. Not just causally listen, as happens most often nowadays, but really listen and be present for the other person. Once we started the class and worked on our listening skills, we were surprised at how most people don’t really listen and pay attention to each other. Usually folks are too busy thinking of what they will say next, or working a mobile device. Anything but paying attention to what is going on in front of them.

I went to a Dr’s appointment once where the man was so busy trying to work his laptop computer that he did not look at me the whole time! I got tired of that and finally stopped him and said to him: “Sir, can you tell me what color my eyes are?” He couldn’t, because he had not looked at me the entire time we had been together! Lesson learned.

In our story today, there is some of that going on. Simon, the Pharisee, a learned man, doesn’t ‘get it’, and the woman, a so-called sinner, sees the whole picture. The story begins by Jesus being invited to eat in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus goes and takes his place at the table. Now, we need to understand that in that time, folks at this level in society ate around a low table and they reclined as they were eating, leaning in their left sides so they could eat with their right hands. So there was Jesus and the rest of the men (no women around the table eating of course!) reclining around this table. Another thing we need to know is that this meal was probably in an open space, in a courtyard perhaps, and so other people could come and stand around in a group surrounding the table and watch all of the special people eat. That is evidently what this woman did, she showed up to the meal, stood behind Jesus with her jar of ointment, and waited.

It was also the custom of those times, that,  when guests arrived, their feet were washed to remove the dust from the travel on the dirt roads. In today’s story, the unnamed woman went ahead and washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair. She kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. It was also the custom of the times to give a kiss of greeting to each guest. The woman kissed the feet of Jesus. None of this had been done to Jesus until this unnamed woman did it.

The Pharisee, Simon, noticed what was going on of course and disapproved: imagine Jesus letting this woman, a sinner no less, touch him! He must not be a true prophet! Women certainly did not associate with men in public, much less touch them and pay attention to them! Her behavior was unheard of!

 Jesus is well aware of what this Pharisee thinks and uses the parable of the creditor to illustrate the point: a man has two debtors, one of whom owes him much more money than the other. They could not pay, and the creditor cancels their debts. Who, Jesus asks Simon, will love him more? Simon guesses correctly: the one who owes more money. Jesus then points out the woman, tells Simon all she has done for him since he entered the house: washed his feet and dried them, kissed his feet, anointed his feet with oil. All of these acts have made him feel welcome and comfortable. Simon did none of those things and Jesus calls him on it: he points out, one by one, the things that the woman did to make him comfortable and then says her many sins will be forgiven because of the love that was shown to him. He then says, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

He forgives the many sins of this unnamed woman, this woman who is seen as a sinner in the eyes of almost everyone there. He forgives her, just like that! In the blink of an eye. He says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith, the loving way she took care of Jesus showed that she understood what it was all about. Contrast that with Simon, a Pharisee, who could not look past the rules and laws of the day and could not think outside the box to even offer simple hospitality to Jesus.

Why the difference in these two responses to Jesus? Why did the woman, a social outcast according to the rules of society, understand the basic needs of Jesus and go over and above to meet them? Why did Simon ignore the needs of this visitor to his home? Did he think that this prophet called Jesus did not matter? Did he think he [Simon] was better than Jesus? Why did he not even offer simple hospitality to Jesus? Was it asking too much, or did he think Jesus wasn’t worth it?

Many years ago, my dad told me this story. He sold cars for a living and the salesmen took turns being ‘up’ on the sales floor to give everyone an equal chance to sell cars. One day, it was dad’s turn to be ‘up’ and a man walked in. This man was disheveled in appearance and did not look like he could afford to buy a car. Dad said the salesman nearest the man walked away from the guy without speaking to him. My dad went over to the man and asked if he could help him. The man said he was there to buy a car, so dad sat down and talked with him. He was indeed there to buy a car and when it came time for the financial part of the transaction, pulled out a wad of actual cash to pay for the car! My dad was surprised to say the least, and so were the other salesmen when dad later told the story to them. He told my brother and I that story to teach us a lesson that day: don’t judge people by their appearance, don’t be put off by how they look to you. Sort of the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ idea. I have never forgotten that story.

I think Simon was caught judging Jesus and the unnamed woman by their reputations and Jesus showed him not only that it is wrong to do so, but that you can miss so much by doing that. Imagine having Jesus in for a meal and treating him badly, and then behaving badly to another person, the woman, in your own home! And how about not being able to forgive the woman for her sins? Yikes! Are any of us without sin that we can afford to judge so harshly and not forgive another person?

[If there are, please raise your hands so we can make sure we know who you are! Ann, you might want to make a note of who raises their hands!]

So, Simon did not pay that much attention in this story. The woman did pay attention and do what was needed. Jesus, of course, is always paying attention to everything and everyone around him. Why do we judge each other so harshly, we who have many sins?

The take away from all of this is:

  • Don’t judge people by how they look or what you may have heard about them. Take them at face value as you see them.
  • Women had no status in the day of Jesus, and yet were some of his strongest and most effective disciples. Just because we don’t hear about them doesn’t mean they weren’t there doing the work!
  • Don’t get so bogged down in the rules that you forget about the people
  • When you are talking with someone, pay attention to the person! Listening is hard work, but worth the trouble, and you will get more out of the conversation
  • Have faith! Your faith will make a difference! The unnamed woman’s faith led to an encounter with Jesus, and forgiveness. A pretty good deal if you ask me.
  • Love everyone, even folks you may not like so much. This is a hard one, but worth it.

Jesus always has something to teach us, even in the most ordinary encounters. It’s worth listening and really paying attention.