Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Greater Debt

In Luke 7:36-8:3, one of this past week’s lectionary texts, Simon, a Pharisee, has invited Jesus to his home to eat, and a young woman -- “a sinner,” we’re told -- has learned Jesus’ whereabouts and comes to see him. She sneaks in the back, stands behind Jesus, behind the people gathered at the table.

She weeps profusely, her tears abundant enough to wash Jesus’ feet, which tells me she was really, really crying. I am a crier, yet even my most intense fits of weeping, body shaking sobs of despair, would barely produce enough tears to dampen someone’s feet, salt mixing with dust, so that I could wipe them clean with my long, loose hair.

I identify with her, this young woman with her hair hanging so freely, stepping in where she doesn’t belong. Though commentators often zero in on the question of what this woman’s sins might have been, and label her a prostitute, we don’t actually know that much. The Jewish Mishnah says that married women were to put their hair up; this woman’s loose locks don’t necessarily indicate a “loose” woman. We know she is not married -- a precarious thing in and of itself -- and she occupies a questionable social position.

A young, unmarried woman crashing the Pharisees’ dinner party was scandalous enough, I’m sure -- whatever her sins, real or imagined. Her crying must have raised more than a few eyebrows around the table. Yet the people are quiet in our story. Even Simon thinks only to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him -- that she is a sinner.”

Jesus knows, though. A bit socially disruptive himself at times, he must have a good read on the room, the body language and facial expressions, the carefully averted eyes. “Simon,” he says, “I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”

Jesus then tells him a story, a parable about two people, one of whom owed a creditor five hundred denari, the other fifty denari. When neither of the two can pay their debts, the creditor forgives them entirely. “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks Simon.

“I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt,” he responds. Simon knows the answer; yet does he really understand the question?

Jesus asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” He calls Simon out for his subpar hospitality, and praises the woman for her extravagant gratitude -- this woman, the one whom Simon will not even acknowledge with a look, much less a word. Jesus calls her forgiven.

The others at the table whisper to each other, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” They’re preoccupied with Jesus’ actions, with their understanding of the proper way of doing things, of who is or isn’t sinful, who deserves what, who has what power, who is on the inside and who remains outside.

The first few verses of Luke 8 tell us of many women who accompanied Jesus and the twelve on through cities and villages, “bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” This instance in chapter seven is but one of many instances of Jesus confounding social expectations, calling people where some thought they didn’t belong, and making clear that they do. His ragtag group of disciples: former fishermen, tax collectors, even women preachers. 

It is easy to be like Simon, to talk about people, about issues. The poor, the oppressed, and so forth. This distancing move characterizes much of theological education, and thus many of the conversations in churches, too. I said before that I identify with the woman, but just as surely I identify with Simon. Theologians are very good at holding things at arm’s length and trying to make sense of them.

But when someone is crying at your feet that becomes difficult to do.

Possibly the most important thing I learned in seminary was a sentence scribbled in the margins on my notes in a class with Willie Jennings: “A true intellectual always thinks and reads with people’s problems in mind.” You are not, I heard him saying, just making sense of theological issues -- you are encountering people’s lives, their deepest joys and pains, and -- hopefully -- the good news the gospel breathes into their reality.

Stop talking about the woman; be here with her. Look at her. Know her. You are in this thing together.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that this leads me to wonder about how we talk about sexual orientation, and the “issue” of LGBT exclusion. To what extent do the insiders -- those in leadership, those with power, those who fit certain social norms -- try to become, like Simon, the gatekeepers of who does or doesn’t belong. Who can attend? Who can be a member? Who can preach? Whose marriage will be blessed? As if we decide who is human enough, who God meant when God created women and men in the image of God and pronounced them good. Since when do we decide whether to exclude any of God’s beloved children?

So it seems the terms of the conversation are flawed from the beginning. Like it or not though, a history of exclusion exists. That is the reality of the world in which we live, the world in which we read scripture, the world in which we worship and are called to be the church together.

When I started seminary, I felt apologetic about the fact that I had settled my beliefs about sexual orientation long before I knew enough theology to explain why. I’m not sorry anymore, though.

I was a senior in college when my friend Susanna came out to me. I sat in the passenger seat of her car. She said she had something to tell me. I waited. She hesitated. I wondered what could be so serious.

“I’m not entirely straight,” she said.

Not entirely straight. I didn’t ask her to clarify. I interpreted the vagueness of her statement as a combination of her internal confusion about who she understood herself to be, and the fear of saying the words aloud -- words that could change everything.

I don’t remember how I responded. I probably just said, “Okay.” I wanted to express that I wasn’t shocked or offended, that I wanted to be a good friend, whatever that meant for her right then. Instead we sat there, and maybe the silence spoke on my behalf. One can hope.

Weeks later we were hanging out in my apartment, and Susannah was looking through a stack of books. They were Christian “resources” of the “make you straight” variety. She read a passage aloud to me.

“Stop reading those,” I said.

She looked up at me -- this woman, one of the strongest, smartest, most inspiring women I have been blessed to know and call a friend -- and there were so many questions in her face, so much pain, so much vulnerability. She looked limp, like hair hanging loosely at the feet of Jesus.

“Don’t you want me to be straight?” she asked.

The silence was heavy. I prayed one of those desperate prayers, “God, please tell me what to say, please tell me what to say, please tell me what to say...”

“I don’t know,” I finally began. “I want you to be who God made you, and I don’t know if that person is gay or straight -- but those books aren’t going to help you figure that out.”

I wanted to say they were full of lies, that they were evil, that even though I don’t believe in book burning I wanted them burned.

That one phrase has has stuck with me, though. “I want you to be who God made you.”

Again and again friends of mine who were closeted in college have told me those deep, hidden truths they felt they couldn’t share at our Christian school, liberal though it was compared to so many similar institutions. Few things in my life have been more humbling, more inspiring, more painful than being the person who was safe, being one tiny part of the church that they knew loved them for who they are, not in spite of, but because of each and every part of their God given beautiful selves.

In these relationships I’ve been given a gift. Not only have my friends given me their trust, a gift in itself, but they have given me a kind of freedom, as well. My friends who do not fit the prescribed norms of church history met me in places where, as a straight woman who was not much good at performing either “straight” or “woman” or even “Christian” in expected ways in college, I felt really out of place at a Christian school, in the church, and later on in seminary.

To have friends who accepted me and all my messiness as I navigated the pressures and challenges of femininity, of dating (or not dating), of choosing to go to seminary, of surviving seminary once I got there, of being whoever the heck God made me to be -- I question whether I would have become the woman I am, whether I would have found the strength and beauty in myself that I see now, were it not in part for them creating safe spaces in our friendship for me to transgress whatever boundaries, real or perceived, I came in contact with. They cried at Jesus’ feet with me, our long hair hanging loose, kneeling on the outside of the circle, not sure if we could fit in. Isn’t that where we all find ourselves, sometimes?

I only know in the conversation about inclusion and exclusion we seldom seem to consider that we are the ones missing out. When the church excludes anyone -- whether purposefully, or by default due to one powerful sentence in our confession of faith -- we deprive our community of the gifts of so many sisters and brothers. Sisters and brothers God has already called good, and is already calling upon to share the good news wherever and however they can. They’re already part of the body of Christ; we can only choose to name what already is, or to turn away and deny it.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus asked Simon which man would love the creditor who forgave his debts more, and Simon said, “The one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Sometimes we’re the woman at Jesus feet; sometimes we’re Simon. But either way, we can’t pay our debts. Either way, Jesus calls us forgiven. In a case where the church is the one called to repentance, we can give thanks with humility that Christ’s love is sufficient for us, too.