Scripture Readings: Luke 7:36-8:3, Galatians 2:15-21
Tears. When they sting our eyes, it’s hard to see clearly. The whole experience is sort of blurry, as tears trail hotly down the cheeks and make our noses run. What a mess! Tears, our own and others’, make us uncomfortable in so many ways. It’s not just the mess of them, but it’s also the ache inside which goes with them. Sometimes, it can feel like a chasm has opened up inside, gushing well it seems we’ll plug back up. We feel so vulnerable, with our inner realities exposed to the dangerous outer world. And often, we worry that those around us might be inundated by the flood.
And it isn’t comfortable to see someone else in tears, either. There is something in us, beginning when we’re small, that wants to howl along with others’ pain. We learn to shut that instinct down as adults, perhaps fearing others’ grief might overflow the barriers we have carefully crafted to hold back our own tears. I suspect most of us here try to avoid the blurry mess of tears, as much as possible. We work to stay “positive.” We work to appear in control of ourselves and our emotions. We work to keep our eyes free of blurry emotion so we can view the world—and be viewed ourselves–as rational people. We don’t want to make a scene. So we try to keep tears where they belong, stopped up inside, and we apologize to others when they escape our control.
Yet, as Frederick Beuchner notes, despite out best efforts to contain them, tears are not entirely within our control. “You never know what may cause them,” he writes. “The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure.”
No, we can’t be certain what will cause our tears. It might be great joy as easily as great sadness. And as tears blur vision that had seemed clear-cut, other things begin to seem blurry, too.
There can be a softening within us. Sharp distinctions we have made may begin to melt. Harsh judgments we have made may become more fluid. That aching chasm from which tears escape may open up a holy vessel within us to be profoundly filled with the love of God. Is it possible, that in the stinging blur of tears, we might actually find a clearer vision of God’s purpose, presence, and power in our lives?
The experience of tears figures prominently in our gospel lesson this morning, which is also very concerned with seeing and being seen. At first, we might think the one “being seen” in Luke’s gospel is the unnamed, sinful woman in the city. We see her weeping. We don’t know why, or even when, the weeping started. Luke doesn’t tell us, any more than he tells us her name or what her sins have been. Luke just tells us that this woman in the city, who was a sinner, heard where Jesus was and showed up with her alabaster jar. Suddenly, she’s weeping at Jesus’ feet, so profusely that she bathes them with her tears.
Now, we may think we’ve seen this woman before. Not too long ago we heard from the gospel of John about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet before he entered Jerusalem for his passion. There is also an unnamed woman who appears to anoint Jesus in Matthew and Mark’s gospels. In those scriptures, she appears at the home of Simon the leper, rather than Simon the Pharisee.
Is it the same woman? We can’t know for sure. Church tradition has often thought this woman to be Mary Magdalene, based on the verses just after this story, but we have no proof of that either. Though we might think we know this woman on sight, Luke’s account differs enough that she might be another woman entirely! And so we are called to take a second look.
Of course, when we do, we might still see her “making a scene.” First she shows up where she was not invited, and then she does some uncommon and uncomfortable things. After shedding tears all over Jesus’ feet, the unnamed wipes them off with her hair, kisses them continually, and anoints them with ointment. She doesn’t speak to explain herself. All we have are her actions and her reputation, both of which seem suspect.
Simon the Pharisee, Jesus’ host, thinks he sees the scene with razor-sharp clarity. No fuzzy-eyed sentimentality for him, no tears for the woman nor for Jesus. Simon makes sharp distinctions, quickly putting to rest any curiosity or vague hope that Jesus might be a prophet. “If this man were a prophet,” Simon tells himself, “He would have known who and what kind of sinful woman is touching him!” Let us note that Simon’s perception of the unnamed woman leads directly to his perception of Jesus.
But, as the story shows us, Jesus not only knows who and what kind of woman is touching him, but also who and what kind of man is judging him. He is doubly a prophet, by Simon’s criteria. But rather than defensively pointing this out, Jesus takes another tack. And so Jesus responds instead with a parable, redirecting Simon’s penchant for quick judgment. Between the two debtors in the parable, Simon is able to judge rightly. The one who loves most is the one to whom more is forgiven. But in this moment of his own life? It turns out to be not so clear.
Thus comes the central question for Simon, when Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” One commentator calls this the “hinge” of this story. From here, Jesus will interpret how he sees both the woman and Simon, through the eyes of God’s amazing grace. As Simon is invited to learn to see anew, so are we. For with us, as with Simon, whether or not we truly see the woman has much to do with whether or not we will truly see Jesus.
What does Jesus see? A woman in tears, but also a woman of vision. A woman whose tear blurred eyes see clearly, not only how urgently she is in need of grace but also the reality of new life in Jesus. That open chasm from which tears flow becomes filled with grateful love, which she pours out upon Jesus. In her actions, Jesus sees an extravagant hospitality, which not only outdoes anything Simon the host has provided, but also prefigures significant moments in Jesus’ Passion. One commentator notes, “This woman is assured salvation just as is the repentant criminal [on the cross], her tears stand in contrast to those of Peter, who weeps bitterly after denying Jesus; her kisses contrast to the betraying kiss of Judas, and her position at Jesus’ feet is the stance of a servant, the stance which Jesus instructs his disciples to take at the last supper.”
Now, we thought the one being seen was a sinful woman, but instead, we see a woman redeemed by God’s transforming love. To see the unnamed woman’s outpoured devotion is to catch a glimpse of who we become when we recognize our need for forgiveness and fully accept God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ.
But what about Simon? He invited Jesus in, to see for himself and confirm or disprove the rumors of a prophet. But he finds himself seen by Jesus as a man who is himself in need of grace. And he is invited to see from a greater perspective. Will Simon learn to see as Jesus sees? Will he come to see himself as fellow sinner and brother to the unnamed woman? And will he come to know Jesus as the One who has come to forgive all of our sins?
We don’t hear Simon’s response. But I like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I imagine that night he lies down, restless. He reviews the events of the day and the words spoken. He takes a second and third look at the woman, at himself, at Jesus. I like to imagine, in those wee hours, suddenly he’s brought to tears. And though the tears blur and sting his eyes, he sees clearly for the very first time. He sees himself and he sees Jesus. The gratitude which wells up transforms him, and the next time he sees that woman, he welcomes a fellow child of God.
What I’ve imagined is not in this story, which is unfinished for both Simon and the unnamed woman. It is our work to finish it in our own lives. Where do you see yourself in this story, my friends? Are you that woman, aware of a deep need for grace, finding it by showing up in Jesus’ presence and accepting what only He can give? Or are you that man, unaware, up until now, that your vision has failed you, but invited into a new way of seeing everything and everyone around you?
That new way of seeing isn’t easy or comfortable, my friends. It often leads our eyes to fill with tears. But in the blur of tears, God can give us new vision, new hope, and new life.
Beuchner comes to a similar conclusion. You can never be sure where tears come from, he writes, “But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”
So, the next time you find tears in your eyes, pay attention. Perhaps you are being summoned to a new vision of God’s care for you, your neighbors, and the world. Perhaps you are being invited to take a second look at everyone you thought you knew. Perhaps you are being called to empty that deep place inside, so that you may be filled anew with a love that cannot but be poured out to those in need of Jesus. May our tears clear our eyes for new vision and devotion to Jesus Christ our loving Lord and Savior. Amen.
 Frederick Beuchner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, quoted by Suzanne Guthrie, http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/proper6c.html.