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By Nyle Fort
The following is a sermon delivered on January 19, 2014 at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens (Somerset, NJ). The preaching text is Luke 7:36-50.
Stephon Watts, 15. Remarley Graham, 18. Bo Morrison, 20. Rekia Boyd, 22. Dante Price, 25. Trayvon Martin, 17. Wendell Allen, 20. Darius Simmons, 13. Deshone Travis, 20. Shantel Davis, 23. Jonathan Ferrell, 24. Renisha McBride.
On November 2nd, 2013 19-year-old black female Renisha McBride got into a car accident in Dearborn Heights, a predominately white suburb of Detroit. Shooken up, Renisha ran to a nearby home seeking help. While attempting to get help, Renisha was shot in the face and killed by 54-year-old white male homeowner Theodore Wafer. Renisha was unarmed. According to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement annual report, “every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the U.S. government killed a black man, woman, or child”—totaling 313 human beings, 313 black bodies, only 13% of which were involved in violent criminal activity at the time of their premature death and extrajudicial killing – every 28 hours.
Our text today, among other things, is a text about institutionalized racism, patriarchal domination and religious elitism. But more than that, itsa’ story about resistance, about protest, about dismantling the status quo, and about living in a way that bears witness to the radical, revolutionary love of Christ. But before we began to explore the text in detail we must first acknowledge the ways in which this text is traditionally interpreted. Traditionally, biblical interpreters have framed this story as one about sin and forgivingness; about a woman’s exemplary act towards Jesus and Jesus’ unconditional forgiveness towards the woman. However, upon a closer reading it is clear that this story has less to do with personal sin and divine forgiveness and more to do with cultural perceptions and social profiling. Upon a closer, more critical reading of the text it becomes clear that this story isn’t really about the rumored sin of the woman but its about the blatant sin of Simon, a man.
First, we must address a popular misconception that the woman in this text is a prostitute, despite the fact that nowhere in the text is she described as such. In fact, nowhere in the text are her sins described…at all. She is simply described as a “sinner.” So how does a nameless sinner transform into a notorious prostitute without any biblical evidence to support such an idea or claim? Perhaps it’s similar to the way black folk, in an environment of white supremacy and chattel slavery, were interpreted as the children of Ham and thus predestined to be the property of white folks. Perhaps it’s similar to the way members of the LGBTQ community, in an environment of queerphobia and heteronormativity, are interpreted as the descendants of Sodom and thus, deserving of “God’s” rage and fire. As friends of God, we must be careful not to allow bigotry to cloak itself in a biblical vocabulary that seeks to justify our own prejudices instead of affirm God’s principles. And we must be critical enough to challenge any form of misogyny that masquerades as “divine truth” or racism that reifies itself as “biblical revelation.”
Second, we must question traditional interpretations of not only the woman as a prostitute, but also the entire text as a story about personal sin and divine forgiveness. While it is true that, according to verse 47, the woman’s sins were many and while it is also true that, according to verse 48, Jesus forgave the woman of her sins, it is not necessarily true that the story then must be about personal sin and divine forgiveness. Here, it is important to contextualize. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the author utilizes physical sight as a metaphor for spiritual vision and, in so doing, reveals not only the message but also the messengers of God. Within this framework, our text this morning has less to do with religion and piety and more to do with recognition and perception. And in order to extract, explore, and examine the full meaning of this text, we must shift the focus from the woman’s “sinfulness” to Simon’s blindness.
Out text today begins with Simon, a Pharisee, inviting Jesus to his dinner party. It is while the men are sitting at the table that we find the anonymous woman—having heard Jesus was there—bursting onto the scene. With a jar of expensive and precious oil in hand, the woman not only shows up unannounced but she doesn’t say a word to anyone when she gets there. Instead of explaining herself, she turns towards Jesus and immediately begins to weep as she anoint his body with oil and drys his tear-stained feet with her hair. But as quickly as the woman interrupts Simon’s party, Simon interjects the woman’s moment with Jesus. As verse 39 reads, “now when [Simon] saw it [the woman with the bad reputation all up on Jesus] he said to himself, If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
And I believe that it is here, precisely at this textual intersection of Simon’s sentiment and Jesus’ response, that we locate God’s radical love and prophetic intelligence for us today. First, we must pay attention to the way in which Simon misinterprets the woman’s identity. According to Simon, this woman is simply and solely a “sinner.” Nothing more and nothing else. We should also pay attention to the way in which Jesus responds. After telling a story, Jesus turns to Simon and asks him a simple yet significant question, “Do you see this woman?” The significance lies in the fact that who Simon saw as a sinner, Jesus saw as a woman; who Simon saw as what many today would call a “hoe,” Jesus saw as a human being, loved by God. Thus, this text demonstrates how two people can be looking at the same exact thing but see it two completely different ways. Jesus and Simon were in the same house, in the same room, on the same day, at the same time, sitting at the same table, eating the same meal, looking at the same woman. Still, Jesus and Simon saw two different women, and two radically different situations.
Isn’t it ironic that Simon, the Pharisee, whose duty it was to study the law, misunderstands the very person that Jesus lifts up as an example of profound faith? Isn’t it ironic that Simon, one of the religious elite, whose responsibility it was to interpret the law, misinterprets the very situation that Jesus underscores as an example of prophetic love? Where did Simon go wrong? Maybe he was slippin’ in his studies, throwin’ one too many dinner parties? But Jesus didn’t challenge Simon’s knowledge of the law; Jesus condemned Simon’s inability to properly see the way God calls us to see. Simon knew the law well. In fact, it is precisely his knowledge of the law that confuses him when Jesus allows this woman to touch him in public. You see, during this time it was unlawful for a woman to touch, let alone anoint and kiss, a man in public that is not her husband. Thus, Simon’s problem wasn’t a lack of scripture; it was a lack of sight. Simon’s sin, then, isn’t a lack of law; it’s a lack of love.
How often do we as Christians, like Simon, misread, mistake, and misinterpret God’s people as foolish, sinful and even criminal? Is that not what happened to the one that we’ve come to name our faith after? In Luke 7:33 and 34, we find Jesus talking to the multitude saying, “for John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; I have come both eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Here, Jesus is pointing out the difference between who he really is and how he’s traditionally perceived. Ironically, it is almost always the Pharisees and Sadducees, the so-called elect of God, modern day churchgoers and biblical literalists that misinterpret Jesus’ while it is the so-called “sinners,” prostitutes and tax collectors, the poor and oppressed, modern day club-hoppers and weed-smokers that tend to see Jesus for who he really and truly is. That’s why Jesus tells the multitude in verse 23, “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me!” What was Jesus saying? Jesus was saying, and is still saying today, blessed is anyone—and by “anyone” Jesus means…well, anyone: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist; anyone: gay, “straight,” lesbian, queer, transgender; anyone: citizen, immigrant, undocumented worker, just tryna’ get ya’ papers; anyone: black, white brown, red, yellow; blessed is anyone who sees me Jesus says, a poor prophet with no place to lay his head at night and sees God. Sadly, instead of changing our vision, we’ve decided to change Jesus: converting him from a political prisoner to a religious leader, reconstructing him from a Palestinian prophet to a European missionary, sanitizing him from a bloody truth-teller to a capitalist miracle-seller, and transforming him from a prophet who spoke truth to power and lived in solidarity with the poor into to a prosperity preacher who lies to the masses and lives in solidarity with the powerful. As James Baldwin reminds us:
Christians have…forgotten several elementary historical details. They have forgotten that the religion that is now identified with their virtue and power…came out of a rocky piece of ground in what is now known as the Middle East before color was invented, and that in order for the Christian church to be established, Christ had to be put to death, by Rome, and that the real architect of the Christian church was not the disreputable, sun-baked Hebrew who gave it his name but by the self-righteous and mercilessly fanatical St. Paul.
So the question remains, why do we constantly misread faith for foolishness, mistake unorthodoxy for ungodliness, and misinterpret “strangeness” for sin? I believe the answer has less to do with our scriptures and more to do with our sight; I believe it has less to do with our Bible and more to do with our bigotry; I believe it has less to do with God’s ideals and more to do with our own ideas.
By not seeing the woman as…well, a woman—created and loved by God—but instead as a “sinner”—stigmatized and silenced by society—Simon not only misinterprets the woman but he also misunderstands Jesus. After seeing Jesus allow this woman to touch him “unlawfully,” Simon begins to question if this man named Jesus is really a prophet as many claim. You see, Simon’s inability to see the woman for who she really is inevitably leads him to misinterpret Jesus for who he really is. The lesson is clear: it is impossible to know who God really is without knowing who God’s people really are. Yes, it’s impossible to intimately know God without intimately knowing the people in which God chooses to stand in solidarity with: the poor and oppressed, the silenced and forgotten, single mothers struggling to make ends meet, and the over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the prison-industrial complex, just to name a few.
Today’s text isn’t simply a biblical or scriptural text; itsa’ today text, a right-now narrative. Today’s story isn’t merely a story about Simon; itsa’ story about society, about the Christian Church; indeed, itsa’ story about Renisha McBride and the 313 young black boys and girls that the State sees as disposable. In light of the of Renisha McBride and the 313 precious human lives that have been lost due to a racist criminal injustice system, the question is where will the church stand? What will we the church do about Renisha? About Jonathan Ferrell? What will we say about Dante Price? Remarley Graham? Shantel Davis? What will we say and how will we respond? Will we, like Simon, like Theodore Wafer, fail to recognize Renisha’s humanity, perpetuating society’s idea and image of her as inherently criminal and thus, disposable, or will we, like Jesus, see Renisha for who she is: a precious and beautiful soul—created and loved by God? Will we like Simon, like Theodore Wafer, murder, either with our words or with our silence, the next Renisha’s destiny or will we, like Jesus, stand up and fight for, not only Renisha McBride, but every defenseless person that’s seen by society as worthless and disposable?
Nyle Fort is a Masters of Divinity candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, freelance writer and grassroots community organizer living in Newark, NJ.