The other day I was talking with some friends about “rules” and “laws”. I think the conversation was spurred on by a movie advertisement I’d seen recently called “The Purge”. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I could totally be off base here, but from what I gather, the idea is that all year long, citizens are expected to follow the rules, and then one night a year, the government turns a blind eye and you can do anything you want…you can break all the rules. My friends were discussing what rules they would break, and I found myself having a hard time finding a rule I would want to break because they all seemed to potentially lead to harming someone else. So some rules are good…they keep people safe, out of harm’s way, they keep order.
But some rules don’t always make a lot of sense. Sometimes we question some of the Old Testament laws or rules…they seem irrelevant to us…not mixing fibers in clothing we wear, not eating shellfish or pork, women covering their heads. But in their time and place, these rules were made to help the Israelites establish their identity as a people separate from others…chosen by God.
By the time we get to Jesus, some of these laws/rules were still being heavily enforced. There were laws on everything from ritual sacrifices, idolatry, and blasphemy to land ownership, warfare, justice, and sexual purity. The Pharisees in particular were concerned with ritual and purity laws. But Jesus always seemed to be breaking the rules…or at least bending them. And that’s where we find ourselves this morning in our reading from Luke.
Jesus has been asked to dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. It would have been customary for the host to have offered Jesus a water basin and towel to wash the dust from his feet, his hands and his face. But instead, Simon ignores the custom. By ignoring the custom, has he committed a sin? Has he broken a law or rule? Technically no.
But in comes an unnamed woman who not only washes Jesus feet, but does so with her tears, and then dries them with her hair. She continues on to anoint Jesus with an expensive perfume. Again, she is ignoring custom. She is a woman who appears unattached to any man who is gathered there for the meal, she has let her hair down in the presence of men (which was really taboo), and as Simon points out, she is a sinner. Other than being labeled a sinner, she has only broken customs…but she hasn’t broken a law or a rule.
Yet, her actions cause her to be rebuked by Simon the Pharisee. She is out of place, out of line, and unwelcome. Her sin is her cause for not being included among “the chosen” as far as Simon can tell. But Jesus has a different understanding of the situation. Instead, she is welcomed as a child of God by Jesus because she has offered love. Jesus understands her washing and anointing as a sign of repentance and love, and so he offers forgiveness and love in return.
For Jesus, being “chosen” wasn’t about all the laws and rules about mixing fibers, land ownership, or purity, it was about forgiveness and love. Those who were willing to change their lives and their hearts were the ones to be included in the household of God…not just those who had been following the rules.
Now this is good news for us, right? I think it is because it means that we’ve got a chance of being part of the Kingdom! What I gather from this story, and so many of the stories about Jesus healing people, is that being welcomed by Jesus is less about “rules” and more about transformation, forgiveness and love. Now I know that we “know” this, but think about how often we get tripped up in our own self-righteousness or rigidity, how often we would rather make rules about who’s in and who’s out, without even thinking about the times when we’ve been forgiven and included.
Let me give you an example. I once served at a church that was so rigid in their understanding of stewardship. Instead of thinking about it as time, talent and treasure, they only thought about it as treasure…how much money could you give to the church. Treasure is where they put their value. So that winter, after all the pledge cards had been turned in, the stewardship committee made a list of all those who had turned in a pledge card and printed it in the bulletin. In their eyes, they were showing appreciation for the gifts that had been given. But there were a few in the church who could not afford to pledge, but they were active participants. Whenever there was a call for volunteers to help with a church supper or clean up, they were the first to sign up. Whenever someone needed a meal taken to them, these folks stepped up to help. One of them was on altar guild. One of them served in the nursery. These members of the church who could not make a pledge were valuable to the community because of their time and talent…and yet, they were excluded because their gifts were perceived as not being valued by the stewardship committee. Over time, little by little, this devaluing of gifts created some wear and tear on these church members, and some of them eventually found church homes elsewhere.
The intention of rules and laws is often good, but can be exclusionary in unhelpful ways. And for Jesus, when the rules and laws excluded someone from God’s presence, then they were no longer useful. Now I’m not saying that rules and laws are bad…but I do think we have to be mindful of their purpose and usefulness. And I think we have to be mindful of when we’ve broken the rules, but been forgiven and welcomed in love.
So I encourage you to spend some time in reflection this week on when you’ve felt like an outsider, but been welcomed in love, and when you’ve broken the rules and been forgiven. May this reflection and God’s love for you be a way for you to be welcoming and forgiving to someone else.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.