So he pulls Simon aside, the Pharisee, and Jesus says to him: “Let me tell you a story.” Finally, Simon says to himself. Finally, some intelligent conversation. Finally, the high brow stuff. “A certain creditor,” says Jesus, “had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. When neither could pay, the creditor cancelled the debts for both.” And Jesus pauses here, for a moment, and watches Simon thinking things through. “Now which of them,” Jesus asks, “will love the man more?”
So here’s the story of extravagance. Here’s the moment in which extravagant welcome is embodied and extended and celebrated. And it’s not a priest. And it’s not a scholar or a Pharisee. And it’s not even a homeowner in this case. It’s this unnamed woman – with all kinds of history, who’s made all kinds of mistakes, who’s never been invited to a party before. It’s this wild woman – touched by grace, somewhere along the line, touched by grace – she’s the one who welcomes Jesus. Falling to her knees. Weeping and bathing his feet with her tears. Drying them with her hair. She’s the one.
And this isn’t the kind of grace you earn like a master’s degree. Amassing credits. It’s not the kind of grace you beg from a priest in a confessional. Tossing off Our Fathers and Hail Marys. This grace is no transaction. It is so personal, so intimate, so mysterious that Luke can’t even begin to tell us. He doesn’t say. How she came back to herself. How she discovered the light in her own soul. How she came to believe that the universe was on her side. Luke doesn’t say.
But he does say that her enthusiasm, that her kindness, that her extravagance in Jesus’ presence has everything to do with grace. It has everything to do with forgiveness. It has everything to do with gratitude.
And Jesus turns toward her; now he turns to her. And he recognizes her exhaustion, the worn-out look in her eyes. And he understands the tears rolling down her cheeks. All this love. I have to believe that Jesus knows what she’s been through – because he’s been through it himself. Somehow. Someway. Don’t you think? Jesus has been broken. Jesus has been run down. Don’t you think? Jesus has made his huge mistakes. And he knows that grace makes love happen. He knows that only grace, only amazing grace moves the human heart to such extravagance. I have to believe he’s been through it himself.
So he says to his host, “Do you see what she’s doing? Do you see what I see? I arrived at your door: and you gave me no water for my tired feet. But she, she’s bathed my feet with her own tears and dried them with her own hair. I came to your home: and you gave me no kiss. But from the time I came in, she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet and anointing them with ointment.” She’s been broken. She’s been run down. She’s made huge mistakes. But only grace moves the human heart to such extravagance. Only grace.
Perhaps my favorite moment – in all the gospels – is that moment, later on, when Jesus gets up from a table, takes a pitcher and a bowl, and kneels to wash his friends’ feet. We re-enact that moment every year, during Holy Week, awkwardly tracing Jesus’ steps and kneeling here to wash the feet of our own friends. Doesn’t it seem plausible – maybe even obvious – that Jesus is inspired by this wild woman? That he is so moved by her extravagant gesture, so stunned by her uninhibited generosity, that he does as she does? Grace upon grace. So maybe, from now on, when we worship on Maundy Thursday, when we kneel on Maundy Thursday, when we wash one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday, we’ll stop to remember not only Jesus’ tenderness, not only Jesus’ courage, but the tenderness, the courage, the extravagant compassion of the woman who inspired him.
Right here, at First Congregational Church, we believe very much in extending extravagant welcome to neighbors and seekers and friends. It’s a phrase – extravagant welcome – that our United Church of Christ has seized upon with a kind of evangelical zeal. And what a wonderful commitment to make! What a generous sign of God’s love!
I guess what strikes me in this morning’s text is the reminder that extravagant welcome is so much more than a technique, so much more than a strategy. It begins in your experience, and mine, of grace. It begins in our vulnerability and our brokenness and our gratitude for all the ways God loves us. It begins in our recognition that we are very much alike, you and I and every pilgrim who finds these doors. We hope and we hurt. We bruise and we break. We need one another.
And perhaps it’s this empathy, this capacity for love that makes the Billy Collins poem so sweet, so tender, so human. I just can’t get enough of this stuff:
And how, in their tiny darkness, (he asks)This is a place, my friends, for the rising softness. This is a place for amazing grace. This is a place for that wild woman and her friend Jesus and every other lovely human being who’s been broken and devastated by mistakes. And this is a place – God, let this be a place – where we no longer try to hide. Where the rising softness is nothing less than the healing power of God in our midst.
Could they possibly have run after a farmer’s wife
Or anyone else’s wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.
Just so she could cut of their tails
With a carving knife, is the cynic’s answer,
But the thought of them without eyes
And now without tails to trail through the moist grass
Or slip around the corner of a baseboard
Has the cynic who always lounges within me
Up off his couch and at the window
Trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.