There are many ways to describe life as a parent of small children – “an unfolding delightful adventure” and other times “trying and tedious.”  I’m surprised how often, when I stop to observe, both qualities of parenthood exist in every moment.  Take a singular example.  I walk into a room where my four-year-old has cut confetti and scattered it all over the floor, pressed playdough into the carpet and stuck markers without tops in places I didn’t even know he could reach.  I walk in and, if I’m in my default mode, I react.  “What a mess!  Look at what I’m going to have to clean up!”  It’s all about me; I don’t think to wonder why the room is in such a state.  “Pulling teeth” to get help cleaning up the mess, frustration and tears usually ensue.  But on those rare days when I’m aware enough to stop and suspend judgment long enough and ask, “Whatcha doin’, honey?”  I’m often grateful, surprised, and overwhelmed with gratitude.  “I’m making you a present, mommy,” or, “I’m teaching my sister how to cut paper.”  If I suspend judgment long enough to see this little person in front of me, I’m rarely disappointed. 

We pass judgment on people, big and small, all the time without seeing them or stopping to ask why they do what they do.  John Steinbeck wrote, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”  Today’s gospel is an invitation to suspend judgment long enough to see the gift, see the love, see the grace in life’s unfolding.

All four gospels have a version of this story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus.  The other three use it as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death (anointing his head with oil) and an affirmation of his role as messiah.  This story in Luke is in the middle of his active ministry and says something about Jesus’ life and instructs us about our own.

As a people and a culture permeated with Christian influences, we think we know these stories.  But do we really see these characters – the woman and the Pharisee.   We already bring the judgment that the Pharisee is the “bad guy” and the woman is the “good example.”  But the story doesn’t support those assumptions.   Jesus enters into relationship with these people, the Pharisee and the woman, on neutral ground and their behavior both supports and defies our judgments. 

The Pharisee: The Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner implying openness to Jesus’ teachings and Jesus accepts opening up the possibility of relationship.  This man is not “bad” or beyond hope.  He, like all of us, though is inconsistent.  He shows Jesus respect calling him “Teacher” and being concerned about Jesus’ purity.  But he also neglects to show him the full measure of hospitality expected in the culture.  He seems influenced by the negative buzz that began in previous chapters and continues here that Jesus and his followers are gluttons and drunkards, friends to sinners.

The woman: Then we have the unnamed woman, who in the end is the “good example.”  She, remember, is the one who barges into a dinner party uninvited and ministers to Jesus in ways reserved for private exchanges between a man and a woman.  Her extravagant action is a picture of eroticism in this culture.  Loose hair implying a loose woman, paying attention to his feet, this unsightly part of the body, pouring oil on them – this is more than an act of hospitality.  It’s not a stretch to see the intimacy and the sensuality, even two millennia removed from context. No wonder the others at table were so appalled.  But even in this compromising position, Jesus remains neutral, reserves judgment.  He doesn’t stop her or react.  Instead of thinking, “this is just feeding the fire for more gossip and more opportunities to tarnish my reputation,” he receives and names the experience as an act of great love.  We don’t know fully this woman’s intention or source of tears.  There’s a sense of self-giving without regard for her reputation and Jesus responds to this… seeing her as gift and not as label, and he invites the Pharisee and his guests to “see” this too. 

Jesus teaches us a way to be in the world.  Suspending judgment is a form of forgiveness (a word thrown out a lot in this week’s lectionary).  Instead of a onetime act of forgiving a wrong, forgiveness can be a way of being – giving people space to be and act without adding the burden of judgment – like a forgiving shoe or a forgiving waist band.  This way of being is a gift both to the person who can find their full potential within the space; and it’s a gift to the one being forgiveness – people begin to surprise us and living becomes interesting and exciting.  Instead of conflict and contention, relationships become the seedbed for Communion.

Our opportunity to practice this way of being in the world in nearly constant as we respond to our own inner thoughts, our closest loved ones, and strangers.  We always have a choice about how to be.

Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D. writes in, Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life, about waiting in an airport security line.  She overhears a couple behind her arguing.  One says, “You know it’s your fault that we’re late.”  The other retorts, “That’s ridiculous.  It’s your fault.”  They go back and forth for quite a while.  She looks back and they are carrying golf clubs and tennis rackets, clearly beginning a vacation.  Boorstien reflects that even if they did miss their plane there would be others; maybe the plane they’re trying to board will be delayed or have problems.  We can never know how our day will unfold and to begin a vacation arguing and blaming is probably not contributing to the peace and relaxation they seek.  To contrast that experience, Boorstien observed a couple finally through the security check leaning in to kiss each other, a kind of “congratulations for having made it through that ordeal.”  We always have a choice – to judge and blame OR to kiss. 

This weekend is Father’s Day and so I’ve been thinking about my dad.  He’s not one to gush or say too much, but he offered me an experience recently that helped me to feel for myself the fruit of this gift.  As my dad, he gets calls from the extended family about me when my life is in flux (as it has been).  Everyone wants the “real story” on Jessica.  I asked him recently what he says to them?  He looked me in the eye and said, “What can I say, Jess?  I tell them that when I talk to you on the phone you sound more like Jessica than you have in a long time.”  In those brief moments, without qualification or judgment, I could feel me becoming more myself in his gaze.  I experienced Communion with him – a deep abiding connection that is always there but I only glimpse in moments like these.  What a gift!

As a church, we can be countercultural in the simple act of reserving judgment, practicing forgiveness (that is allowance or space).  As individuals we can begin at any moment… why not now?  As we gather around the Communion table some of us may be smelly from spending the day outside, others may have had a hell of a week and come with furrowed brow, others may express their spirit in ways that we might not choose – but if we come to this Table suspending judgment, waiting long enough to really see… I suspect we will see, taste, experience, know Communion.

Rev. Jessica Rowley
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 15, 2013
Focus text: Luke 7:36 – 8:3 (an unnamed woman washed Jesus’ feet with tears and anoints them)