Luke 7 tells the story of Jesus being invited for dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house. During the visit, we’re told that “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:37-38).
The woman’s behavior is inappropriate at best. She was not invited, she was making a scene, and some scholars believe that her behavior would have even had sensual overtones in that culture. We’re told of Simon’s dismay that Jesus does not know who is touching him and that she is “sinner.” Jesus doesn’t deny this designation and actually implicitly confirms it by later absolving the woman of her sins.
During this encounter, Jesus asks Simon a very important question:
“Do you see this woman?”
Simon had indeed seen her with his eyes. He saw her from his own status. He saw her from his prejudices. He saw her for her past of which he apparently had some knowledge.
But he still didn’t see her the way God saw her. He didn’t see “the woman.” He didn’t see their shared humanity and shared worth before God. He didn’t see her — in the words of Charles Dickens — as a “fellow passenger to the grave.”
In these times, many Christians are confused and anxious about what our role is. Hate crimes are on the rise. Refugees are suffering more and more as the West becomes less and less willing to take them. Big money has corrupted our politics. Policies on things like health care and immigration may leave many out in the cold (literally). What is the church to do? In our writing, speaking, living, protesting, or whatever it is we feel led to do, where does our faith most powerfully intersect with our lives together?
I think it is to be found in Jesus’ question to Simon: “Do you see this woman?”
We see something similar in Acts 3, where Peter and John come upon a lame beggar who, every day, gets carried to the temple gate to beg for money to survive. I’m sure he was used to most people walking past him without even giving a glance (as conventional wisdom would dictate for avoiding a panhandler). But when Peter and John approach him, the story says, “Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’”
Look. Connect. See the human.
As we debate social issues like immigration, abortion, health care, race, LGBT issues and a whole host of others, lots of complicated factors are considered, as they should be. The problems we face have financial, cultural and legal dimensions, to name a few. There is no perfect solution to anything, which is why churches and denominations must be careful when endorsing a particular public policy. We have a tendency to oversimplify things and, after all, we are not research institutions or PACs.
But one thing we are: “the conscience of the state,” as MLK put it. Just as Jesus had a habit of not directly answering the questions that were posed to him but instead redirected the conversation to what was most important, we are to stubbornly enter the conversations that may get lost in the details and be the ones to ask, “Do you see this person?”
We don’t have to have all the answers, and we’re not going to. We have no magic solution to solve all problems and end all conversations. But we can and must bring to those conversations a reminder of the people, and the human lives at stake. Just like antibiotics injected into an infected system, we must regularly and consistently inject into our society’s collective consciousness the questions of the Spirit, the reminder of love, the face of the human. This work, unfortunately, is urgently and frequently needed, given how very easily we seem to dehumanize certain groups of people.
We affirm a game-changing truth of human life: that we are all made in the image of God and have intrinsic worth. Dr. Christopher Hall of Eastern University and Renovare likes to substitute the term “image-bearer” where most of us would just say “person.” This is much more significant than common humanism. As Paul J. Wadell once wrote, we affirm not what makes us persons but who makes us persons:
“The problem with focusing on what makes us persons … is that anyone who lacks the criteria can be removed from human consideration. … Beginning with the question of who makes us persons teaches us that our lives are gifts, not our own possession, and that our human dignity does not depend on us.”
We also know that it is in the act of encountering the image-bearer in people and learning their story that transformation can occur. It happens for Peter in Acts 10 in his encounter with Cornelius that leaves him saying, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism ….” It’s what happens for the famed character Ebenezer Scrooge who had previously seen the working class and poor as “surplus population” but is moved when he sees Tiny Tim firsthand and finds himself pleading that this son of his clerk will be healed of his disease.
So, no matter the topic, let us be the people who tell the stories, say the names, and be the megaphone of others’ pain and suffering. In our conversations, on our Facebook pages, in letters to the editor, in phone calls to Congress — let us be the ones to tell true stories and say, “Do you see this person?”