Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd American President and arguably the most learned of all of them, believed that in the gospel stories, Jesus gave humankind the greatest moral code by which to live. The Bible, Jefferson believed, provided wisdom and guidance for human living, but he thought it was also full of supernatural speculation that diminished the credibility and value of those moral precepts. And so Jefferson took his scissors to the gospel stories and snipped out all of the passages that he felt were magical thinking. He left us with what has become known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s project came to mind as I read this story because this is a clear example of the way in which we sometimes need to apply our scissors to the Biblical story. In this case they are needed not to snip out the supernatural, but to separate out the part of the story in which Luke or the scripture writers and editors who adopted his name have injected some pious moralizing into an incident that is primarily about hospitality and this unnamed woman’s love for Jesus.
The story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil is one of the very few stories that appears in all four gospels, albeit with some variations. But it is only Luke who injects the idea that this woman anointed Jesus’ feet because she sought forgiveness. The other three gospel writers make it clear that this was an action done out of love and devotion.
We need to apply a little imagination to picture the scene. To begin with, the setting is very formal. I picture it as being like the head table in a university dining hall at Oxford or Cambridge.
Jesus is gathered with some Pharisees, men who are scholars of religion. They all have their PhD in theology. And of course it is an all male gathering. Women would not even be employed as servers.
The text says they were gathered at a table, which would be an unusual way for Jesus to have a meal. As a peasant he would be used to lying on a mat or squatting on the ground and dipping his bread into the communal bowls of meat and vegetable stew, rather than being served his meal on a plate and dining with knives and forks.
Into this formal and rather staid gathering, where the scholars are undoubtedly interrogating Jesus to determine how well he has grasped the finer points of theological doctrine, comes a woman, a sinner. In the other gospels she is not so identified and John’s gospel says that she was Mary the sister of Martha.
I imagine this nameless woman was dressed like Carmen, the exotic gypsy in Bizet’s opera, or Lily Tomlin in the currently popular TV show “Frankie and Grace”, whose character is a hippie from the 1960s – flowing multi-coloured skirts and puffy exotic blouses draped with gauzy scarves. Her hair is long, forming a halo around her face and flowing down her back. Numerous bands of metal hang from her neck and ears and wrists.
The scholarly men dressed in black academic gowns would have doubtless wanted to throw her out when she first appeared in the doorway, but Jesus stopped them with a wave of his hand. The woman comes forward, removes his sandals and, again this is my imagining of the scene, pours water from a jug over his feet and into a basin, while weeping, adding her tears to the cleaning process.
Her act of foot washing is a rebuke to Jesus’ host who, when he arrived, did not offer this gesture of hospitality, common in a culture where people walked in the dusty streets that they shared with animals. The heart of the story is the depth of her love for Jesus, which is demonstrated by this act of hospitality, an act that must inevitably involve kneeling in humility before the person whose feet one washes.
This woman, why don’t we know her name? This woman’s action echoes Jesus’ own action in washing the feet of his disciples as recounted in the gospel of John. At the Passover dinner in Jerusalem before his death, John tells us that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, and that he explicitly did so as an example to them of what it means to be a Lord and Teacher. You call me “Lord and Teacher”, he says, “Well I’m telling you, that a Lord and Teacher is someone who will show hospitality to others.” In other words a Lord and Teacher is one who will humble him or herself before others.
Last week we celebrated communion together so when the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet occurred to me in connection with this week’s passage, I could not help recalling that John’s gospel does not tell us about the Last Supper, rather it tells us only about Jesus washing the disciples feet on that final Passover before his death. Why, I wondered, has the church picked up on the table fellowship and largely left Jesus’ example of foot washing unfollowed?
The sacrament of communion allows us, those who are ordained by the Church, those who are learned in theology like the Pharisees, to preside at the table in a formal, dignified, even hierarchical way. (Moving behind the table) Although our modern Protestant liturgy is less ritualized than that of more Catholic traditions, it is still pretty hierarchical. Here I stand reciting the words of power and inviting you the people down there to come forward so that I can dispense the bread and wine.
What might it say about the role of a Lord and Teacher if instead of presiding over the sacrament of the table on the first Sunday of the month, I came forward to you where you sit and knelt before you and removed your shoes and bathed your feet and dried them?
When Heather and I recently visited my brother and his wife, we asked Connie how her mother was doing. Shirley is now 90 and still lives, with her husband, in their own home. Connie told us that her mother recently said she was having a little trouble cutting her toenails and asked Connie to help. When she saw her mother’s feet Connie was aghast. Her nails were yellowed and curled in, some ingrown. Bunions were painfully untreated and they were frankly pretty unclean. So Connie began making it part of her visits to her Mom to care for her feet. She now regularly cleans and clips and rubs in ointments and creams.
Showing hospitality to another adult in a way that involves physical touching is not something that we often do in our culture, or in most cultures, I think. In his wonderful books set in Botswana, books that tell us so much about African culture, Alexander McCall Smith tells the stories of Precious Ramotswe, owner of the Number One Lady’s Detective Agency. In the volume I am currently reading, “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” Mma Ramotswe has to walk through a muddy yard to visit her friend and associate detective, Mma Makutsi. When she arrives at her friend’s front porch she is greeted with a basin, a jug of water and a towel and the words, “Let me wash your feet for you, Mma.”
These are Mma Ramotwe’s thoughts as her friend bends down to clean her feet…
Like Mma Ramotswe, my sister in law, Connie, reflected to us that although bathing children, washing them and grooming them, is something we do without hesitation, it is something entirely different to physically care for another adult. They are frankly not as pretty as children, but more importantly our relationship with adults is different if we are providing physical care. To wash the feet of another, you must kneel down before them. Kneeling is an act of humility, an act of subservience and even an act of worship.
Perhaps you are aware that one of the many challenges that confront the homeless in our culture is caring for their feet. Removing shoes at night risks not having shoes in the morning. Regularly cleaning socks is difficult without access to laundry facilities. Poverty means you cannot always find shoes that fit well. And of course the homeless are on their feet for much of the day, searching out their next meal or looking for a place to spend the night.
Providing hospitality to the stranger as Jesus asks us to do involves not only feeding them and finding them shelter as Matthew’s gospel tells us, but also engaging in this most humbling of actions, caring for the feet of another, caring for their physical needs.
I said last week that sharing at the table is an act of hospitality that sustains life. Jesus’ act of washing his disciples feet and the action of this nameless woman in washing his, remind us that while it is important to put bread on the table and wine in the cup, it is also necessary for human survival that we care for one another’s bodies, and that requires that we touch one another.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.