Jezebel. No doubt about it, she ranks high up on the “really bad girls of the bible” list. Even if you don’t know about Jezebel’s story, or of her brutal demise, her reputation lingers in her name. Jezebel has become synonymous of a ruthless, scheming woman. A colorful array of descriptions have been suggested for Jezebel; such a hoochie, hussy, floozy, minx, quean,slut, tramp, trollop, wench, whore, temptress, vamp; grisette, harlot, witch, prostitute, or a trull. Isn’t it amazing how many adjectives exist for woman of dubious notoriety? Girl bands, feminist blogs, female run art galleries, fancy lingerie, even a World War II missile have all inspired by the ambitious, ruthless, and independent spirit of Queen Jezebel.
Jezebel earned her reputation. She was the Phoenician wife of King Ahab of Israel. Jezebel was an ardent follower of the Canaanite god, Baal. Altars and sacred poles to Baal were allowed in the capital of Israel. Jezebel ordered the persecution and murder of hundreds of the prophets of the Hebrew God who denounced the worship of Baal. Our story today captures the worst of Jezebel’s character: she masterminded the plot to set up Naboth on trumped-up charges to murder so that his property could be seized for her husband’s pleasure. Jezebel was very naughty – and unrepentant.
Contrast to Jezebel is the main female character in our gospel lesson. She barely garnishes a blip in our consciousness. She is a sinner, a great sinner, in fact. Unlike Jezebel, her story does not evoke recognition. Jezebel roamed the corridors of power; our unnamed woman lived in the alleyways of powerlessness. Jezebel incited fear in many religious men – with the exception of Prophet Elijah – our gospel woman incited contempt in Simon the Pharisee. Jezebel planned a meal under the pretext to kill and steal; Our unnamed woman attended a meal unwelcomed, to seek forgiveness and pardon. Unlike Jezebel, her actions are not remembered, pondered, no girl bands, no blogs no lingerie stores have adapted her as a logo. Our tradition has held up Jezebel as a warning. But this unnamed woman’s example, heroic in its own way, has not been given the weight and attention it deserves. We read her story then move on.
Yet this woman’s experience of conversion and forgiveness is one of the most powerful stories we have in the New Testament. Parts of this story are found in all four gospels, a rare feat. Yet we do not know her name and she does not utter a single word. Her actions, however, speak volumes.
Our text does not tell us what type of sin she has committed, yet the church down the ages has declared this woman is a prostitute. Modern Biblical scholars, mostly men, admire her piety, yet characterize her as “anxious,’ “overcome by her emotions,” or “touched by hysteria.” Not someone we would characterize as powerful witness to faith. What is it that Jesus sees that we don’t see? We have to pay very close attention to the text to see why this unnamed woman is a remarkable role model of discipleship.
Now, I am not sure how an anxious, hysterical, overly emotional woman would find the courage to enter a Pharisee’s home, uninvited and unaccompanied by a male. But she does. And she weeps. The word used for weeping here is almost always associated with weeping brought about by circumstances of profound suffering, most frequently at the death of a loved one. It was used in response to the slaughter of the innocents. At the death of Jarius’ little daughter, last week we saw it at the death of the Widow’s son in Nain, and at Lazarus’ death as well. This woman is experiencing a living death and comes to Jesus, who restores her to true life.
This woman’s tears wet Jesus’ feet. As we have seen, there is a good amount of crying in the gospels, but this is the only place in the gospels where the word, tears, appear. Every example where tears are used in the rest of the NT it refers to people who are persecuted yet remain faithful to Jesus. So here is this unnamed woman, exhibiting her faith in Jesus, in the presence of her persecutor, the Pharisee Simon.
This woman kisses Jesus’ feet. Luke uses a special, tender term to describe this kiss. It’s the same term in the parable of the prodigal son, where the Father greets his wayward son with a tender kiss upon his return. Judas too, betrayed Jesus with a tender loving kiss. So the only record we have of Jesus receiving a loving kiss, without the stigma of betrayal, is the tender kiss is from this prodigal, unnamed woman.
As a final act of devotion, the woman anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with the hairs on her head. “Hairs of her head” in used in two other occasions by Luke to denote the providence of God in the time of persecution of one’s faith. Simon the Pharisee sees a brazen woman, letting down her hair in the ultimate act of wantonness. Jesus sees a woman, persecuted, sinful, but who has made the decision to place her confidence in God.
This woman’s faith is conveyed in bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, an act of devotion and hospitality. It was an expected custom of courtesy to offer water to wash a guest’s feet, to wash away the dust of the travel. Simon overlooks this significant act. But this woman, without complaining, assumes the role of a lowest slave to clean Jesus’ feet. It is an example that Jesus emulates when he in turn washes his disciples’ feet on the night before his death.
Simon is disgusted by the acts of this woman, and prnounces her a sinner. Jesus sees it differently. Jesus tells Simon this woman has loved much. Jesus spends a great deal of his time teaching us to love God, to love our neighbors as ourselves, even to love our enemies. But only twice does Jesus actually comment of the quality of love of a human being for another. Here, with this woman, and later, when he condemns the Pharisees for their neglect of the love of God, while loving the best places in the synagogue and salutations in the marketplace. So this is the only positive example of love Jesus lifts up for us to consider.
So why do we remember Jezebel, and not her?
Do you see this woman, Jesus asks?
What do we see?
A hysterical woman? An overly-emotional woman? An anxious woman that needs a little valium to settle her nerves? Is she a sinful woman, like Jezebel? An unwanted woman who just doesn’t know her place?
Or, do we see a woman who despite persecution, despite prejudice, despite the brokenness of sin, bravely seeks Jesus. She just loves Jesus, with the very hairs on her head, with her very tears because in his presence, at last she experienced wholeness. Unjudged. Loved. So she loved Jesus through her pain, in the home of those who judged her most, those who wouldn’t leave their side of the table, who wouldn’t bother to know her name.
Do we see this woman now? She is that part of us, who is going through tribulations, struggling to know the truth, to be faithful, to hear God calling, – that we can be more than our mistakes, more than the sins we’ve committed. She is that unnamed part of us that can show us how to be bold, to be faithful, how to love God and serve others, without a fuss, without a word.
Do you see this woman now? She is that part of you and me that that is forgiven and loved and has a future in Jesus. See has much to teach us. Although there is much sin and brokenness, we can still love. We can be bold and find Jesus, and embrace him, even where we have not been wanted. We can weep, our tears can cleanse, we can apply the ointment of mercy, we can wipe away the dust from the feet of the weary, we can be an example of faith that brings forgiveness, peace and wholeness of Christ to all the Simons, to all the Jezebels, to all the unnamed around us.
Let her be named. Let her carry your name.
Let her carry your name. See her, in you – a true disciple, forgiven and loved. And let her amazing example of great love become ours. Amen.