Do You See This Woman?

Robert S. Turner
4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 12, 2016
Luke 7:36 – 8:3

The gospel lesson from Luke 7 cries out to be preached today. I had planned to preach
on the Naboth story from 1 Kings, but after some of this week’s news, I had to change
my plans. Had to. As Martin Luther once said, “I can do no other. God help me.”
In the story, a Pharisee named Simon has invited Jesus to his home for dinner. During
the meal, a woman of the town whom Luke describes as “a sinner” (v. 37) comes in and
pours a fragrant ointment on his feet, wets his feet with her tears, and scandalously
unbinds her hair and uses it to dry his feet. The upright and respectable Simon is
shocked at her behavior and indignant that Jesus does not share his indignation. He
thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet”—the way all those ignorant peasants say
he is—“he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him
—that she is a sinner” (v. 39). We can infer his conclusion: “Then he would boot her
right out the door into the gutter where she belongs.”
Jesus knows what Simon is thinking—he doesn’t need any supernatural mind-reading
power to do it, either—and he responds, as he so often does, by telling a story. He tells
of two guys who, after a run of bad luck at the track, find themselves in deep with their
bookie; one of them about ten times as deep. The one guy owes five hundred bucks,
but the other one is in for five grand. Problem is, neither one can pay. They’re way past
their due date, and they’re sure the bookie will be sending someone to kneecap them in
short order. The one who owes the five Gs is particularly nervous. Imagine their relief,
then, when their creditor cancels both their debts! Jesus then asks Simon, which one of
these two will have a more tender feeling toward this magnanimous bookie? Which one
will greet him with a bigger smile and warmer handshake when he runs into him on the
street? Which one is more likely to add him to his “close friends” list on Facebook? In
Luke’s wording, “Which of them will love him more?” (v. 42).
Simon is a little suspicious. He figures this is some kind of trick, but he can’t figure out
what Jesus’s angle is, so he hems and haws and then says, “I suppose the one for
whom he canceled the greater debt” (v. 43). (Simon has always been a stickler for good
grammar, and I applaud him for that.) Jesus says, “Bingo! You got it right!”
Simon starts to relax, but a bit prematurely, as it turns out. P. G. Wodehouse once
defined a parable as “one of those biblical stories which at first sounds like a pleasant
yarn, but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat.”
That is exactly what this story is about to do to Simon the Pharisee.
Jesus turns to the woman, who is still crouched at his feet, shaking with quiet sobs, and
says to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water
for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You
gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You
did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment” (vv. 44–46).
After taking his host to task for neglecting the duties of hospitality—a serious infraction
in that culture, and a big blow to Simon’s honor—Jesus draws his conclusion:
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has
shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (v. 47).
Jesus goes on to say to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 48), and Simon’s other
respectable guests show that they have completely missed the point by expressing their
shock at this upstart rabbi’s chutzpah in claiming the authority to forgive sins. Jesus
ignores them and, keeping his attention on the woman, tells her, “Your faith has saved
you; go in peace” (v. 50).
So that’s the story. It’s a powerful story, rich with meaning, and lends itself to any
number of sermons on any number of themes. But today I want to focus on just one
line. In verse 44, Jesus says to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
This question could be simply a transition device, a way to get from the parable to its
application in the present circumstance. He could have easily have said, “Now take the
two of you…” and it would have served the same function.
But he doesn't say that. He says, “Do you see this woman?” and I think he has a
pointed reason for using those particular words. The answer to the question is, of
course, “No.” Simon has seen enough to convince himself what type of woman she is;
he has seen enough to judge and condemn her; he has seen enough to file her under
“S” for “sinner” in his mental filing cabinet and then to shut the drawer and dismiss her
entirely; but he has never really seen her. He has not seen her as a person; to him she
merely represents a certain class of people; she herself does not merit his respect or
attention or compassion. In fact, what he has seen of her has served instead to
reinforce his classification system and shore up his worldview. She is beneath him, and
deserves only his contempt. But at the same time he probably thinks it’s good to have
someone like her around, because her vileness makes his own goodness and
righteousness shine all the more brilliantly in contrast. No, he’s seen all of her that he
cares to see or needs to see.
But Jesus is not satisfied with that kind of seeing. He wants Simon to see the woman.
Really see her. Not her reputation, not her race, not her physical attributes, not her
childbearing potential, not her usefulness for doing housework or assuaging a man’s
baser desires, not her potential as a source of honor or shame, but her. As a person. As
a subject, not an object. As a beloved child of God. Anything less is not good enough.
After this week I can't help but think that God is asking us the same question: “Do you
see this woman?” To Brock Turner, the Stanford swimming star whom a jury convicted
of three counts of sexual assault, and to Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner to
a measly six months in a county prison because he thought a longer sentence would
have “a severe impact on him,” God says, “Do you see this woman?” To the ISIS
militants who have captured thousands of Yezidi women in Iraq and forced them to
become sex slaves, and who last week burned nineteen of them to death for refusing to
yield to their demands, God says, “Do you see these women?” To the men of Boko
Haram, who in their zeal to prevent young Muslim women from getting a Western-style
education kidnaped 276 teenage girls from a Nigerian school two years ago for the
declared purposes of forcing them into marriage and enslaving them, and even went so
far as to claim that God told them to sell the girls into slavery, God says, “Do you see
these women?”
And to all of us, who live in a culture in which women and girls must be constantly
vigilant lest they become victims of sexual violence, God says, “Do you see these
women?” To us who live in a culture that sexualizes girls at younger and younger ages,
that idealizes a certain female body type and version of beauty and either subtly or
blatantly belittles those who don’t measure up, that encourages young women’s sexual
expression and then punishes them when that expression violates certain unspoken
rules, God says, “Do you see these women?” To us who have a criminal justice system
(and a court of public opinion) that finds every way possible to blame the victims and
excuse the perpetrators of sexual violence, that makes the process of seeking justice so
onerous and humiliating that it pretty effectively prevents women from even reporting
that they have been raped, God says, “Do you see these women?” To us who worship
across the street from one of the largest public universities in the US, with thousands of
young women at risk of some kind of sexual violation from strangers, but more often
from their male friends, God says, “Do you see these women?” To the young men at this
university and others, where “roofies” or “date rape drugs” are becoming an ever more
common way to help them “get laid,” God says, “Do you see these women?”
If we are ever going to change this culture from one that objectifies women, assigns
value to them only for their sexuality, gives them mixed messages about their bodies
and what they can and cannot do with them, victimizes them through despicable things
such as involuntary sexting and “revenge porn,” we will have to start seeing these
women. Really seeing them as persons who have tremendous worth in the eyes of God.
We have to see them in their full humanity; not as ideals of womanhood on some
Victorian pedestal, but as real human beings who are flawed, who make mistakes, who
sometimes make irresponsible choices, and who have the potential to do great good or
great ill. Just like everyone. We all make mistakes and irresponsible choices, but others
should not point at those choices in order to excuse their own crimes and sins. The 23-
year-old woman in the Stanford case admits to having drunk herself into a stupor that
night; but her poor choice did not give Brock Turner permission to assault her. The one
does not follow from the other.
Turner’s victim has chosen to remain anonymous, not only to protect her privacy, but
also to highlight the risk under which all women must live their lives. She says, “For
now, I am every woman.” At Turner’s sentencing hearing, this courageous and articulate
woman read aloud a thirteen-page letter addressed to her attacker. In it she goes into
painfully graphic detail about her experience that night; not only her assault but also its
aftermath. She describes the humiliating nature of the hospital examination and police
investigation. She speaks of her numbness in the days and weeks following the attack,
and the trauma of having to tell her parents about it. She talks about finding areas in the
building where she works where she could cry without being overheard; about waking
up with her eyes so puffy from crying that she started keeping spoons in the refrigerator
to bring the swelling down enough that she could open her eyes; about her recurring
nightmares; about her loss of independence because she was afraid of going anywhere
by herself; about her months in therapy.
She describes the anguish of the trial, being forced not only to relive her experience
every day, but also having to listen to the defendant and his attorney impeach her
character and suggest that she had consented to the sex act, and had even enjoyed it.
She expresses her anger about the defense’s attempt to use her own sister’s testimony
against her, and about how Turner used intoxication as an excuse for his behavior,
refusing to acknowledge his culpability even after being convicted on three counts. She
describes her disbelief when the probation officer recommended a sentence of less than
a year in the county jail, and wonders what the recommendation would have been if her
attacker had not been a star athlete at a prestigious university and had not come from a
background of wealth and privilege. I wonder that, too. She hopes the judge will see the
sentencing hearing as “an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against
the law regardless of social class.”
The judge apparently didn’t see it that way. Even after listening to her read this
insightful, impassioned, powerful letter, he chose to give this thrice-convicted felon a
sentence even shorter than the defined minimum. Six months under protective custody
in a county jail. And he won’t even serve the full term. According to the Santa Clara
Department of Correction, his release date is scheduled for September 2. Three
months. Three. Months. In the victim’s own words, this is “a soft timeout, a mockery of
the seriousness of his assaults, an insult to me and all women.” Judge Persky, do you
still refuse to see this woman?
At the close of her letter she thanks the two male graduate students who saved her after
witnessing the assault as they rode by on their bikes. When the attacker ran, they
chased him down, tackled him, and held him until the police arrived. She writes, “I sleep
with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in
this story. That we are looking out for one another.”
God is calling us to be these kinds of heroes as well: to speak up, speak out, take
action, look out for one another. To honor the dignity of every person. To work tirelessly
to make the world a safe place for women like this victim and all other vulnerable
people. To see them the way Jesus sees them. The way he saw the “sinful” woman at
the Pharisee’s house. To say to them what he said to her: “Go in peace.”
I want to give this brave woman the last word. Her final paragraph sounds a bit like Tom
Joad’s last words in The Grapes of Wrath. It sounds a lot like Jesus. She writes:
Finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with
you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for
you. So never stop fighting; I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote,
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just
stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that … today you
absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small
satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting
somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are
untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every
minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To
girls everywhere, I am with you.