We’ve just heard two texts read aloud; a portion of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, and the Gospel story of a woman—clearly identified by Luke as “a sinner”—who comes to Jesus to wash and anoint his feet while he is dining in the home of Simon the Pharisee. I suspect that as you listened to these two readings, it was the Gospel story that you really heard. Stories read aloud are just so much easier to follow. Pieces of Paul’s letters, on the other hand, can become something of a blur of words and phrases: “justified”; “works of the law”; “faith”; “crucified with Christ”; “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” We are given a glimpse of Paul in full stride, and rightly assume that with his tightly argued prose he is taking his readers somewhere… but what was that he said again? And before you know it, the reader has said, “The word of the Lord,” to which we all dutifully answered, “Thanks be to God.” Stories are so much easier to follow.
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Here’s the thing, though; there’s a story behind Paul’s prose. The way the lectionary is set up, tonight’s reading began with a line that seems to come out of nowhere: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Back up a handful of verses, and you see that it is most definitely not coming out of the blue. In those verses the reader discovers that Paul has found himself in a place of serious conflict with Peter, James, Barnabas, and other key leaders in the early church. He writes of how he met Peter and “opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned,” and freely uses the word “hypocrisy” to describe what he’s opposing. If you are ever tempted to imagine the early church as some idyllic community of pure faith, in which everyone got along, guess again…
More than anyone else in the early church, Paul has been the champion for full inclusion of the Gentiles. He’s spent years in Gentile territory, ranging far from the Jesus movement’s Judean home-base, and his theological commitment to that principle of inclusion has become more ever more thoroughgoing. At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) the early church had discerned that Gentile Christians did not need to also become torah-observant Jews; a landmark decision, affirming that Jesus was messiah for all. Peter was a part of that council, as were James, Barnabas, and of course Paul. In fact, in the Acts account Peter is shown as a champion for full inclusion of the Gentiles: “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” (Acts 15:7-8) No distinction between them and us.
Yet it seems that a point came when Peter backed down on one specific point, namely sharing a table with Gentile believers. For Paul this is a huge issue: “for until certain people came from James, [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles,” he writes in Galatians. “But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” (Gal. 2:12-13)
And that is where tonight’s reading picks up, with Paul writing, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” And as he will write a little further on in this epistle, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3.28) If that is truly the case, how can you possibly be part of one Body of Christ if you can’t even sit down at table together?
Paul has become a radical. The Council of Jerusalem had agreed that Gentile believers were not to be bound by the torah; had agreed, in other words, that there was such a thing as both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. James and the others in Jerusalem seem to have assumed that for Jewish believers observing the torah in its fullness was still part of their faith practice, whereas for Gentile believers it was not. But here’s where that position gets sticky; among other things, to observe the torah is to observe the dietary and purity codes, and part of that meant not sharing food with Gentiles. For Paul, whose faith and theology is increasingly formed in the context of his experiences in Gentile country, this is a deep problem smacking of “separate but equal” bigotry. And he’s furious with Peter, who had formerly shared table with Gentiles, but after “certain people came from James” has backed down into that “separate but equal” stance.
Paul’s message to Jewish Christians is that they are free to observe the torah; as free to do so as Gentile Christians are free to not do so. But the minute that torah observance fragments the Body of Christ and keeps people from sharing table together, it must be set aside. “[W]e have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” No one will be justified by the works of the law—and here comes his most startling and radical statement—“for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
This, needless to say, is not something that Peter or James or any of the others in their circles would ever want to be accused of claiming. They, like Paul, would want to affirm that through the life, death and resurrection of Christ everything has become new; a new order has been inaugurated. Paul the missionary theologian who has spent all that time well beyond the edges of the world as Peter and James knew it—in a political and social world centered not in the Jewish Jerusalem of Peter and James, but centered rather in Rome—can see what they can’t or won’t. It is all different now, and the only way to truly live, as Paul writes in Galatians, is to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” All else is commentary.
Paul’s radicalism is prefigured in the Gospel story of that woman coming to bathe and anoint the feet of Jesus. “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair,” Luke tells us. “Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this Jesus were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’” Simon the Pharisee stands in judgment of this woman, for while she is not a Gentile, she is in his eyes clearly tainted and impure. She is obviously not welcome at Simon’s table, yet Jesus seems startlingly indifferent to her impurity, allowing her to so immodestly let down her hair and weep at his feet. If Jesus really was the prophet that the people were claiming, he’d have known “what kind of a woman this is who is touching him,” and pushed her away.
Jesus will have none of it. He responds to the look on Simon’s face by telling the parable of the creditor who had two debtors, and in the end to say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Your life may be one long disastrous breech of the torah, but my love is not contingent on such things. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It occurs to me that that sending her with that blessing of peace might have had something to do with also saving her from Simon the Pharisee’s judgmental looks. And it occurs to me that there in those Galatian churches, which existed within the new order revealed by that resurrection light, the radical Paul might have insisted not only that she not be judged or pushed aside, but that room be made for her to sit at table with them. The radical Paul would have seen to it that for all of the sorrow and brokenness of her life, she be given food to eat, wine to drink, and company to be shared; for “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)