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Loving a Whole God
Luke 7: 36-8:3
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
“She is a sinner.” Well, we know what that means. Prostitute, right?
Well, maybe. But the definition of “sinner” could have been so broad as to include a great swath of behavior we wouldn’t even think questionable in our culture today. Divorce. People who live together before marriage. You know. Normal people.
But it wouldn’t have been considered normal then.
And Jesus is letting her touch him. In a very sensual way.
I think this passage makes us uncomfortable now, so I can only imagine how uncomfortable it would have made Jesus’ very conservative Jewish First Century host. How could He let her do that? No prophet would allow a woman not his wife to touch Him in this way!
Which is how we feel, too. At some level this story strikes us at gut level. It presents us with a Jesus who isn’t just an idealized spirit walking on the earth, but a human being with a body, a person who enjoys being touched–just like you and I do!–a person who has that same visceral need that most of us have, not simply for platonic companionship, but the caress of a hand, a good hug, a massage from a friend.
Traditionally this woman has been associated with Mary Magdalene, who tradition also says was a prostitute. But the Bible does not say Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Rather, scripture and the earliest traditions present Mary Magdalene as a close friend of Jesus, so much so that some of the male leaders felt threatened by her. In the non-canonical “Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” the apostle Peter is reported to have complained, “Jesus doesn’t kiss us the way He kisses her!” I can only imagine the guffaws this would have elicited from the rest of the apostles.
But again, the point is, even to suggest that Jesus had a close woman friend—not romantic, mind you, but a close friend nonetheless—makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us that He wasn’t a spirit in the material realm, but a person just like you and me, not only spiritual but physical.
A whole person.
And here’s the important point—the ONLY whole person. The only whole person since Adam and Eve ever to have walked the earth.
The woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and washes them with her hair, she isn’t whole. It’s not just because she’s a quote sinner unquote—as I said earlier, very likely her so-called sin wouldn’t even pass the boredom test today. In fact, her problem is that she’s just like everyone else—she’s alienated from society. She’s alienated from other people. She’s alienated from herself. And she’s alienated from God.
Jesus’ Pharisaic host, on the other hand, thinks that he is a whole person. He believes he is superior. He knows the difference between right and wrong, and he’s right and she’s wrong. He is a man in a male dominant society, another feather in his “wholeness” cap—women were considered flawed, they were made from a rib, they weren’t whole like men were whole, they were partial. He’s a religious person, so he’s good with God, another reason to believe he’s whole.
But he’s wrong on all counts. He’s not superior. He doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong, and even if he does, it doesn’t matter as much as he thinks it does. Being a man is hardly proof of wholeness, I’m sad to say. And being religious is nothing like being close to God. He is not whole.
The difference between him and the woman with the oil is that she knows that she’s not whole, and he doesn’t.
She comes to the one truly whole person, Jesus Christ, as a broken, needy woman, broken the way all of us are. She’s gotten relationships wrong, she’s gotten God wrong, she’s gotten her life wrong. And she comes to the whole God to get it all fixed.
Jesus is the human embodiment of the whole God, the one who experiences anger, frustration, sadness, and deep love throughout the Bible. The Old Testament tells us that God loved the smell of offerings—this means that he loved to smell beef barbecuing on the giant grill that was the altar of the Temple—surely this is an image that proves God is a Texan!
This emotional, visceral God made humanity because of God’s burning desire to be in relationship with us, and has refused to give up on us despite all the ways we tend to give up on Him.
And then this God became a human, flesh and bone, with human appetites for food and touch and love and friendship. That’s who Jesus is. That’s whose feet the woman is washing with such love and tenderness, the Whole Human Being who can tell us, not to give up on our bodies, our loves, our appetites, our need for touch and human companionship–but rather, how do we get it right?
Our bodies, the physical world, these things aren’t our enemies. Nor are they raging animals that must be “disciplined.” That seems to be the message of so much of our culture today. Fitness culture makes us ashamed if we don’t have perfect abs. And I worry about the emphasis on weight loss these days too. I wonder sometimes whether this constant drive to watch our calories takes away one of the great joys of living, the pleasure of eating and drinking. This is a pleasure celebrated in Scripture from beginning to end. The Kingdom of God is portrayed as a gigantic feast. Jesus describes himself as someone who loves food and drink, and He puts bread and wine at the symbolic center of his ministry. Isn’t the pleasure of good food, enjoyed in good human companionship, worth a few extra pound here and there?
Of course we can go too far. Enjoying food can become gluttony; enjoying touch can become slavery to lust. And I don’t want to minimize the problems of those who struggle with addictions. But for the most part, the fact that things can be used wrongly doesn’t mean we have to avoid food or drink or touch or love. We are whole people, who serve Jesus, the whole Lord, and a huge point of God becoming human at all is to assure us that LIFE IS GOOD. God made all these things, and they are good.
A huge part of the problem this poor so-called sinful woman faced was that she was told by society, by family, by religious leaders, by everybody, that what she did and who she was was bad. Too often we see this—society tells us something is bad, and so we sublimate our natural desires, but then they get expressed in terrible and unhealthy ways. Or else on the other hand, society comes down on us for simply being who we naturally are. We don’t fit some impossible societal model of perfection, and so we feel awful.
And one way or another, we discover that we are not whole.
And when we do that, we won’t find any comfort from a Lord who denies our bodies, who tells us to bury our feelings, who tells us that we can be whole only if we emphasize half of who we are and bury the other half. One way or another that’s what the world tells us. It’s not what we hear from Jesus, this very human, and very whole Lord who liked food, and touch, and friends, and life.
This woman, this wonderful, brave, honest, wholly human woman, not only calls our attention to the very human wholeness of Jesus—she celebrates it. She cries tears of both brokenness and joy because she’s found a Lord who can understand her, and love her, as a whole person, because He is the living embodiment of the whole God. She calls us to follow her example, and celebrate His wholeness—and our own.