Random Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty
A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Text: Luke 7:36-50
This is an exercise in “bumper sticker theology” or rather a midrash on a bumper sticker text. The bumper sticker, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” is a kind of whimsical mandate to “lighten up,” to “stop to smell the flowers,” to “slow down, you’re going too fast.” It has a peculiar charm in its reminder that there is so much more to life than hurrying here and scurrying there so we can cross one more thing off our “to do” lists, so we can make one more dollar, so we can exercise a little more control over the world that is whirling by outside us at the same time it is churning around inside us. The bumper sticker reminds me of the story of Ferdinand, that gentle bull who stops to commune with flowers, completely losing track of what he’s “supposed” to be doing as a fierce fighter in the bullring. Like Ferdinand, we might find happiness as gentle practitioners of kindness and connoisseurs of senseless acts of beauty.
What a potentially liberating set of ideas! Just for a moment, might we allow ourselves the luxury of being kind, without needing to calculate how our kindness might work to our benefit? Might we occasionally engage in the creation of beauty with no rhyme and little reason? Or are we afraid that, if we practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty, we will never make our next appointment? Is it possible that random kindness will cost more in time and energy, in reputation and power, than we are prepared to pay? Do we get overly concerned that, leaving ourselves open to the beauty in creation, we will lose control of our carefully crafted schedules, that the neat and familiar categories into which we have organized our world will disintegrate?
This makes me think of the song from the musical, “Carnival,” in which Lili, a naive country girl, who finds beauty everywhere, joins a company of tattered circus puppets to sing about “Beautiful Candy,” too pretty to eat. She urges them to:
Treat yourself to some dreams from the upper shelf,
Buy something someone took years to produce,
Something you’re sure is of no earthly use.
Try a treat like beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.
Stop living for reason,
Time to start living for rhyme.
I’m on a spree and I’m gonna make sure it’s a perfectly good waste of time.
Sun today will be scrambled for my soufflé.
I don’t whether to float or to fly.
First, I’ll find something I don’t need to buy
Something sweet like a hat with a bell, a blue parakeet,
Whistles to blow as I dance down the street,
beautiful candy, too pretty to eat.
Random kindness and senseless acts of beauty may seem silly on the surface, but what joy lies beneath? Do we worry that, if we take the risk to follow our hearts, if we hunger for kindness and seek after beauty, the world as we know it might actually be turned right side up? Funny how something as simple as a bumper sticker can send one reeling off into thoughts of sedition and fantasies of revolution!
Well, what of today’s text? First, in the gospel of Matthew, we find another story about Jesus at table. Jesus is in the home of Matthew, the tax collector, immediately after calling Matthew to follow him. Jesus’ dining here is in direct violation of the purity code. The Scribes and Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” These keepers of the religious establishment were shocked by Jesus’ behavior. Bill Herzog comments that “[t]o grasp the power of this social conflict, it helps to know that the Pharisees were a table sect. The goal of their efforts to keep the Torah by following the tradition of the elders…was realized around the table. In short, Pharisees desired to eat every meal in a condition of purity equal to that of the Priests eating meals in the temple. So, the table was finally the issue and arena of conflict” between them and Jesus.
When he is challenged by the Pharisees and Scribes for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus’ response goes to the heart of the gospel: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means,” he says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).
In this morning’s text there are three key characters in the little drama enacted in Simon’s courtyard – a Pharisee, a woman of ill repute, and a Rabbi. Each character is a person and a representative.
First, the Pharisee. What do we know of him? He is a man of wealth and social standing in his community. What he, as a person of standing and as the host, does and doesn’t do in the story shapes the action. He invites the Rabbi to dine with him. This accords with the custom of the time, in which an itinerant Rabbi would be invited to the home of one of the town leaders to dine and to dispense his wisdom. These dinner events would be pretty much open to the whole town, though it was clearly established who would sit – actually recline – at the table, leaning on one elbow, feet trailing out behind, and who would stand around the outside, gathering in crumbs of food and wisdom.
The scene is surprising for the time and territory. The Pharisee would naturally invite this Rabbi who was stirring up the countryside to come to dine with him. But what the Pharisee does not do is also remarkable and needs some explanation. He does not follow accepted custom. He fails to greet his guest with a kiss (a mark of respect which would always be given to a distinguished Rabbi;) he withholds the drop of fragrance with which it was customary to anoint a visitor’s head; and, perhaps most importantly, given the state of Galilean roads (really tracks in the dust) and the simple sandals worn, he neglects the cooling, comforting water bath that would soothe the tired feet of his guest.
Why this rude behavior, we ask? We can only speculate about the answer: Is he some sort of agent provocateur, working with the Rabbi’s enemies to entrap him in a statement or action with which they could bring legal charges against him? One commentator suggests that he may be the kind of small town official who likes to collect celebrities in order to enhance his reputation and sense of importance. Perhaps he sees his guest as his inferior in terms of age and status, therefore feeling free to dispense with the customs with impunity. Whatever his motivation, he clearly treats the Rabbi with mixed measures of respect and disrespect.
Now, the woman – she’s a scandal! Sinner in the text is probably a euphemism for prostitute. It is problematic for the scene that she would even be there, standing with the crowd around the perimeters of the table. Yet there she was, with her long hair cascading around her face and down her back, in a manner which would scandalize the good citizens of the town. Perhaps they chalked it up to her notoriety and chose not to see the woman’s outrageous behavior. (“Oh, it’s her again. Well what else would you expect from one of her kind.”)
Like the Pharisee, she is remarkable for what she does and does not do. Spontaneously (or is it by some greater design?) she takes on the host’s responsibilities. She washes the Rabbi’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then, astonishingly, she anoints his feet first with her kisses and then with the concentrated perfume from the small alabaster vial she – as did all Jewish women of the time – wore around her neck. She does not pay attention to the looks of horror and contempt evident around the crowded table. She simply acts, from the core of her being, acts of pure devotion in place of the Pharisee’s absent hospitality. The murmurs of “whore,” “slut,” and “unclean” do not penetrate the security of her rapt fixation as she ministers to the Rabbi.
And what of the Rabbi? He, too, is remarkable for what he does and does not do in this tense and potentially explosive situation. First, in response to the murmurs of the crowd and the Pharisee’s open proclamation of disapproval – “If this fellow was a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of a person this woman is who keeps touching him, for she is a bad woman.” (The Pharisee’s comment, by the way, is an indication of the kind of “show” he expected from his visiting celebrity – “Be clairvoyant. Do magic tricks. Predict the future.” Or like the Herod of “Jesus, Christ, Superstar,” “Prove to me that your no fool, Walk across my swimming pool.” But this fellow, this fake, can’t even recognize an outcast prostitute when she approaches him.)
The Rabbi calls the Pharisee by name, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He proceeds to tell him the tale of two debtors whose debts, though widely disparate, are both forgiven by the generous lender. “Who then” the Rabbi asks, a hush settling over the murmuring throng, “will love him more?” Simon, though a little wary of the Rabbi’s trap, plunges ahead. “I presume the one to whom the greater favor was shown.” “Right,” the Rabbi says, and then he springs the trap on the blindly self-righteous Pharisee. “You did not even offer me common courtesy, let alone the recognition my position warrants, while this woman, whom you have condemned as evil, has recognized me and treated me accordingly. So her sins, however great they may be, are forgiven for she has recognized the love which has come to her and has embraced it wholeheartedly.” Unfortunately, the Rabbi’s recognition of her acts of devotion only holds the crowd’s attention for a moment, then they are back to murmuring. But, in that blessed moment, some have seen loving kindness and holy acts of beauty, and their lives are forever transformed.
You see kindness is not really random nor are acts of beauty ever senseless in the presence of the love of God. The closed system into which the Rabbi and the woman have entered, with its rigid sense of class and resultant grinding poverty for many, leaves so little room for kindness or beauty, and judges these qualities harshly when they appear but do not conform to accepted practice. There is passion, even eroticism, in the woman’s behavior. She offers back to the Rabbi what she has caught from his perceptive gaze that sees right through her sins to the kind and beautiful being God has created. How ironic that it is such love and passion which actually turn the world right side up! In the end, most of these folks don’t want their world reversed. In their rejection of love and passion, of kindness and beauty, they will eventually shout for the Rabbi’s crucifixion.
Like Simon, the Pharisee, they cannot see the sin of their own self-righteousness nor the evil and oppressive ways in which they attempt to hold God’s precious gift of life in inflexible vessels of their own construction, whether these vessels are made of alabaster or purity. Surely the world is too chaotic and frightening a place to live without some structure, but the risk we take in trying to make creation conform to our own will is that we will not be open to God’s coming, especially when that coming may seem random and senseless – like taking on human form, being born in a stable, working and living among the poor and outcast, teaching peace and love, hanging on a cross, or vacating a stone-sealed tomb. May we, like the woman in the story recognize our flaws and accept our limitations so that when we find God at our tables, in our work or play, within our joy and tears, suffering with our sisters and brothers, we will be able to respond like her. Where we find God’s love poured out in our midst, may we be free to pour out our own lives in kindness and acts of beauty.