Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Walls of love.....the sermon
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[a] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b] and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[c] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Walls of love
The passage Luke 7:36-50 which was read to us has certain peculiarities. Usually in the church the probability is that it will be read along with the title of the section which is mentioned as "sinful woman". The woman here is differently seen as perhaps being Mary Magdalene or Mary the sister of Martha, among other women. It has parallels in all gospels but this passage is special in that Jesus does not talk about his death and the preparation for that.
Now what are some of the problems in the passage when we read it today? The first problem is that there is a tendency to come to a conclusion that the woman is a sinner and the sin associated with her is that of being a loose woman, an adulteress or temptress. It may have been something else though, for instance her association with tax collectors which made the writer refer to her as a sinner. But the understanding of sin in relation to the woman is sadly in one direction and this is the popular understanding of the church. The second problem is the association of the woman as Mary Magdalene and the way she has been perceived by the church. There are several interesting theories about the association of Mary Magdalene with Jesus but I am not going into that but rather would like to point out that Mary Magdalene has been slut shamed and trolled by the church.
What is slut shaming and trolling? Slut-shaming is defined by many as a process in which women are attacked for their transgression of accepted codes of sexual conduct,i.e., of admonishing them for behavior or desires that are more sexual than society finds acceptable.It is retrograde, the opposite of feminist. Calling a girl a slut warns her that there's a line: she can be sexual but not too sexual. Online trolling is In Internet slang what happens when a person sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement. There is more an online phenomenon these days were women are subjected to verbal online abuse for having expressed their views in public. Several famous personalities, writers, actors, public figures and women from various walks of life are subjected to this regularly even bringing in the public debate whether there should be a law to safe guard online users who express their thoughts and feelings. The women and child development minister offered help to those who are facing online trolling and her tweet itself was subjected to online trolling!
The Eastern church and the Western church look at Mary Magdalene totally differently. In the Eastern church she is perceived as the woman of faith who reported the resurrection of Christ to the disciples. In the Western church interestingly in a later development, Mary Magdalene is seen as the sinner who repented and then became a saint. This can be traced back to Pope Gregory’s sermon on her and how she is made into the woman out of whom seven demons were driven out. In the Eastern church Mary Magdalene is a saint who showed exemplary faith and closeness to Jesus while in the Western church Mary is a sinner and a woman with loose morals who later on had a conversion in life. When the passage is read in this context we also associate the entire conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee as one on what sin is and who will be forgiven based on the weightage of sin.
On the contrary shouldn’t this passage be seen as a strong rebuke by Jesus of the Pharisee and the message that this slut shaming and trolling should come to an end. Sin cannot and should not be associated with gender! Mathilukal, which means walls is a famous novel by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, a well known writer from Kerala. He was involved in the freedom movement and jailed several times for his writings even though he did not do anything against the country as such. This story from which an adaptation was performed in today's worship is based on Basheer’s own experiences in jail. We feel very uncomfortable to talk about the bible and especially topics in the bible which we perceive as contentious and controversial. By positioning Mathilukal (Wall/s) in this worship we are trying to look at popular culture and the theological insights it offers. Luke as a writer has written with passion along with a list of writers to help him but if we refuse to see the Jesus they try to portray then we have to look elsewhere to ease us into the passage in Luke. Biblical interpretation has to in this sense look for the underlying messages and real characters to find strands of the message which in all essence will be lying hidden in the text.
The adaptation performed tonight is a conversation between a man, who is the writer Basheer himself and a woman Narayani who are both in jail separated by a wall built to keep women and men apart. The wall though does not prevent them from communicating and entering into a conversation. They talk despite the wall. In the process they share their lives with each other and look ahead for a time they can be together. We can very well get stuck in the ending thinking that Basheer has left, leaving Narayani behind but we must know that Basheer did not have any idea that he was being released and their spiritual relationship is threatened by the wall of perceived freedom when in reality Basheer is released into a place he does not want to go to. Even in their eagerness to meet, Narayani knows that Basheer will always be in her thoughts and mind. In Luke 7 there is an invisible wall built by the Pharisee between Jesus and the woman present there. It is the wall of judgement which the man is adapt at building through his thoughts and words. But this does not prevent the woman and Jesus from relating to each other and being in relationship. Rather the woman cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes it with her hair and anoints his feet with the special perfume. This sensuous act of love goes unnoticed in traditional interpretations but we would be missing the essence of the passage if we continue with only the usual interpretations.
The notion of Jesus and the Jesus movement is challenged by the Pharisee and his judgmental community when he notices what is happening on two sides of the wall they have constructed. The woman was not supposed to be there and yet she is there. She was not supposed to relate and be with Jesus and yet that is what she does. The woman and Jesus remind us of Narayani and Basheer who be with each other despite the wall which is built to keep them apart. The transcending of the wall by the woman and the reciprocation by Jesus annoys the Pharisee as it would annoy anyone of us who either construct or are part of such walls. But Jesus and the woman just be like Narayani and Basheer wall or no wall.
Jesus goes further in the passage and gives the example of those who owe money to a creditor. The creditor forgives both and then Jesus asks, which debtor will be more thankful. The Pharisee says that the one to whom more is forgiven will be more thankful. There is a problem here because this does not make total sense. For someone, forgiveness is not only comparison but is also the act of forgiveness itself. So whether big or small if we have been forgiven it will be great for us. Why then is the writer saying that the one who is forgiven more will love more? One reason could be that the woman is showing love for the forgiveness she has received through John and she is showing the love of what she has already received. Two could be because Jesus is here talking of unconditional love which leads to unconditional forgiveness. The woman loves completely. So much that she cries in being able to be with Jesus, she lets down her hair because she is no more concerned by those who have constructed the wall and who is watching, and she then anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume in unconditional love. What happens here is that the unconditional love of the woman leads not to forgiveness but forgiveness does not matter anymore because she has already gone beyond that. Jesus is not answering the woman but Jesus is answering his host by talking about forgiveness. The woman doesn’t seem to be bothered about forgiveness anymore. She is concerned about and is expressing love. This is what happens to Narayani and Basheer. Narayani does not want a good conduct certificate from Basheer the accomplished writer. Rather she wants to love and be loved. It was not mandatory for the host to wash Jesus’ feet, kiss him and anoint his head but he could have done it. The Pharisee represents the church which is unwilling to repent and love. But there are others sometimes inside and outside the church who are willing to love like the woman and like Narayani. The ordination of welcome through anointment of the head which should have been done by the Pharisee is then turned upside down into the ordination of acceptance through the anointment of the feet by the woman.
I will offer three points for us to take home and think about.
1. I to we – We are obsessed with ourselves. We simply cannot go beyond ourselves like the host of the house. He is not obsessed with Jesus but himself. The primary reason of calling Jesus to his house we learn later is not to honor Jesus but to honor himself. We live in a culture of I’s. I phone, I pad, I pod…... and finally father or mother saying I paid. The host of the house is caught in thinking about himself whereas the woman and Jesus are not thinking about themselves but thinking about each other. The woman did not do what she did to get forgiveness. She was loving and one does not love for forgiveness. Jesus did not love the woman because she wiped his feet and anointed him. He loved because he was reciprocating to the love he received. Narayani and Basheer are on two sides of the wall. They are leading their “I” lives and yet the voice of the other leads them to the understanding of “we” which they cherish from two sides of the wall.
A mom and his son and the relationship their shared helps us understand the limitation of I. The man says I love you to his mother when he was 5 years old and she reciprocates. He says I love you mom again when he is 16 years old. She asks him "How much do you want?" Meaning how much money does the son want. The son again says I love you mom when he is 25 years old. The other asks him "who is she?" meaning which girl friend does her son want to introduce. When he is 40 years old he says I love you mom and she replies "I told you so". Finally when he is 60 years old the son says I love you mom and the mother replies "I won't sign on any paper come what may." I here is all the son himself and what he wants from his mother.
2. Ego to love
There was something preventing the Pharisee from seeing the beauty of what the woman was doing. There was a wall preventing him from seeing and he had built this wall so that others would not see. The three letter word ego prevents us from seeing many things. The story of the rabbit and the turtle is familiar to us and so is the saying "Slow and steady wins the race." But an extended version of the story goes on to say how the turtle wins first, the rabbit the second time, the turtle again the third time and the rabbit and the turtle together the final time. First it is "Slow and steady wins the race", second it is "Steam ahead and set the pace", third it is "Change the rules and claim your space" and finally it is "Come together and change the face."
Jesus conquered his ego and so did the woman. The host had ego as an accompaniment and he was trying to win a race he wasn’t capable of winning. Jesus and the woman team up while the host keeps away. Basheer and Narayani do not know each other and yet work together a relationship which is actually based on nothing and everything at the same time. They do not allow ego to prevent them from expressing their love for one another. Love is a natural expression for them and they do not allow the ego of their lives or the jail environment to spoil that.
Indians have a way of going around the ego. There is a story of Albert Einstein and an Indian man travelling together. Einstein says “Let’s play a game and if I know the answer you pay me 50 rupees and if I don’t know the answer I will pay you 5000 rupees. The Indian agrees. Einsten asks “ What is the distance between the earth and the moon? Indian gives 50 rupees and says "I don't know.". Then the Indian asks “Which animal goes up the hill with three legs and comes back with four? Einstein gives 5000 rupees and says "I don't know.". Indian man goes to sleep. Einstein is angry and says “Give me the answer.” The Indian wakes up and gives him 50 rupees and says "I don't know." We are good in going around our ego rather than engaging our ego.
3. Being sorry to having a choice- The host is sorry for Jesus, the woman and for himself. He is frustrated at the fact that Jesus is not performing as a prophet even though he must have actually invited him to prove that. This is very typical of us as well. We work all our lives to accomplish one thing and then realise that it is not what we want. If the host had invited Jesus to anyway humiliate him shouldn’t he have been happy!? In India there are some ways of saying things which are against each other “Are you a man to beat a woman. Are you a man to be beaten by a woman?!”, “You can piss in public but you cannot kiss in public”, “If one man stands with three women he is a stud whereas if one woman stands with three men she is a slut.”, “Never talk to a stranger before marriage. But we can sleep with a stranger after marriage.”, “We talk against corruption but will bribe a policeman after jumping a red signal.” and “Talking about sex is taboo but having babies and being the second most populous country in the world is not.” We can see a lot of discrepancies here.
Our country is fraught with problems of caste, gender and class. And yet there is also hope in the form of how and what people can make out of their contexts. The woman in the passage along with Jesus is also faced with problems and yet they choose to take the path seldom tread and stop being sorry for others and with themselves. This is what Narayani and Basheer do too. They have nothing to look forward to. They can be sorry about themselves and everything that is happening around them. And yet they choose to be happy, exploring what they can in the limitations they find themselves in. I to we, ego to love and being sorry to having a choice. We will also find ourselves on two sides of the wall. But that is not an invitation to be silent but rather an opportunity to explore, love and go beyond. Amen.
(Sermon preached on Sunday, August 7, 2016 in the Tagore Hall, UTC, Bengaluru.)
Pictures credit- Deepak