Then turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon:
Do you see this woman?
The late British Science Fiction writer, Douglas Adams, is probably most famous for his whimsical series of novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I am equally fond of another pair of books by Adams, both of which focus on the adventures and misadventures of a lazy and brilliant detective named Dirk Gently. One of the reasons that I find the Dirk Gently books so engaging is that, in them, Adams makes creative and effective use of the literary device of telling the story from the perspective of multiple characters, so that we variously experience the narrative through the eyes of Dirk himself, from one of his clients, from his client’s romantic interest, from a ghost who is wandering the streets, and – this is the perspective that I remember most vividly – through the eyes of a horse.
The horse explains to the reader that he has one great pleasure in life: hanging out in the meadow, perhaps under the shade of a tree, and eating grass. And he explains as well that he has one great complaint: people keep on jumping on his back and expecting him to carry them places. During one protracted scene in the book, a monk sits astride the horse, paralysed by spiritual doubt, while the horse wonders about just who this guy is wearing the robe and sitting on top of him. At that moment in the narrative, Adams inserts an editorial aside that sits somewhere between comedy and cultural commentary and maybe even prophecy. He says:
It is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
[Whereas] it is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.
All of a sudden, here in the middle of his playful detective story, Adams gives us a startling and powerful comment on the nature of power and of privilege. When we enjoy privilege, when we are on top of another within a hierarchy, odds are pretty good that we don’t give the one who is below us much thought. When someone else is on top of us, well, it is hard to think of much else.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. I typed this sermon on my Macbook, a laptop computer that I use daily at the office for work and at home for recreation. People who have visited the factories in China in which a company called Foxconn employs a massive workforce to build Macbooks and iPads and iPhones for Apple tell us that the process of building these electronic consumer goods is much less automated than one might guess – that human beings are manually assembling most of the parts. And they tell us as well that the conditions at these factories are frequently unethical and exploitative and soul crushing: workers labour in an accident-prone environment, they are denied the overtime that is payable to them, and their work is numbing in its repetitiveness. Infamously, Foxconn installed nets on the exteriors of several of its factories several years ago in order to stop its employees from escaping their work through suicide.
I’ve known these facts for a while. And yet as I typed them out on my laptop earlier this week, it occurred to me that I have never so much as considered the hands that built my Macbook. I’m not sure if I didn’t want to think about the people who made my machine or – and I don’t know if this is worse – if it simply didn’t occur to me to think about them. I am the one sitting on the horse. And now that I’ve noticed my perch, I’m suddenly nervously curious: do the people who endured drudgery and, perhaps, suffering in order to build my computer ever wonder about me?
What other examples of privilege – of rider and horse, to use Adams’ image – might we think of? How about transgender folks? My cousin, Eric, is a transgender man living in Kamloops, British Columbia. Eric recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail in response to an article in that paper that argued that “normal people” don’t think about the question of gendered restrooms. In his letter, Eric explained that this was precisely the nature of the problem: normal people don’t think about this question, normal people never have the experience of standing before a pair of restrooms and asking themselves the question: which one is least dangerous for me to enter? It is our privilege not to notice.
How about wealth and poverty? For most of us in this room, it is our privilege to be able keep on walking past the man holding the cardboard sign that says “Anything helps,” to never have to wonder about his life, to never suppose that he was once a baby eagerly awaited by proud and loving parents who were full of dreams for his future. How about race? For those of us who are white, it is our privilege to see a police car in our rear-view mirror and have no anxiety whatsoever about what its flashing lights might mean for our safety. I bet that, together, we could come up with a whole lot more examples.
So. Jesus is hanging out in the home of a Pharisee, a man, as we will learn partway through the story, by the name of Simon. If we were to translate “Pharisee” into contemporary vocabulary and experience, we could probably say that Jesus is at the home of someone who is comfortably off, who is respectable, who goes to church on a regular basis. Someone, in other words, who is a lot like me and, maybe, a lot like you. And a woman crashes the party. This woman, Luke tells us immediately, is a sinner. (There is a popular tradition of assuming that this woman’s sin is sexual in nature, that she is a prostitute, but actually the text is quite silent on that subject.) She begins to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears.
Simon is appalled that Jesus doesn’t call security, that he doesn’t have the woman kicked out. He doesn’t say anything out loud – that would be impolite. But he makes a mental note that Jesus isn’t as quite as impressive as he thought he was, that Jesus isn’t really leadership material.
Jesus sees Simon stiffen, he sees the sudden coldness of his host’s body language. And so he says:
Simon. I have something to say to you.
There is a whole lot going on in what Jesus says next, more than we can tackle in one sermon. Here is the parabolic question about the two debtors. Here are the series of contrasts between the actions of the woman and the inactions of Simon. Here is the final, scathing assessment of Simon: The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. Here is the forgiveness of the woman’s sins, a forgiveness which startles and, perhaps, scanadlises everyone sitting around the table. But what I’d like pay particular attention to this morning is the second question that Jesus poses to Simon:
Do you see this woman?
Now, one way of reading this text is to conclude that this sentence simply has the purpose of establishing context, of calling Simon’s attention to the person whom Jesus wants to talk about. If I were to say to you, “Do you see the choir?” I would simply be letting you know that I was about to talk about the choir and its ministry, about the creation of music. But I want to suggest that Jesus is doing something far more than drawing Simon’s attention to the woman. I want to suggest that Jesus’ question actually sits at the very core of Jesus’ message.
Do you see this woman?
At rudimentary level, of course Simon sees the woman. He is aware that she is in his house and that he is unhappy about it, much as you and I would be aware and unhappy to find our kitchen infested by ants. But beyond the level of nuisance or interruption or social embarrassment, he is not aware of her at all. To put that another way, Simon is aware of the woman at the same level that I am vaguely aware that someone must have made my laptop and that I have to walk around the man lying on the sidewalk and that being a transgender person before a pair of bathroom doors or a person of colour being pulled over by the police must suck. But at a deeper level – at the level that Jesus is interested in – Simon and I don’t see at all.
Do you see this woman?
If Simon and I are truthful, our answer is “no.” We have a rider and horse relationship with people like her.
The final question in the baptismal covenant goes like this:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
And the Prayer Book invites us to make the promise:
I will, with God’s help.
Jesus reminds us that respecting the dignity of every human being begins with seeing every human being.
The genius of the Gospel writers – of Luke and his three colleagues – is that they will tell us a story such as this one and then they will leave it without an ending. Luke tells us about the parable of the debtors, the question Do you see?, the series of contrasts between Simon and the woman, the indictment of Simon, the forgiveness of the woman’s sin. And then the story just ends. He leaves us wondering: How does Simon react? What does Simon do?
Luke leaves the work of writing the ending up to you and me.
One possible ending sees an irritated Simon wrapping up the party finished as soon as possible. And then getting together with his friends the next day to tell them: “You won’t believe what happened. I had this guy as a guest at my house and he brought some woman with him – I think she was homeless. And he forgave her sins!” And Simon and his friends can agree that Jesus is totally unhinged.
But what about another ending? An ending in which Simon takes Jesus’ invitation and chooses to see the woman – and maybe here is the bigger risk – to be seen in return. Maybe he asks her: Where do you sleep? How do you live? What are your hopes? Maybe she asks questions of him. Maybe Simon is surprised by what this conversation opens in him, maybe he has an experience of what theologians call “reverse mission.” Reverse mission is what happens when we serve at the Friday Night Meal, or go to visit someone in the hospital, or travel to a foreign land to get a school started, or fight for a advocate for a higher minimum wage, and we are surprised to discover that, even though we went to offer healed, it is we who are healed, it is we who are transformed, it is we who are made whole.
Maybe Simon and the woman see one another. And they connect. They see one another human beings. as individuals filled with the spark of the Divine.
And that changes everything.