Many Sundays, our worship service ends with me or someone else saying three words to the congregation: “Go in peace.” These are good last words. They are words I like to speak and words that I like to hear before heading out into another seven days of God knows what. Peace for the going is surely what each of us craves, even if only in the substrata of our consciousness.
As it happens, “Go in peace” provided the coda for the gospel reading during morning prayers today. In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus finds himself the recipient of a dinner invitation from one of the Pharisees. And Jesus rarely refused an invitation to dinner. As they’re getting ready for a delicious evening of food and theological conversation, an unexpected guest shows up. A “sinful” woman. Her sin is not identified, but we can use our imaginations. She begins to rather embarrassingly start fawning over Jesus, bathing his feet with kisses and tears, anointing his head with expensive oil. The scene was almost certainly uncomfortably sensuous and distasteful in all kinds of ways, and the Pharisee says as much. If this Jesus were any kind of prophet, he would know what kind of degenerate had her hands all over him. Jesus proceeds to use the scene as an object lesson about the connection between forgiveness and love. The one who has been forgiven much, shows much love. The one who has been forgiven little (or, more precisely, imagines they have been forgiven little) shows little love. “Thus concludeth today’s theology discussion,” I can imagine Jesus saying.
Jesus then says three things directly to the woman. “Your sins are forgiven,” “Your faith has saved you,” and “Go in peace.” These are three pretty remarkable statements. They are all the more remarkable given the scene that they are in response to. The woman, so far as we know, has said precisely nothing. She has made no professions of faith in Jesus’ lordship. She has not itemized and repented of her sins. She has not discussed theology with Jesus. She has not prayed or recited a creed. She has not verbally assented to a statement of faith. She has not declared her intentions to march off with Jesus to change the world.
What she has done—again rather embarrassingly—is shamelessly thrown herself at Jesus’ feet in a context where she would have been most unwelcome. She has ruined a nice dinner by spreading out all of her sorrow and desire and longing and pain on the floor in a painfully vulnerable display of naked need. She has, not to put too fine a point on it, caused a scene. And yet it is this posture, not the abstract, forensic approach of the Pharisee, that Jesus praises. This, apparently, is evidence of the love that Jesus longs to see.
Like many people, I have friends who run the gamut from the very theologically conservative to the very theologically liberal. My very conservative friends sometimes treat the life of faith as a glorified theology exam with Jesus as the headmaster. There is much talk of right doctrine and proper interpretation of Scripture and agreeing to enough of the right facts about God to secure salvation. Our duty is to believe rightly enough about God to win the prize.
My very liberal friends sometimes treat the life of faith as a moral checklist or a political agenda with Jesus as the activist-in-chief. There is much talk of doing enough Jesus-y things for the right marginalized groups and severely denouncing all the very wrong and very bad people and systems and structures that oppress the vulnerable. Our duty is to act rightly enough to win the prize.
And then there are those who vacillate between these two poles, rarely able summon the requisite conviction for either. These people attach virtue to their grim realism and are deeply suspicious of anyone who seems more confident in their rightness (whether in the realm of beliefs or ethics) than is warranted. Our duty is to drift around above the fray, helpfully pointing out the errors and inconsistencies of others (for Jesus’ sake, of course).
I sometimes wonder if all of us—wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum above—might learn from the “sinful” woman who unceremoniously crashed the Pharisee’s dinner party. We are not nearly as smart or moral or humble or self-sufficient as we imagine ourselves to be. We are human beings. We are needy and poor (and, as Jesus reminds us in this passage, this is never more evident than when we are convinced that we are not). At the end of it all, beneath all of our shiny theology and estimable virtues and oh-so-humble and self-aware detachment, each one of us longs for precisely the same things that this woman did.
Forgiveness. You are not defined by your worst moment(s). Nothing is broken irreparably. There is nothing you have done that cannot be healed and transformed.
Salvation. Your faith will be vindicated. No act of hope and devotion to Jesus will ultimately go unnoticed and unrewarded. At the feet of Jesus is the best place for tears. God will rescue, restore, and redeem.
Peace. You need not be plagued by anxiety, worry, and guilt. There is a way of being in this broken world that can be received and extended as gift and grace. Whatever the road ahead holds, there is peace for the going.
The featured image above is taken from the 2009-10 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a creation of Wayne Lacson Forte and is called “Mary’s Sacrifice.”