During Lent, I have tried to give God time to search my heart. I have seen my own sins — both overt and covert — that require God's forgiveness and grace.
One of my go-tos, if I am honest, is wrapping myself in my pharisaical robe as I assume another people's sin is more heinous than mine. Surely, my faithlessness, selfishness and pride pale to another person's greed, lust and murder.
A story that opens my eyes to this is the account in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus is invited to a dinner party of muckety-mucks by a Jewish teacher named Simon. The story in Luke 7 features a woman whom Luke labels as a "sinful woman," a label known to people throughout the town.
She somehow pushes her way into this dinner party of only men. Carrying an expensive jar of perfume, the woman goes straight for Jesus, reclining at one of tables. Falling at his feet, she begins weeping, her tears falling on Jesus' feet. The "sinful" woman then wipes the feet of Jesus with her hair and rubs them with fragrant lotion.
Because Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the early verses of Luke chapter 8, many scholars assume she is the unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7. In Mark chapter 16, we learn that seven demons were cast out of Mary Magdalene. My New Testament professor believed Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman and prostitution was her sin. But nowhere does Luke's account say that.
Labels such as "sinful woman," "racist," "liar," "addict," "slut," "filthy rich" and a million others reflect the values, anxieties and power relations of societies. They may or may not indicate a person's moral guilt or innocence. They certainly don't demonstrate that the "sinner" is more guilty in comparison with his or her neighbors.
When I was in the fourth grade, I sat by a boy who was from a poor farm family. Or so I had been told. See what I mean about people getting labeled. The poor-farm-family label seemed confirmed when one day he was removed from class because his clothes smelled like kerosene. He returned wearing different clothes.
Word spread quickly that this family was so poor they washed their clothes in kerosene. Add to this, the boy was a poor reader and shy. Several classmates and I gave him another label — "retard."
Societies label people as "sinners" using particular moral standards. But labeling also reflects the stresses that threaten those communities, as we struggle to define ourselves or affect the social worlds we inhabit.
What, then, do you suppose Luke means when he calls this woman "a sinner?" We don't know by reading the story. What we do see is her shameless, elaborate adoration of Jesus, which makes it hard to regard her as a "bad person" in some simple sense. Of course, theologically, the woman, like all of us, "has sinned and fallen short of the kingdom of God."
The fact remains, the people in this woman's town had come to regard her, whatever her misdeeds, as a sinner. Did she habitually participate in some immoral behavior? What was it? To what degree does her label reflect the social agenda of, say, the powerful groups of her town? And if she did behave in immoral ways, what conditions and experiences brought her to weep at the feet of Jesus?
This story can teach us about our own communities, and our assumptions. Take the current college admissions scandal rocking the country. It has touched our town. Readers of this paper know that Elisabeth Meyer Kimmel, a First Busey board member until resigning last month, allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help her daughter gain entrance to Georgetown University and her son to the University of Southern California.
Kimmel is among 50 people charged by federal prosecutors in an alleged conspiracy in which wealthy business people and celebrities are accused of donating to a phony foundation, which passed the money on to coaches at top universities around the country.
It would be pretty easy to start labeling Kimmel, the second-largest shareholder on the First Busey board, or her father, August "Chris" Meyer Jr., who has served on the board since 1962. Ben Zigterman's April 4 News-Gazette story says, "The Meyer family ran Midwest Television, which owned WCIA-TV until 1999, and last year completed the $325 million sale of its San Diego TV and radio stations."
As we step into Holy Week, what a great week to resist our assumptions and temptation to label others. How easy it would be to label Elisabeth Meyer Kimmel and her family as "filthy rich," with no real appreciation or knowledge of their story, their history, their struggles. We could judge them, call them "sinners" and push them to the margins of our minds.
But before you start making all your labels, read the story for yourself in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus forgives the woman for her sins, whatever they were. Jesus says nothing about the woman repenting, which made the religious muckety-mucks at the party so livid they wanted to kill Jesus.
You see, this is not just a story about who is righteous and who is forgiven. It's a story about Jesus' deep love for all who are lost and wandering around like sheep without a shepherd.
Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).