broken-Copy     I am not a big crier, but I’m more likely to cry at a wedding toast than at a funeral.  I am stoic facing sadness, but tear up facing kindness and love.  Why is that?  I wonder if I accept sadness and loss as the norm.  My favorite character in Greek mythology is Sisyphus, the man condemned to roll the stone up the hill every day, only to see it roll back down again.  Somehow I admire the stamina of one who keeps rolling the stone regardless and doesn’t give up, even without promise of reward or victory at the end.  Perhaps that is why I cry in the face of hope and joy.  Those are brief moments when the stone does not roll back down the hill, and Sisyphus can just sit on the mountain top and enjoy the view.

So, spoiler alert, this story of the woman with the Alibaster Jar could make me cry. After all because she is weeping with joy.  What happened to her to shed uncontrollable tears, a joyful rainfall to wash the feet of Jesus?

As I imagine myself in different roles in this scene, they are all awkward to me.   I imagine myself as Simon the Pharisee for a moment, having invited the local clergy over to dinner, and then having an uninvited guest, perhaps a woman whom I have often seen asking for spare change on a city bench.  That changes the dynamics of the evening.  We thought we were going to have an intriguing evening discussing theology, talking shop, the various trials of being a pastor, solve a few world problems after a glass or two of wine.  But now the air is full of perfume and sobs, and what do you do now as the host?  Would Emily Post go ahead and set another place at the table, or perhaps invite Jesus and the woman to retire briefly to the living room and hold dinner for awhile?


Jesus seems to take this in stride, but I’d pay a lot to hear his inner dialog.  He might have been anxious about dining with the Pharisee, after all the conflict portrayed in Luke’s Gospel.  Perhaps this was an important evening to attempt dialog and find common ground.  But work follows him even to dinner.  We don’t know what Jesus did for her or said to her in the past, just that she had been a sinner and now felt grateful, like the lost now found, and showered it upon Jesus.  Change the context to a church potluck, and as I’m about to give the blessing for us, and and woman uncorks a bottle of Channel #5 and pours it out in Lyman Hall on my feet, all over my shoes and then shines them with her hair, or perhaps she has a shaved head with a tattoo on the back of her neck.  Would we clap to welcome her with joy or would it get so quiet you could hear not just a pin drop, but perhaps a Q-tip hitting the floor.


I actually have a woman in mind.  I met her when I worked at a transitional housing program for homeless people.  At her placement interview she told us that she had been using heroin for several years, supported herself as a prostitute, and had been living in a narrow alley between a McDonalds and a Laundry mat.  She had broken into a convenience store and the silent alarm brought the police who found her with an armload of cigarette cartons and a glassy stare that was miles away from reality.  In jail she decided to get clean and went to rehab.  The social worker that referred her told us she would be a handful, that every agency in the city knew her and her exploits, for years; and begged us to accept her application because it was the first time she had looked for help.  And since that was our mission, to give people a chance at stability, we took her into one of the rooms in our program.



I remember her first day, because she settled in right before our resident council meeting where our 58 residents would gather weekly to hear announcements and voice concerns.  When we welcomed Debbie, she stood up and made a speech.  She had come to the meeting in implossibly tight plants and no bra, with a loose blouse, not having been oriented yet on dinner dress code.  She gave one of the most heartfelt speeches on her gratitude, saying that she had been sleeping in the alley, eating out of the McDonalds dumpster, and that she had been supporting her heroin habit by being an oral sex prostitute and now I’m going straight and clean. And just as I’m thinking she needs to reign it in because half the guys are going to knock on her door to “welcome” her to the program, she turns to me with tears of joy.  “I want to thank Todd for allowing me into this program when no one else would take me,” and she came and gave me a big hug to much applause, and when she pulled away there were wet marks on my shirt from her tears.


I remember her not just for this episode, but because she kept her sense of gratitude and that kept her sober and on track.  People entered our program with varying levels of gratitude.  In the beginning, the majority were glad to have a roof over their head and three meals a day in the cafeteria.  As human nature goes, many would start to complain that the food tasted like cardboard, their room was small like a jail cell, or it wasn’t fair that they had to share bathroom cleaning duty.  Our case managers would often then say, what was your room like three months ago?  “It was a cardboard box.”  What did you eat for lunch?  “Wild Irish Rose and Hershey Bar.”  We would often remind people that gratitude was one of the most important parts of sobriety.


Jesus challenges Simon with a little parable about two people being forgiven a debt, one small and one large.  Who will have more gratitude?  Simon gives the logical answer that it is the one who has been forgiven much.  But that is not always the case.  Some people receive a great blessing and are forgiven much, and wonder why there is no mint on their pillow as well.  Sometimes people have received nothing but harshness from life, and they can’t recognize grace when it comes their way, they grab it like a wallet full of money they found on the street and it is soon gone without making an impact.


I take gratitude to be a sign of true spiritual connection.  It is the joyful and thankful heart that is transformed and makes a change.  Many who are touched by Jesus show great joy when grace is received.  Zacchues the tax collector comes down from the tree and gives away his wealth at thought of being accepted by Jesus, while the very moral rich young ruler goes away sorrowful because he can’t let go of his fortune.  One man knew forgiveness, the other thought he had earned it and deserved it all.  There is little joy in a meritocracy.  (This is why I could never be a libertarian, or a follower of Ayn Rand, like Rand Paul or Paul Ryan.  There is much energy spent on worrying that someone else is getting something they didn’t deserve, rather than realizing all of us live by the Creator’s gift of life.)  Another Paul, wrote in Galatians, that we all are forgiven much, and knew that he too had once been a sinner.


Simon the Pharisee and the Woman with the alabaster jar both took their religion very seriously.  But there is a clear difference.  Simon saw the gift of God as something earned by being good, and therefore he stood like a gatekeeper to protect and defend a faith for the worthy.  The woman knew that she had not lived well, but was loved and accepted by God regardless, so faith lead her first to joyful cleansing tears, an second to extravagant hospitality that she wished to share.  Which type of religion is stronger in our hearts?