Have you every crashed a party? Many years ago, I was attending a wedding reception in a large banquet facility. There were three separate reception venues and three weddings being celebrated all at the same time. I’d always wanted to crash a party, but never had the guts to do so. I wandered casually into one of the other receptions, put a piece of cheese on a cracker, and mentally composed an answer in case anyone asked how I knew the bride and groom. After about two minutes, I exited the room and scratched “crash a party” off my bucket list.
The woman in today’s gospel reading was a party crasher. A man named Simon held a dinner for Jesus, and a woman just kind of showed up and inserted herself into the middle of the conversation after Jesus had seated himself at the table. The host is described as a Pharisee. Pharisees generally get a very bad rap in the Bible, but some like Simon and Nicodemus seemed to be genuinely interested in Jesus and his message. Simon’s interest only went so far, though, and he was appalled at the actions of the party crasher. He wasted no time letting Jesus know the true character of the woman, who is simply described as a “sinner.” There is a tradition going back to the seventh century and Pope Gregory that suggests that this woman was Mary Magdalene who became Jesus’ follower and close friend and that the nature of her sin was prostitution. There is no good evidence for either claim, however. A version of this story appears in all four gospels, and for Luke’s purposes she is anonymous and is simply a sinner. Simon wasn’t too pleased to have a sinner sully his supper, so he says to himself, “If Jesus was a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman is touching him.”
Simon the Pharisee didn’t approve of the woman or her actions and wanted her out of his house. The woman was overcome with feelings of love and devotion, and Simon was disgusted by the woman’s intimate act of touching Jesus’ body with tears and perfume, not only with her hands but with her hair. That kind of closeness put Jesus in jeopardy of all kinds of unseemly things, let alone a ruined reputation. Only certain people can express devotion correctly, and it has to be done properly.
How do we decide if another person’s sincere devotion is acceptable or not?
On Wednesday morning at the Pine Ridge Reservation, a woman whose English name is Ramona visited our bunkhouse to share about Native American spirituality. When we had arrived a few days earlier, visitors from the reservation helped us to set up a tipi for the youth group. Once it was standing, we all sat inside in a circle and watched as two young men smudged the tipi with burning sage and offered prayers in their Lakota language and then passed around the sacred pipe. Sage was burning in the bunkhouse as Ramona spoke, and the aromatic smoke wafted past us. The act of smudging cleanses the energy in a space and is a sweet-smelling offering to the Great Mystery. One of the youth in the room had been ill with a stomach bug, and Ramona smudged him and prayed out loud for his healing. For the traditional Lakota people, smudging is an act of devotion to the Creator and the earth.
Ramona and Dave, the director of Tipi Raisers, the organization we worked with, told of another service team that recently visited the reservation and heard the same talk about Native American spirituality. They were housed at a recreation center in a nearby community that is owned by a church. When Ramona lit the sage and prayed, the pastor of that church commanded her to stop and told the group they would have to leave the facility immediately and find another place to stay. Since Dave knew of no other housing options, he worked out a compromise where they would no longer smudge and they would listen to the testimony of a member of their church who had fully converted from Native American spirituality and now denounced it as evil.
I thought of the woman with Jesus whose aromatic offering was deemed unacceptable by the Pharisee. Both the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel and the church at Pine Ridge Reservation were saying that someone was loving wrong and needed to be stopped, that those with the truth needed to separate themselves from those who were sinning through their acts of devotion.
The woman kneeling before Jesus at the dinner table spilled perfume on this feet and wiped them with her long hair. We learned at Pine Ridge that for those who practice traditional Native American ways, long hair is highly valued. The soul is in the hair. It is a sacred connection to the Great Mystery. Only close family members are permitted to touch or cut their hair. A young woman named Donnelle with hair to her waist told of the ridicule she and her sisters and brothers endured at school from those who had forsaken traditional ways and were embarrassed or ashamed of practices that had once been important to who they are as the Lakota people. For the woman with Jesus, the act involving her long hair showed her devotion. For the Lakota, long and short hair symbolizes the division that exist today on the reservation and the ambivalence over the practices that had provided an identity and spiritual center.
Arlette is a traditional Lakota woman who gave us a tour of the Wounded Knee Massacre site. We saw the mass grave where 150 victims were hastily buried. We learned about the occupation of the site by AIM – the American Indian Movement – in 1973. Both events were ultimately about the attempt to hold on to Native American ways in the face of outsiders and insiders who wanted to strip it away and invalidate those who found strength and dignity in their culture. The process of destroying culture began as soon as other arrived in North America. Land was taken, families were relocated to reservations, and then children were separated from those families and sent to boarding schools where they would be civilized and Christianized, where their hair would be cut and where they would not be allowed to speak their own language. The damage from that long era continues today in the breakdown of families at Pine Ridge because adults raised in the boarding schools never saw parenting and family life modeled. We toured the Red Cloud Indian School, a Catholic mission with a dark history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. In recent decades, the philosophy of education has changed dramatically. Children are no longer boarded there, but live with their families. Native American culture and history are celebrated and taught to the student. Even today, though, many who attended the school as children can only see the damage the boarding schools did to their families and their community. One year ago, Pope Francis apologized to the indigenous peoples of America for the harm committed against the native people in the name of God. Those who live at Pine Ridge and on other reservations long for more explicit words and acts of contrition on a local level. I was reminded by Trude on our team that many Christian denominations share responsibility for the boarding school tradition. The U.S. government, in a faith-based initiative of sorts, assigned tribes to various denominations, including the Congregational Church.
Jesus talked about the connection between forgiveness and love. He looked at the woman at his feet and said that those who have been forgiven much love much. In the course of the week as we learned more history and considered the effects of colonization and control on the Native American people, I wondered what I would have done if I lived in another era. It’s easy to judge those who did harm, but I wonder if I might have joined them in thinking I was doing something good by helping the Lakota assimilate into European-American culture. Even the highly honored Chief Red Cloud is controversial for the ways in which he ultimately compromised on reservations and boarding schools in order to choose the lesser of two evils. The greater evil being complete annihilation. There are no easy fixes for the past or answers for the present, but moving forward needs to begin with full acknowledgment of the harm that was done to so many. Organizations like Tipi Raisers exist to building bridges between cultures and help persons tell their stories and ultimately find peace.
Almost nothing during our week went the way we thought it would. Our daily schedule was a moving target as work projects and appointments and tours got rearranged. It was frustrating trying to balance our eagerness to get things done with those who live not by the clock but by “Lakota time” and who deal with issues of poverty like having no transportation or no money to maintain the equipment we needed and which broke down continually. In that situation, we had to consider whether our response would anger and resentment or whether it would be gratitude that we don’t deal with that level of hardship on a daily basis, or whether it would be compassion and a desire to deal with historical realities and commit ourselves to increase justice and opportunity for the mistreated and oppressed.
At Pine Ridge, the tenets of Progressive Christianity became a visible reality for me regarding Native American spirituality as a path to the divine. I could not sit with them and hear their stories and watch them light sage and close their eyes and pray audibly and bless a sick child and believe that their faith was somehow less than mine. In fact, I felt the opposite. I wanted my own connection to the Great Mystery to be as deep as theirs.
Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see that woman?” It was a great question. The woman in fact was invisible to him as a person of value. Native Americans have also been largely invisible in our society, shuttled away to reservations and not given the place of honor that they deserve. We have separated people from one another for too long. Instead of sealing ourselves off from others based on philosophy or religion or race or economic levels, may we instead look for what we have in common and seek forgiveness from others so that love may flow freely and justice will ultimately triumph.