Proper 6C-1, Luke 7: 36 – 8:3
One of the earliest Christian prayers we have is preserved in the New Testament the Aramaic language of Jesus and the first disciples. Paul quotes it at the end of First Corinthians. “Marana tha.” It’s an imperative. Literally, “Lord, come!” An urgent prayer echoing from those first days, for Christ’s return, for judgment and for the full expression of the Kingdom of God. As these new Christians are isolated, persecuted, struggling day by day. A prayer to God to come and set things right. Now. “Marana tha.”
Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian who was so influential for Dr. Martin Luther King, wrote a fascinating and challenging book called “Jesus and the Dispossessed” in which he talked about the heart and soul and authentic essence of the Christian gospel as a word of hope and meaning for “the man whose back is against the wall.” A great phrase. “The man whose back is against the wall.” Thurman wasn’t interested in comfortable establishment religiosity. Not faith as a hobby, not about having an interest in “spirituality” or about heading out on a pleasant Sunday morning to “enjoy a worship service.” Instead, he says, if this story, this gospel, is about anything, it is about who is going to be there for you when no one else is or can be. When you’re at the end of your rope. Nowhere to hide. When it’s Jesus or nothing. That’s the only prayer in the Prayer Book he’s interested in. “Come ! I need you, Lord, and I need you now.”
It’s not that we don’t reference that prayer in the settled and routine life of the church, at least as we share in the formal liturgy and creed. “He will come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.” That sounds like a good thing, but as we recite it in the Nicene Creed on Sundays pretty much every week perhaps without quite the edge in our voices that those first Christians had in their longing for his return. Or as perhaps our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Nigeria might pray the prayer today. Looking down the road for the approaching terrors of ISIS or Boko Haram. Waking up every morning, to the first thought: Let it be today! “Come quickly, Lord.” The cries of the crowds in the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna.” Which doesn’t mean “hurray for Jesus!” It means, “Lord save us.” We’re drowning out here. Image of the church like Peter after his brief attempt to step out of the boat and to follow Jesus across the water of the Sea of Galilee. Slipping under the waves: “Reach out to take my hand, Jesus, before I’m lost . . . .
Which maybe is one of the reasons this moment in our reading this morning, in Luke 7, strikes us somewhat uncomfortably, as Jesus is invited to dinner by the rabbi of the local synagogue. We’re reminded in a way as a parallel but also a contrasting moment of the beautiful and tender moment in John’s gospel on the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair. But this is different. Not in a safe place, a close circle of friends. Here the woman’s approach to Jesus is public, and full of risk.
We see this contrast: on one hand the host, this village rabbi, who has received Jesus into his own home, but who doesn’t even seem to get what a big deal that is or could be. It’s like Jesus should be grateful to him, not the other way around. And then on the other hand this almost overwhelming gesture by the woman. The outpouring of her heart. The woman is a stranger and unknown to Jesus, though she seems to be well-known in the community and by the rabbi, and not in a good way. A sinner. Nothing more than that is specified. Apparently it’s really not important how or why she is labeled in that way--some kind of sin. Some moral offense perhaps, lying, cheating, stealing, unchastity in her singleness, infidelity in her marriage, or perhaps she has some ritual uncleanness. We just don’t know, and neither it seems does Jesus. The point isn’t why she’s desperate. It’s just that she’s desperate. For her life cannot go on as it has been. She’s trapped in her sin, sliding into quicksand, weighed down by an overwhelming weight. And so her extravagant gesture in the very presence of those in the community who have known her sin first hand. Heads shaking; eyes rolling. “Of all people, what is she doing in here?”
The woman is exposed and vulnerable and humiliated. But in her humiliation she pays no attention. In a way, she is in perfect agreement with the rabbi. She doesn’t belong there. She doesn’t “belong” anywhere. She is filled with remorse, with grief, with regret. A stranger, an alien in her own village, in her own family. She doesn’t want to be told that she’s o.k., that everything is fine. It’s not. We don’t know the details, but we can see it as we watch the scene play out. She needs a complete reset. She needs to be forgiven. And nothing else matters.
Thurman could have been talking about her. Her “back is against the wall.” She’s at the end of her rope. The cost here of this moment not simply the cost of the expensive oil but even more the emotional pain and psychological trauma, as fingers are pointed, as she is exposed before them. But she’s entirely willing to pay whatever it costs. To get to this place. Sometimes when we have sinned perhaps we have the strategy to lie low, to hide-out, or to move, to find a fresh start somewhere else. The last thing we want to do is to be forced to deal with the reality of our shame in public, to be encircled by those who know just how bad we are, just what we have done.
But there she is. And she doesn’t care. She doesn’t react to the comments of the rabbi. She doesn’t even seem to look up. She’s heard it all before, and she knows that it’s true. That she is a sinner. Think of the speech the Prodigal Son practices on his way home to the Father. I have sinned against God and against you, and deserve nothing. She needs something to happen, this woman of the village. She has just one focus. She puts it all out there, every last bit of it. Holds nothing back. The cost is real, the pain of her life and the humiliation of her life are real, and if the rabbi’s words of condemnation cut deeply, no matter: all of that fades in the brighter light of what she knows, deep down, as the most important reality of her life—which is that she needs a savior. She needs mercy. Grace. Forgiveness. A fresh start. She needs Jesus. And she needs him now. “Marana tha.” Come, Lord.
She has repented of her sin and has only this one desire, the desire to walk again in the path of God’s friendship and blessing. To be absolved. To be reconciled to the Father. To have things set right. Now. And she knows, somehow, somehow, that he is the door, Jesus, the gate, the way forward. And how does she come to know this? What memories of Bible stories as a child and the prayers of her family as she grew up, times of worship in that local synagogue, the life of friends and family. And now she’s heard something about this man—about what he has been saying, about what has been happening around him. Demons cast out, the sick given healing, words and blessings of grace and mercy that don’t just fade away into the air, but that seem to take hold and become real. And so nothing else matters, nothing at all. No cost is too great, no humiliation too painful to face. For her now it’s Jesus and only Jesus. Who alone can speak the word of light and life into her darkness.
When she heard Jesus was coming, nothing could keep her away. And just as that Prodigal Son was swept up into the arms of his Father before he could even begin to speak the words he had been practicing along the road, so for her. And if we would open our minds and hearts to hear with her what he said: “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” To have feel with her the lifting of that weight. With her, to be able to breathe again.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.