I recently had the privilege of spending four days in one of the largest women’s prisons in the world, Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) in Chowchilla, California. Kairos Prison Ministry International is designed to share the gospel with inmates and plant seeds that can grow into an ongoing community of Christian support within the prison.
Early in the retreat setting, one of the six inmates at my table shared how tears are a sign of weakness. Especially in prison, such visible weakness becomes an invitation to be exploited. “We don’t cry here,” she said. “Nobody cries in prison.”
The story of Jesus in Luke 7 has tears at its centre. Like a spotlight guiding our gaze, the biblical text takes us with Jesus into the home of a Pharisee. Instead of lingering on the host or the invited guests, Luke’s attention is focused on the unnamed woman behind Jesus, the woman with tears pouring down her face.
Tears come with a story. They spill out of great emotion and unresolved issues; pain becomes visible in tears. It is possible that immense pain of some kind causes the woman to allow her vulnerability to be on display in this otherwise dignified setting.
The text doesn’t tell us, but we know from our own life experience that tears at the table have a way of bringing polite conversation to an awkward end.
Imagine the other dinner guests, shoulders tensed, watching the host, wondering how the master of the house will handle the intruder who has crashed his party.
But the host of the evening does not take control of the uncomfortable situation in his home. Rather, the biblical text allows us to overhear his thoughts as he waits for his invited guest to take initiative in responding.
The host sums up the woman’s identity in one word, “sinner.” In other words, in his estimation, the source of the woman’s tears is found not merely in pain, but more deeply in the shame associated with her sin.
Jesus takes control of the awkward situation, first, by telling a story, and then by asking a question. Finally, Jesus turns to face the woman, all the while continuing to address the host. While making eye contact with her, Jesus names the very actions of the woman that are bringing discomfort into the room; with his body language and his words he fixes the attention of everyone on the spectacle of her tears and her actions.
What Jesus does next is little short of a miracle. He transforms the public opinion of the woman. He reframes what she is doing. He names the motivation behind her tears, not as pain, not as shame, but as love – in fact, as a love greater than that of the host.
When Jesus asserts that “she has shown great love,” he is dramatically changing the way the story of this woman’s tears will be told from then on. Because often, it isn’t so much what a person does that makes a difference. Rather, meaning is created by the way others narrate the story of that action afterwards. And Jesus takes the awkward tears and the disconcerting actions of a sinful woman and reframes them by telling her story as a story of love.
Back at VSPW, on the third evening of the Kairos retreat, the insiders returned to the meeting room while we outsiders waited in the hallway. Each inmate was then presented with a gift bag filled with 100 letters and cards we had collected. One hundred cards!
In prison, mail represents contact with the outside world. Mail is a signal that the inmates are not forgotten. Mail is often rare and definitely treasured. For that room of prisoners the next hour was a holy experience. And for almost every one, despite sitting at a table with five other inmates, the tears began to flow.
In Luke 7, Jesus reframed the meaning of the tears of the unnamed woman. He told her story, not as one of pain and shame, but as a story of love. That day at VSPW in the context of the power of the gospel, those tears shared around the prison table were also reframed. Formerly signs of despised vulnerability, they became one more instance of love shared by a group of inmates taking steps to respond to Jesus, one more opportunity to test and begin to trust that a community of support can be a tangible possibility.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair….Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”…Turning towards the woman, [Jesus] said 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. 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.”