Sunday, May 31, 2020

Do you see this protestor...?


Jesus reclines at the dinner table of a powerful man in the community. He’d been invited to join with them, but he had to earn his place there. The normal customs afforded a guest in the home were ignored. Jesus was there but he wasn’t welcomed. This was a meal but it was also a display of power; a test to see if Jesus knew where he reallysat in the scheme of things. A prophet? A teacher? A rabbi? Not likely. The meal table of a powerful man was where the movers and shakers wanted to be found. Jesus had been granted a spot at the table. He’d better be grateful for the privilege.

Then in comes a woman. Luke tells us she had “lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37), but the euphemism isn’t lost on the reader. She’s a sex worker. The men don’t sit on chairs at a table but recline with their feet furthest from the centre. They all look away from her presence but it is difficult to ignore; especially when it is accompanied by such confronting behaviour. 

She touches his feet. She weeps on his toes. She wipes away the dust from the road with her long, beautiful hair; the marketing tool of her trade now being used to clean up the mess she’d made.

Then there was the perfume. Normally a few drops would be enough for her to grab the attention of a potential client who passed by her on the street. Here she lavishly pours it out on Jesus’ feet and fills the room with its powerful smell. What could be tolerated in small amounts becomes engulfing when the senses are overwhelmed. This smell would last for days, even weeks; contaminating clothes and furniture alike. And whenever anyone who was there caught even a passing whiff of it again the powerful olfactory memory it generated would quickly bring to mind this event. This sex worker. This sinner.

“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus is failing the test. Anyone who wants to retain a spot in this position of power must disassociate themselves from people like this. Or, at least keep such associations well and truly secret. The smell of the perfume on the feet of Jesus is nothing compared to the stain her sinfulness will leave upon him.

And he calls himself a prophet?

So Jesus tells a story. The men listen in.

“Tell me, teacher” Simon the Pharisee, and host of the meal, says to him.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes 500 denarii, the other one 50. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

It’s a nice story.

But Jesus isn’t in the business of telling nice stories. The moral is teased out of the host.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. This isn’t just about passing a test. Simon needs to truly learn this lesson. 

Try and visualize Jesus’ physical movement as Luke describes it – he “turned towards the woman.” To this point she is on the floor, behind Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair. For the men, she’s safely out of sight, hidden behind Jesus’ body. She’s “over there.” She’s “a sinner.” A theoretical category of a person whose smell we might have to endure but we can keep her in her place by defining her as “other.” Jesus moves to open up Simon’s line of sight so that the woman is visible to him and, to drive the point home, makes him look at her directly.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

With the scathing rebuke that follows Jesus compares Simon’s lack of respect with her emotion-filled acts of love towards Jesus. He rehumanises this “sinner” and confronts the abuse of power at the same time. She is brought out into the open, revealed to be a human deserving of God’s love, forgiven of her sins, and then dismissed in peace.

She is seen.

She is heard.

She is human.

Jesus speaks directly to her, having seen her confession in her acts of contrition. He gives to her the words she so desperately needed and they are spoken directly to her; “Your sins are forgiven.” Having been forgiven a lot she loves a lot.  In the process, the powerful are reminded of their place at the table; of their role in society.

It’s a reminder that we need today.

“Thugs” (@realdonaldtrump, Twitter, May 29. 2020)

It’s easy to sit in a distant room, separated by time, space, and power, and label the other in a way that means you don’t have to act. If they’re “Thugs” then it’s not within the President’s power to address the problem. Send in the National Guard and bring back “law and order.”

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Into this situation I imagine Jesus, sitting on the other side of The Resolute Desk, grabbing the attention of the President away from his iPhone for just a moment, to tell him a story of forgiveness. It’s a simple story, told in terms that a billionaire can understand.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes $2 billion, the other one $2,000. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. The President needs to truly learn this lesson.

Jesus turns on the TV and makes sure the volume is down. He finds a news channel and there is the face of an angry protestor. She feels completing powerless to do anything to stop the pain, to stop the senseless murder of black men and women just like her at the hands, and knees, of police. The “right” way isn’t working. It hasn’t worked for years. And so she resorts to the “wrong” way. As always, her presence on the television screens and Twitter feeds of the powerful makes them uncomfortable and they resort to the same old tactics. Just like the perfume, they can cope with black people rising to positions of power, as long as it happens in the “right” way.... the “white” way. When black people attempt to take power in any other way.... they’re lawbreakers, protestors... “Thugs.”

Jesus pauses the image on the screen and moves up close to it and points to the tear-filled, angry, desperate black person that fills the screen.

He points at her.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

I came into your house. You served me hamburgers and a diet coke. You did not show me any way that you’ve used your position of power  to serve the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the needy. But this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped fighting for what is right. For freedom for her people. Freedom from tyrannical rule. Freedom from you. You did not even shake my hand, but she has not stopped shaking the present to make for a better future. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

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