Touch Heals

A word of explanation.  Yes, I’m posting a Lenten (pre-Easter) meditation long after Easter has come and gone.  However, some of us never want the party to end, so we celebrate not just Easter day, but Easter Season, all seven weeks of it!  So, despite what it might appear, I’m not really late getting these Lenten and Easter meditations posted.   I’m still celebrating!                                                                He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
The 4th Sunday of Lent

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

(John tells us:  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.)

Matthew 26: 6-13

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.

Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Luke 7:36-50

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

44 Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, as her great love has shown.”

Touch heals

One might think with the number of stories in the Bible involving this ritual of water and washing and oil and anointing and touching that it was commonplace back then. And if you thought that you’d be right. Indeed, it was practiced at every level of society and event from the loftiest to the everyday ordinary. It was the anointing ritual that transformed a young shepherd boy in the field into the powerful King David. It was the same ritual that transformed a grieving young prince into the wealthy, wise and most honorable King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba. It was the treatment of choice to move illness back into health.  It was the service of Last Rites to prepare a person for death, and the ancient ritual of preparing the body of the dead for burial and life in the hereafter.

And then there was the everyday ordinary. This ritual was central to the code of good manners for a host. Think about it.  Back then you didn’t know if those strangers walking down the road towards your tent might not be angels. So you better do something that would transform them from strangers into honored guests, right?  You provided oil for their their dry cracked feet and dusty, windblown hair.  You put out basins of water with a few drops of perfumed oil to wash their feet.  Just a few drops to freshen the air; one never wanted to be wasteful. The Torah was clear about that; just as it was clear what was the expected of the good host.

In our three stories today, we have a host, a guest, and the ritual. Three stories, three women, three different locations and times, and one opening scene. Jesus has been invited to dinner.

In the first two that take place the week before Passover and Jesus’ arrest, Jesus is in the homes of good friends: Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and Simon the Leper, forever identified by his disease that Jesus healed.  These were homes of friends and undoubtedly good hosts.  Even before our heroines enter the room with their alabaster jars of expensive perfumed oil, I’m confident that our guests have already washed their feet in basins of water.  Up to this point, everything appears kosher. It was when Mary and the unnamed woman at Simon’s house made the scene that the plot thickens.  Both women ignore the Torah’s admonishment to avoid extravagance.  Mary opens her jar holding an entire pound of nard, pure essential oil, estimated at the cost of a full years pay and pours all of it on to the feet of Jesus!  Then she rubs it into his feet and toenails and ankles.  The woman at Simon’s home pours a lavish helping of extravagant oil onto the head of Jesus and rubs it into his hair until it glistens in the candlelight of the darkening room.

It was for that over-the-top extravagance that both women were criticized soundly by the men in the house. And for good reason.  It did violate the Torah. Funny how Jesus paid no attention to that.  The first thing he told the men was, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? ” He stopped the criticism on the spot and then addressed the true nature of what the women had done.

This was not a light-hearted welcome ceremony.  It was a transformational blessing on many levels. It was the ritual preparation for his death and burial.  It marked the end of his ministry on earth and his transition into rulership from a heavenly throne.  It sadly and profoundly marked the end of his physical presence among them.  Never again would they feel the warmth of his embrace.  Their relationship would be with a purely spiritual being.  I am also convinced that as a ritual of healing, Jesus was comforted in his own anxiety knowing what was to come.

And then we have a story from Luke.  This dinner party took place in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized, he’s enlisted his disciples, headed out to the countryside.  Before long, he is the newest superstar on the horizon.  Wherever he goes, there is a crowd of followers clamoring to hear what he has to say.  And standing on the edge of the crowds are the pharisees. They have come to watch and see.

One of them invites Jesus to his home to get a closer look. Jesus arrives and is seated.  Quietly, a woman with a rather sketchy reputation downtown, slips into the room. She stands behind him and begins to cry.

I’ve wondered over the years of reading this story, what triggered her tears.  Was it that the mere presence of Jesus was simply overwhelming?  Or if she could feel the chasm between her life and the darkness it had become in sharp contrast to the light and holiness of this man.  Maybe they were tears of remorse and shame, alienation and estrangement from her family and community.  Maybe it was helplessness rooted in a never ending despair.   What it was, in that moment, she realized she was not helpless!  She knew what she could do.  Remorse, guilt, and grief had given her the tears to wash the feet of this holy man.  She fell to her knees in front of him.  Filled her hands with her own tears and washed his feet, drying them with her hair, and kissing them and pouring perfume on them.

And then there was silence.

We know Jesus can read our thoughts, and he read the thoughts of the pharisee, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

In the ensuing heavy silence, Jesus turns and looks at the woman at his feet. When he speaks to the Pharisee, he doesn’t look at him.   Looking at the woman, he asks, “Do you see this woman?”

Now, that’s an interesting question. Do you see this woman? We all have our little private prejudices, don’t we? Those things that keep us from really seeing somebody. Maybe your prejudice is driven by status or the lack of it, by wealth or the lack of it, or the kind of job a person has or the lack of it.  Maybe yours is driven by lifestyle or attire, gender or race. I don’t know what yours is, but I do know this.  Prejudice forms a cloud over our eyes and it prevents us from seeing God’s holy creation standing right in front of us.  Instead, we see an object that we use to identify an entire group of people.  If a member of that group stands before us and we have labeled them, we have stripped them of their humanity.   Once a person is dehumanized, it justifies anything that we want to say or do or think about that person, without ever truly seeing them.

Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” And then he turns to the Pharisee and says “I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she cleaned my feet with her tears. You didn’t give me a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing me since the moment I walked in here. You didn’t give me any oil for my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”
Jesus made it clear to the Pharisee that it had not escaped his attention, that the Pharisee had done nothing to welcome him into the home.  He made no attempt to transform this visitor into a valued guest or friend.  Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was not there to be a guest. He was there to be observed and evaluated for his usefulness or his danger to the established church.  After his blistering critique, Jesus delivered the coup d’etat “Therefore, I tell you, this woman’s many sins have been forgiven as her great love has shown.”   Unspoken, we hear the implication, “And yours have not.”

Through this ritual, the woman was transformed from a sinner to the forgiven, from the shunned to the loved.  Jesus gave us a clear statement of the relationship between love and forgiveness. Where there is love, we are capable of forgiving, and where there is forgiveness, love will thrive.

Now, these stories of transformation in the Bible don’t stop there.  With every baptism, babies, children, adults of all ages are transformed with the washing of water, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil on the head, and the words, “You are anointed by the Holy Spirit and sealed as Christ’s own forever.” That’s transformation.

In many churches even today, we have healing services where people gather to pray for their own healing and the healing of loved ones.   In this quiet, prayerful service, the priest puts his hands on your shoulder, and says,” I lay my hands upon you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that you may know the healing power of His Love.”

The laying on of hands transforms children into Christ’s own forever, confirmands into full members of the church, seminarians into priests, empty buildings into churches, and people like you and me into agents of transformation.  Isn’t that what we have all been called to become?  Here’s how we do it.  Start with the current accepted and practiced ritual of hospitality and transformation.  Introduce yourself and shake hands.

When you do, be aware of the powerful ritual of touch.  When you take that person’s hand, look at him.  Look at her.  Don’t look away.  Stay locked for a moment to make sure you see the person.  I don’t want you waking up in the middle of night hearing Jesus ask you, “Did you see that woman?  Did you see that man?”  Don’t let anything block your vision of God’s creation standing right in front of you.  Then speak words of welcome, whatever ones come to mind.  You can do it.  It’s that simple.

With this ritual of simple kindness and hospitality, with or without a basin of water and a little perfumed oil, we can transform strangers into friends, and friends into family and family into community, a Christ community where love and forgiveness, healing and acceptance live.  It may sound a bit daunting.  However, if those three women could do it back then, we can do it now!   And who knows? Maybe like the guests in the house of Simon the Leper, we too may hear Jesus say these words about us,  “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what they have done will also be told, in memory of them.”  Now wouldn’t that be something!!  Amen

One thought on “Touch Heals”

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