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Second Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 8, 2020 | 4:00 p.m.
Do You See This Woman?
Part of the Lenten Sermon Series “Questions Jesus Asked”
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks. Our question today is a question of compassion. Do you see? Do you see her?
In asking this question, it seems that Jesus doubts whether Simon really does see her. We get an inkling about that by knowing what Simon’s thoughts are. He thinks of her as a certain kind of woman, the sinner type. And though he doesn’t say it out loud, in his mind Simon doubts Jesus. If Jesus was really a prophet he would understand that he shouldn’t let this woman, especially this kind of woman, touch him.
Simon expects Jesus to act differently than he does, because social and religious norms of the time would also call for Jesus to remain distant from sinners, but also, incidentally, from women in general. But Jesus affirms her. Jesus sees something that Simon does not.
What do we really know about this unnamed woman? The story’s narrator calls her a sinner: “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner” came into Simon’s house. No one says what her sins were. In fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about this woman.
She follows Jesus into a house where she is not invited, and she stands behind him weeping. All comments about why she is weeping are conjecture, because the Gospel doesn’t tell us. We’re invited into the story as listeners, and we can wonder about the characters.
Was she weeping because she felt so ashamed and regretful for her actions? Was she weeping because she had heard of Jesus’ power to heal or to forgive? Was this the first time she had encountered Jesus, or had they met before?
Could it be that some of her weeping came from being mistreated or abandoned as a woman in a patriarchal society? Could she have been betrayed? Could she have been a widow, like the widow of Nain in the Gospel story shortly before this story?
We don’t know who she is, and we don’t know why she is weeping. Could she be suffering from extreme poverty? Could her sin have been stealing bread? Could she have been weeping because no one anywhere looked at her and really saw her in her full humanity?
Until now. Jesus saw her. And that could make an invisible person weep. Someone saw her, and loved her, and told her that she is forgiven, valuable, and well.
Jesus saw her. But Simon didn’t. Simon didn’t even need to say it out loud. He just thought to himself that Jesus didn’t know, that Jesus didn’t really see this woman.
And that is sometimes like us. Sometimes we don’t see the people around us. We just see who we think they are. We don’t see them the way God sees them, as deeply loveable and beloved. Sometimes we don’t see the real suffering behind their eyes or recognize the struggles they face and the betrayals they’ve suffered.
Even the people we’re closest to—sometimes we don’t really see them; we just see the past in them or what we expect to see in them.
When we do this, when we slip into judging people, thinking of the ways they have failed, not noticing all the beauty and generosity and giftedness they bring; when we’re judging the splinters in other people’s eyes and forgetting about the log in our own eye, we end up looking like Simon.
Jesus brought this to Simon’s attention. “You gave me no water . . . you gave me no kiss . . . you did not anoint me,” but she did all these things! Do you see this woman? Jesus asked. Simon judged her, but was he really better than her? Simon not only doesn’t see her, he doesn’t see himself.
Perhaps part of the problem was Simon’s sense that he himself did not need forgiveness. “The one to whom little is forgiven,” Jesus says, “loves little.” Simon loves little. He certainly has a hard time loving the unnamed woman: he has no compassion for her, no interest in her story, her experience. And he also seems to have a hard time loving Jesus, too. He extends no welcome, none of the simple courtesies one would extend to a guest.
In his sense of superiority, Simon remains hard and detached from any vulnerability. He thinks he doesn’t need forgiveness, and so forgiveness doesn’t touch him. Jesus’ teaching rings in our ears: “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
There’s a teaching in that for us. But when we read a story like this, how do you think it should affect our lives? This is a big question. When we read a biblical story about another time, how do we bring the learning from then to now? What is our relationship to scripture?
This is also a question about the role of discipleship in our lives, about how we take into our daily lives the things we learn from Jesus. What’s the relationship of ideas about our faith to how we live out those ideas?
In today’s scripture we have Simon, a man who loves little, perhaps because he has not sought forgiveness and may not even know what he needs to be forgiven for. He does not seem to see clearly the woman who is before him. It seems that all he sees instead is what he expects to see—a label, a stereotype, a “sinner.” From his encounter with Jesus can we extract a lesson, or lessons, for ourselves?
This morning, our guest preacher was Dr. Stephen Ray, President of Chicago Theological Seminary and President of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. He spoke of the human desire to make sense of our world by labeling and categorizing people. Although this is a common human impulse, Dr. Ray described how it can easily destroy community, disconnect us from each other, and prevent us from truly seeing each other and ourselves.
Labeling and categorizing, we see each other through a fog, he said. Our vision becomes clouded. “The humanity of the woman,” he said, “was made opaque by the identification of her as a sinner,” as though that was all she was. Simon did not see her tears or feel compassion for her. He didn’t know her story and didn’t care to find out. Simon loved little because he did not know her, and he couldn’t love whom he didn’t know. He saw her through a fog, and that was Simon’s loss.
Simon’s experience with her and with Jesus leads me to ask, what are we not seeing? Who are we not seeing?
In a documentary about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the Reverend Desiree Lawson, who served as pastor of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Flint for eight years, said, “We see these things happen on TV, and you just turn the TV off. But when you have to live it every day, it becomes lonely and isolating, and you do feel forgotten. . . . It’s like ‘crisis’ and ‘racism.’ Those are words that have lost their sense of urgency. It’s normal.”
I think many of us can resonate with that impulse to turn off the TV as we hear about so much suffering and so many injustices. We try to protect ourselves emotionally by tuning out. But knowing the real experience of people, hearing their stories, opening our hearts with compassion, this actually heals us and makes us more whole, as well as helping the people who are being seen.
In the documentary, Flint resident Barbara Noyce says, “I can’t afford to move, I can’t afford to stay there, I can’t afford to keep paying for water I can’t use.” She talks about how the lead poisoning is affecting her, but she can’t get away from the water. “You got to take baths, you got to do laundry, you got to clean house. What do we do when we’re in this state? There’s nothing you can do. Live one day at a time and wonder when it’s going to kill me, I guess” (Rich Copley, “Racism and Environmental Justice,” Presbyterians Today, 20 December 2019).
Jesus might ask us, “Do you see this woman?”
Churches of all denominations talk about a phenomenon that has come to be called environmental racism. The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA has created an ecumenical study guide about it.
They explain that,
Some people are affected by environmental hazards more than others. In the United States and around the world, more people of color live and work in unhealthy, polluted environments than do white people. People living in middle and upper-class neighborhoods often are able to avoid toxic dumping, nuclear waste, or sewage treatment near their homes, schools, and workplaces. They are also privileged to receive a better response from government agencies to their requests for environment law enforcement and creation of clean, healthy green spaces.
That document goes on to reference statistical studies that show that “race, more than class, has been shown to be a determining factor in where hazardous, toxic sites will be built and maintained.” (“Environmental Racism: An Ecumenical Study Guide,” 2010, page 2)
This is what is meant by the phrase “Environmental Racism.” It’s a situation where toxic waste, chemical refuse, and dangerous industry are unfairly concentrated in people of color neighborhoods.
We see these injustices right here in Chicago. In Altgeld Gardens, a housing project on the Southeast Side of Chicago that is predominantly African American, Hazel Johnson founded an organization called People for Community Recovery to educate about health and environmental hazards that people of color communities and low-income people face. She described the area like this, “We’re sitting in a center of a donut surrounded by a hazardous waste incinerator that gives off PCB’s, seven landfills that are constantly growing. . . . There are chemical plants, a paint factory, two steel mills. . . . We have lots of cancer, respiratory problems, birth deformities” (“Environmental Justice Workshop and Case Studies,” p. 7, www.presbyterianmission.org).
Jesus might ask us, “Do you see this woman?”
In Little Village, a predominantly Mexican-American community near Pilsen here in Chicago, there is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. It has been supported by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. The organization works to encourage that urban planning and development in their neighborhood be done with the environment and health in mind. They worked for years to address problems of air pollution from two coal-burning plants in their neighborhood that led to many respiratory illnesses. They train leaders to advocate for clean air, land, water and food. (Jennifer Evans, “Little Village Environmental Justice Organization,” The Power of Community and Agency to Transform Society, www.presbyterianmission.org)
Jesus might ask, Do you see this woman? Do you see this man? Do you see this community? Do you see what leads to weeping, and do you have compassion?
Rebecca Barnes, Coordinator of Presbyterian Hunger Program, said, “As we work to learn, educate and act in solidarity with communities that are impacted, we witness the leadership, wisdom, courage and resilience of people” (Rich Copley, “Communities advocate for real change,” www.presbyterianmission.org).
When we see each other more fully, more clearly; when we know the stories of each other’s lives and we act to build community, when our love for each other is based on knowing each other, then perhaps we can answer Jesus and say, Yes, we do see this woman. She is a beloved child of God, forgiven, healed, and made well.
I’m going to give Dr. Stephen Ray the last word here. He said it so well as our preacher this morning. He said,
So our work, the people of good will, who yet believe in the promises and power of God,
is to challenge the structures and customs that obscure the humanity of our sisters and brothers.
Our call is to resist the powers of brokenness and alienation that would make our neighbors personas non grata in God’s creation.
Ours is to restore the humanity of those so cruelly denied by the powers of malice and evil.
Ours is to be the people so taken by the depth and poignancy of the woman who came to Jesus that we too are overtaken by gratitude and thankfulness for all that he means for us.
For more resources about environmental racism, click here.