Opening Up: Unexpected Teachers

March 12, 2017

UNEXPECTEDTEACHERS

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,

    whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,

    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away

    through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,

    and I did not hide my iniquity;

I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”

    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful

    offer prayer to you;

at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters

    shall not reach them.

You are a hiding place for me;

    you preserve me from trouble;

    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;

    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,

    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,

    else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,

    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,

    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. He entered the Pharisee’s home, and he took his place at the table. A woman from the city, who was a sinner, discovered that he was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought in an alabaster jar full of perfumed oil. Standing behind him at his feet and weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She dried his feet with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil.

The Pharisee who had invited Jesus, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman it is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.”

Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

He said, “Teacher, speak.”

 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii – that is 500 days’ wages. The other owed fifty denarii– 50 days’ wages. Since neither had the funds to repay, the moneylender forgave both debts. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt forgiven.” Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she bathed my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil. Since she has shown so much love, this is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven. The one who is forgiven little loves only a little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

* * * * *

Jesus, his detractors used to say, was a “friend of sinners,” and they were right. If it wasn’t apparent before, it surely was after this meal he shared at a Pharisee’s house. There he was, in flagrant violation of religious law and customs, letting this nasty, disreputable woman touch him. It was as if he was deliberately sticking it to the righteous, godly man who was his host. How dare he?

Of course, that’s the Pharisee’s point-of-view.

We hear this story and Jesus’ story-within-a-story, and it’s obvious to us who’s right. We cheer Jesus on, the good guy, putting the holier-than-thou Pharisee in his place. We root for Jesus, thumbing his nose at convention, breaking down barriers, welcoming everyone as a child of God. If we were at that table, we would hug that poor woman, who showed such love. We love that love wins.

But you know, it’s easy when it’s just a story.

Jean Vanier’s point is well taken. Most of the time we live within barriers of our own making, protected from people who are not from our own clan, surrounded by people who tell us how terrific we are, not at all sure about those other people whose lives we don’t admire.

In some ways we’re not all that different from the man who hosted that dinner. We’d rather not have our parties crashed by uninvited guests, especially ones we would never invite in the first place. We would never be at a table with that woman - she would never be in our circle of friends - and if she came in to our homes we might not judge her, but we sure would be uncomfortable.

The interesting thing on reading this story is whose point of view we take. It’s almost like we’re the other guests at the table, watching this thing play out. Most of us wouldn’t identify with the judgmental, hard-hearted Pharisee. But we wouldn’t identify with the sinner, either. I find that really curious. I may be a sinner, but I’m not that desperate. I’m more like the one who owes 50 denarii. Sure, I’d love to have my debts cleared, but I don’t need forgiveness that badly. Not enough to embarrass myself.

I’m good, Jesus; really, I’m fine.

When I was wrestling with the scripture this week, I found myself thinking of a poem I heard years ago. It was written by a man named Jim Autry, a friend of a friend from my days in Des Moines. His wife Sally Pederson was in my book group – until she because the Lt. Governor of Iowa and had the temerity to drop out. Jim had been the president of Meredith Corporation, and after he retired wrote books on business and leadership and did a lot of volunteer work. He and Sally had a severely autistic son named Ronald, which led Jim to do a lot of work in the area of disabilities. At one point he served on the national advisory committee for the White House Conference on Families, and president of the Institute for the Advancement of Health.

I thought about this particular poem because it was, for me, a lesson in how I see myself and how I see the people around me. You might say it’s about the Pharisee seeing the woman for the first time, and how seeing her made him see his own life for the first time, too.

On Paying Attention by Jim Autry[i]

There came a time in my volunteer life

when I began to give in

to the seductions of righteousness

and to think of my work as a sacrifice

for the good of others.

 

I would make schedules no one should try

so that people would ask

how it was possible for one man to do so much.

 

It was a time of three speeches

and three cities

in one day, and in all the scurrying

I did not want the delay

of a restroom conversation

with a hesitant little man

in a cheap new suit.

I needed a quick pee, five minutes to think,

and two minutes to get to the podium.

But there he was,

with the side effects I new so well,

the puffy cheeks, the swollen gums

as he smiled and told me he had a job now

and hadn’t had a seizure in six months.

I gave him the quick back pat

and the smile,

never expecting to see him again.

But he sat in the front row

and smiled a greeting when I rose to speak,

the dignitary from the national office,

bringing word from Washington,

the National Commission,

the Hill, the White House.

He smiled too often

and over-nodded and made too much of his notes,

clicking his pen and turning pages,

back and forth,

as if studying what he’d written.

When our eyes met he smiled and nodded,

another guy, I thought, who wants people

to think he knows the speaker.

So I avoided looking at him

until he shuffled, crossed his legs,

and stretched them in front of him.

When I saw the soles of his shoes,

slightly soiled, less than a day worn,

I realized he had bought the suit and shoes

just for this meeting, just to hear a speech squeezed

into an afternoon between two other cities.

He had looked forward to it,

planned for it,

put new job money into it,

and would make notes

so that he could remember always

what the important man came to teach.

But the lesson was mine to learn –

about sacrifice

and counting blessings,

about patience

and paying attention to teachers

wherever I find them.

Now, I never thought of Jim Autry as being like a Pharisee…  but I know exactly what it feels like to “give in to the seductions of righteousness and to think of my work as a sacrifice for the good of others,” which is how a Pharisee thinks. And that man in the cheap new suit and the telltale signs of a long-time drunk… he sure sounds like a sinner from the city. And I suspect Jim knew as well as I do what it feels like to look at someone like that and simply have our convictions confirmed; the voice in our head that says, “he doesn’t belong here.”

And even more: “I may not be perfect, but compared to him, I’m good, Jesus; really I’m fine.”

But something opened Jim’s eyes. And I can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if the Pharisee’s eyes had been opened, too, if he could have seen the woman at his table, really seen her. How seeing her would make him see his own life, too… an unveiling of his “brokenness, fears and faults.”[ii]

Jean Vanier says “that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly changing places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others…” (And I would add: As we begin to understand others, we begin to understand ourselves. )“We do not have to be perfect.”[iii]

Who is your teacher? Who can help you see yourself, truly, honestly? Who can help you be healed, because they have been vulnerable themselves? Who can open your heart enough that you, too, might offer forgiveness, might see your own need for forgiveness, might see your own humanity? Who is it that shows you how to weep? Who will teach you how to love?

Rev. Karen Chakoian

[i] James A. Autry, Life After Mississippi [Oxford, MS: Yoknapatawpha Press, 1989], 54-55. For a biography of Jim Autry, see: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jamesautry

[ii] Jean Vanier, Becoming Human [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998], 150.

[iii] Jean Vanier, 25.