Do You See this Woman?

(Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2010 || Proper 6, Year C, RCL || Luke 7:36—8:3)

Every once in a while in my preaching, I’m going to ask you to imagine that I am a character in the story we’ve just heard. I will speak in the voice of that character and invite you to bring your own imagination to the story. This is an old technique for exploring the scripture going back to the sixteenth century’s St. Ignatius of Loyola and before him to the ancient Jewish Rabbis. So, imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee the day after his dinner party.

Simon, a servant of the Lord God and Pharisee faithful under the law, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and to your house.

I thank God for you every time I write to you since you are one of those rare people whom I know I can trust with my most private affairs. I smile as I write this because you yourself pointed out in your last letter that I only seem to write when I am vexed. And yes, this observation holds true today. I am vexed. I have so many questions, which I’m sure have answers, but I don’t know if I want to hear those answers.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve heard of the teacher from Nazareth who has been making the circuit throughout the region. I invited this Jesus to my house for the evening meal, as is my custom with all the rabbis visiting town. You know I have a soft spot for these provincial teachers who venture out of their backwater villages into the wider world. I enjoy their dusty, local wisdom, and their eyes always grow wide when they see the spread of my table. Never has one spoken words I could not predict. Never has one challenged me. Never has one planted festering questions in my heart.

Until he spoke up last night. I had heard stories about Jesus, but they were the same ludicrously incredible stories I always hear when the gullible discover hope. He forecast a huge catch of fish. He made a leper’s skin clean. He raised a widow’s son from the dead. I tell you, sister, the masses are never satisfied unless they have something sensational to chatter about. You know that I’ve always been good at reading people – but I confess, I misread Jesus from the very beginning. He may be from a provincial backwater, but he spoke with an authority I’ve never heard before. And he said such unnerving things. His voice continues to echo in my mind. But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened. Dinner was progressing nicely. My guests were appropriately appreciative, and I was appropriately modest. But as the steward came around to refill our cups, he very nearly tripped over the prone body of a woman. She lay at Jesus’ feet, a quivering heap of streaming tears and unbound hair. A full minute passed before my shock subsided, and I realized that this trespasser, disguised by her reddened face and tangled curls, was in fact someone I had met several times. She is notorious in the district. Independently wealthy after a string of ancient husbands, she adds to her fortune by lending money at exorbitant rates of interest. Desperate people will take any avenue open to them, God knows – even the road to a predatory usurer.

Such was the kind of woman who walked uninvited into my home, disrupted my gathering, and disgraced everyone in the room with her outrageous display. Everyone that is, except Jesus. He allowed the behavior to continue. He even allowed the usurer to pour expensive ointment on his feet (bought no doubt by means of her immoral practices). “Some prophet,” I said to myself. “If he were who people claim he is, he’d know that the woman touching him is a sinner.”

Just then, as if he had heard my thoughts, Jesus confronted me. “A creditor had two debtors,” he said. Maybe he does know this woman’s sin after all, I thought. “One owed a lot of money and one owed a little,” he continued. “When neither could pay, the creditor canceled both debts. Which do you think will love him more?” The answer was obvious – the one who owed more money. But I couldn’t comprehend why he told the story. Then Jesus gestured to the sinner at his feet. “Do you see this woman?” he asked me.

Did I see her? Of course, I saw her. She was ruining my dinner. She was staining my house with her very presence. But sister, oh, his question does continue to fester. “Do you see this woman?” No. I did not see her. I saw “it.” I saw the spectacle: the weeping, the kissing, the impropriety of it all. I did not see her. I saw her sin – her usury, her taking advantage of the poor and desperate. I saw only her sin wrapped up around her like a costume.

But that is not how Jesus saw this notorious woman. He knew she had many sins, and he forgave them. He touched her face with his hand, looked her right in the eye, and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” An uproar went up around the table at these words, but I had no stomach to generate the appropriate outrage. Jesus’ words continued to echo in my mind, disarming me. And today, as I write you this letter, I find that those words have begun to sink down into my heart and into my gut.

Rather than seeing the woman, I saw only her sin wrapped around her. But Jesus saw her. He saw the person underneath the heavy layers of transgression and immorality. He saw the good creature that God created – before her sin distorted her. And in that act of forgiveness, I think Jesus removed those burdensome layers. Don’t ask me how, but he untwisted the distortion, and the costume fell away. Is it possible that Jesus never even saw the costume? Is it possible that he immediately saw the woman as she was going to be once he forgave her? And in his seeing beyond the distortion, did the costume simply disappear?

Oh sister, these thoughts are too much for my mind to comprehend. This provincial teacher understands forgiveness much better than I. Perhaps…perhaps Jesus has shown me a glimpse of how God sees us. Could it be that God sees beyond our sin from a place of total forgiveness? And because God sees from this place of total forgiveness, does not God grant us this same gift of vision? Could forgiveness allow us to see beyond the masquerade of sin that distorts our reality? If so, then forgiveness allows us to see others as they truly are, not as accumulations of sin, but as broken people in need of love.

Dearest sister, that is my sin: I see the transgression so I don’t have to see the person. I see the costume because I want an excuse to keep the person underneath at a distance. Jesus saw that in me right away. He called me out for my inhospitality. I didn’t wash his feet or welcome him with a kiss or anoint his head with oil. I brought him into my own home simply to stoke my own ego, not to form any kind of relationship.

But do you think he could forgive me like he forgave the woman? Or has he already done so? Yes, I think he has: in his act of forgiveness, I am able to see my own costume now. I see my sin. He must have forgiven me so that I might find the eyes to see myself as God sees me – without the distortion, without the costume. If I can see myself with these eyes, how could I ever again look at those around me and see only their sin?

Dearest sister, I pray for these new eyes. I pray for the capacity to see beyond the costume. I pray that, if Jesus ever again asks me, “Do you see this woman,” I can say without hesitation or equivocation: “Yes, I see her.”

“He had a beard!”*

Have you ever noticed that none of the people who wrote the Gospel ever takes the time to describe what Jesus looked like? In Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes onstage nine verses in, ready for a dunk in the river. The text says simply: “In those days Jesus came up from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The next verse could read: Jesus, a strapping fellow, a shade over six feet with a ruddy complexion, a nest of a beard, and dark hazel eyes, was coming up out of the water when he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. The next verse could read like this. But it doesn’t. The Evangelists (one term for the authors of the Gospel) seem singularly uninterested in offering up any details of Jesus’ physical appearance.

What! No Beard??? (A very early image of Jesus from the catacomb at San Callisto)
What! No Beard??? (A very early image of Jesus from the catacomb at San Callisto)

This, of course, has not stopped people throughout history drawing, painting, and sculpting images of Jesus. The earliest paintings we still have around come from ancient catacombs where worship services were held in secret. These pictures usually portrayed Jesus as the good shepherd, and they appear to modern eyes as cartoonish – obviously, the artists were not trying to go for physical accuracy. As the centuries progressed and Christianity became first tolerated, then acceptable, then (in some cases) compulsory, images of Jesus appeared in mosaics, frescoes, statues, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows. Artists depicted him as a king and a judge (and sometimes still as a shepherd). During the Renaissance, Jesus often wore period costume, making him look more like a gentleman of Verona than a first century Jew. At some point, it became fashionable for Jesus to wear a beard; at another point, a serene, starry-eyed expression.

Enter Warner Sallman, who in 1941 painted arguably the most famous portrait of Jesus ever: amber background fading into brown; Jesus in three-quarter profile shown from the shoulder up; the flowing locks, the beard, the serenity, the multiple light sources. For many people, especially American baby boomers, this is what Jesus looked like. The portrait was so ubiquitous for so long that it almost took on canonical significance, as if it were the authorized image of Jesus agreed upon at the Council of Nicaea. People have been cast to play Jesus in films based on this image – just look at Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Honestly, what self-respecting casting director would hire an actor who couldn’t grow such a nice dark brown beard?

I know this sounds like I have a vendetta against Warner Sallman. I don’t…truly, I don’t. I think his painting is quite nice, though I personally think Jesus looks a bit dull, like he’s waiting for a traffic light to change. My opinion aside, the point is this: we, as a culture, have developed such a clear picture in our minds of how Jesus of Nazareth appeared. This clarity comes from centuries and centuries of images; from all the nauseatingly banal Tiffany stained glass in the windows of our churches; from a single authoritative, iconic portrait painted nearly seventy years ago. But this clarity, this consensus, is completely and utterly baseless. Our “clear picture” of Jesus was created ex nihilo, out of nothing.

More than anything else, aggregate historical imagination has contributed to the development of our enduring image of Jesus of Nazareth. This imagination has fed off of the racial and cultural markers of myriad societies, the political and economic status of the Christian religion during various periods, the value of visual art for disparate sects of Christianity, and the technology, proficiency, and goal of the artist or craftsman.

In one image Jesus may wear pantaloons and a feathered hat; in another, he may wear a jewel-encrusted tunic and crown; in a third, he may wear the ever-popular toga/sash/sandals combination. In the majority of images, there’s a high probability that Jesus “looks like me” – both “me” in the sense of the artist’s race and culture and “me” in the sense that the person writing this is white, male, of Anglo-Saxon heritage, with brown hair, who could probably grow a nice beard if he could get past the “itchy stage.”

Our penchant for recasting Jesus in our own images and for relying on the aggregate historical imagination should give us pause. There’s obviously no way a first century Jew looked like a guy whose ancestors hail from Kent, England. Nor does the simple fact that something is both aggregated and historical infuse it with validity.

I’m not saying that we need to throw away all our pictures of Jesus and smash all our stained glass. I’m far from an iconoclast. What I am saying is that we develop awareness of where we come from, not to discount or disconnect that past, but to integrate it fully into our interpretive arsenal. When we discover that no words in the Gospel ever describe what Jesus looked like, we can begin to ask why our images of him look the way they do. Then we can ask: What else have we taken for granted?


* I take the title for this post from the film Talladega Nights, which has a wonderful scene about a dinner table prayer. That one scene alone gets at what I talked about above. It’s worth the price of admission for the whole movie.