Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Do You See This Woman?"

Text: Luke 7:36-50

Psalm 62:1-8

 During the summer of 1976 [the summer when, by the way, I grew this beard of mine], I worked as part of a maintenance crew on the campus of Geneva College. One of the persons of our five member crew was an African student named Peter Ekuiosi.

In his native Nigeria, cultural norms and expectations were much different than in the United States, including personal hygiene. Day- after-day, Peter would wear the same dingy clothes. His hair was always nappy and unkempt. He apparently didn’t shower or use deodorant. So one knew Peter was coming from yards away.

            What Peter craved more than anything else was acceptance. He had left family some 6000miles behind, and had come to America in the hopes of being educated in medicine. His dream was to return to his home village bringing the knowledge and practice of western medicine. But while in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Peter was alone and lonely. He simply wanted to be one of the guys.

            Well, the guys, me included, were middle-class Caucasian students who showered frequently and used deodorant. When we looked at Peter Ekuiosi, we saw nothing more than a dirty, smelly, ungroomed foreigner with very dark skin who spoke poor English. He was not one of us. In our eyes, he was of a different type, a different class, below us and unworthy of us. We, of course, would not say that. But that was our attitude, and that’s the way we treated him. For example, we would use nasty innuendo around him knowing that he wouldn’t get it. It was easy to have a few laughs at Peter’s expense. At times, Peter would even join in our laughter, not knowing that the joke was on him. At lunch time, we’d go out to eat at the Corner Tavern, and usually found a way to leave Peter behind. We would frequently stick him with the dirtiest jobs like scouring the dorm latrines or scrubbing out the shower stalls at Methany Fieldhouse. You know, he never once complained. In fact, he almost seemed honored by these miserable assignments. Yet even with all our nastiness toward him, he would still bend over backwards to gain our acceptance. But we would not accept his kind.

            It was Monday morning, the first week of August. Our work crew gathered around the time clock waiting to punch in. But for the first time that summer, Peter Ekuiosi was not there. Our first thought: Who would get stuck with the dog jobs Peter always did? Monday and Tuesday came and went, and still no Peter. Then on Wednesday morning, we found out why he hadn’t been around. The previous Saturday night, a gang of black kids from town was harassing a white female clerk at a Beaver Falls convenience store. Peter happened to be in the store, saw what was going on, and stepped in to protect the woman he did not know. An altercation followed, and Peter Ekuiosi ended up in the hospital with a concussion, shattered jaw, two cracked ribs, and a lot of cuts and bruises. Guess how our elite group of middle-class Caucasian boys felt when we heard that. About this tall. We came to the painful realization that Peter Ekuiosi had more heart, more character, more compassion than all of us put together.

            That evening, I suppose to assuage our guilt, we all climbed into Bob Shockley’s car and went to see Peter at the Beaver Valley Medical Center. There he laid, 6000 miles from his home and family, bandaged and broken. He suddenly didn’t look so dirty and ungroomed anymore. He looked up at the four of us through eyes almost swelled shut and struggled to say in poor English, “Ah, my friends have come to see me.” I think that was the first time I wanted to cry in many years. And that night, for the first time, I saw Peter Ekuiosi.

            At the house of one identified only as “Simon” a “Pharisee,” there was a dinner party. And Jesus was one of the esteemed guests. Perhaps He was invited so the religious leaders could test Him in a more informal setting to find out what this popular rabbi was really all about. Even messengers from John the Baptist had been inquiring as to the legitimacy of Jesus’ ministry. At any rate, Jesus was part of an exclusive guest list. Only certain types were welcome at this table.

            In the midst of their meal and discussion, an unexpected and most unwelcome guest crashes the party. We don’t get much detail as to who she is, but putting together “woman in the city” and “sinner” gives a pretty strong indication of prostitution, something like saying “lady of the night.” Her profession is confirmed as she carried an alabaster jar of expensive nard or sweet- smelling ointment used for her men’s pleasure. Commentators suggest that this prostitute was none other than Mary Magdalene, who later went to Jesus’ tomb with this same ointment to pre- pare His body for final burial. Whoever she was, she was well-known to the religious leaders as one with a sinful and filthy reputation. And undoubtedly, as she broke into the banquet, there was a lot of commotion. Her very entry into the house had defiled it. Then to touch a rabbi would mean many days of his ritual uncleanliness. Jesus was that rabbi.

            She knelt beside Him, and in one of the most poignant snapshots in all of Scripture, she sheds her tears on His feet, then wipes them with her hair. She kisses His feet and massages them with her ointment. She weeps in remorse, and pours out her broken heart with actions rather than words. I would be hard-pressed to believe that Jesus Himself didn’t shed tears in response to the tenderness of this haggard and spirit-bruised woman; a soul who had possibly spent her entire life seeking acceptance, love, validation of her personhood; maybe always just wanted to be one of the girls. But Simon is repulsed, and it shows all over his face. He mutters under his breath: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” This woman has no place here. Just look at her. She’s filthy. She smells. She’s pathetic.

            Jesus either hears Simon, or reads his thoughts through his facial expression and body language. And as He so often did, Jesus captures a teachable moment: “’Simon, I have something to say to you…….A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’”

            Then Jesus turns the attention of the dinner party to the wretched woman, and asks the question which lies at the heart of this morning’s lesson: “Do you see this woman?” This is not merely a rhetorical question. The question is of utmost importance. “Do you see this woman?” When you look at her, what do you see? Do you see a prostitute? A sinner? Someone who is filthy and unkempt? Do you see somebody who’s not worthy of your company; not in the same class as you?  Jesus in fact turns the attention and calls the question to all of us who are gathered in our minds around that table: Can we look beyond what’s on the surface? Can we see through the sin to something deeper? If not, we’re really not seeing the woman at all. So we reject her without knowing her, just as I and my buddies rejected Peter Ekuiosi without seeing him; without knowing him. But Jesus really saw the woman. The things in her heart -- buried deep beneath layers of transgression and self-degradation – were evident in her actions. She offered all the hospitality which Simon, the host, did not. She expressed from the depths of her soul repentance, humility, contrition.          Yes, her sin was great, just like the debtor owing five hundred denarii. But so too was the love in her heart great. That love made her acceptable in the Lord’s eyes. Her forgiveness, her worthiness, her acceptability had nothing to do with who she was on the surface, the shell of the woman which Simon the Pharisee could not see within. What mattered was who she was on the inside. That’s what Jesus came – and comes – to reclaim. So Jesus accepts her for who she is: a sinner…… forgiven; a heart……full of remorse; a wretched soul just wanting to be wanted……but abundant in faith and love; an outcast…… who has a place at the Lord’s table.

            This is a passage about forgiveness. But it’s also a passage about how we see. And about how we don’t see. Simon was blind to the reality of this woman. He couldn’t accept her; certainly couldn’t forgive her. I was blind to the reality of Peter Ekuiosi. I couldn’t accept him because if asked “Do you see this man?” the truth is no, I did not. I didn’t bother to look beyond the externalities – the filthy clothes, the nappy hair, the dark skin, the bad odor – to see who Peter Ekuiosi really was. But the love of his heart shamed me when I finally opened my eyes.

            Have you ever found yourself rejecting a person, or a whole group of people, without making any attempt to know who they really are? In your heart, have you ever deemed someone unworthy simply because of their appearance, or type, or class, or status? Have you not accepted a person, nor even tried, because they were somehow different from you? Have you ever denied a person consideration because of the sin they wore, or denied forgiveness because of the pain they’ve caused you without even trying to know their heart? I think the power in this teaching is drawn from this fact: WE ALL HAVE. And the conviction of this teaching is drawn from Jesus’ question posed to Simon, a Pharisee, and posed to all of us some twenty centuries later: “Do you see this woman?”