Saturday, October 26, 2013

Turning 50

Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.

    - Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

I turned 50 today.

When I was 10, 20, 30 and even 40, it never really occurred to me that this was going to happen.  Fifty has always been something impossibly remote, something that happened to other people.

Not that I mind, really, waking up and understanding that it has, in fact, happened to me.  Turning 50 isn't like what I thought it would be.  

For one thing, once you're here, it doesn't really seem old anymore.  Not even as old as I felt at 44, when it first seriously entered my mind that I wasn't going to live forever. At 44 I found that my life was more than half over, and what had I accomplished?  What had happened to all the idealized hopes and dreams of 18?  Of 25? Was this all I could expect out of life-- to finish my years in middle-class ordinariness and obscurity?  And then, to actually, really die? 

It seemed kind of tragic at 44.

Now it seems almost comforting.  

I think the main thing about turning 50 is that sometime during the last five or six years, it stopped being about me.  What I accomplish as an individual just isn't what life is all about.  I feel now that I'm part of this whole thing that is God's world, still learning to seek first God's new-creation kingdom, but knowing that the bits that I contribute are just threads in a vast tapestry.  And the weaver is Christ, not me.

I still probably have quite a bit of time left, after all.  I'll finish raising my kids, and maybe someday (I hope!) I'll get some grandchildren to spoil.  I'll keep helping people with the paperwork to fix their legal problems.  I'll keep reading and blogging and learning and going to church, and watching the babies in the church nursery, and I'll keep going for walks in the woods and holding hands with my husband.  And I'll realize more and more as I travel from here how impermanent it all is.  And that will be ok.

I don't have to have all the answers anymore.  I don't even have to understand all the questions.

The book of Ecclesiastes makes more sense to me now than it used to.  For one thing, Gregory Mobley's book The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and Other Backstories of the Bible helped me understand that the word translated "vanity" in that text does not actually mean "meaningless":
[Ecclesiastes] is not saying that everything is without form and void of meaning. Rather, there is meaning and substance, to everything there is a season and a time, but we see through a glass darkly. . . Our apprehension of . . . the Great Plan is ephemeral and elusive. . . We can experience these exuberances, fleeting puffs of insight about, and engagement with, the Real, but we can neither possess nor control them. . . . [Chapter 6]
Mobley translates Ecc. 3:11 like this:
The entire thing [God] has made beautiful according to its time. Furthermore, [God] has given the [ability to comprehend] chronology in their hearts. Yet humans cannot discover what God is enacting from beginning to end. [Ibid]
Turning 50, I have gained enough perspective to know that I lack perspective.  I have felt, and firmly believe, that there is a pattern to it all, but it's enough to know this.  I don't need to see the whole pattern or how my threads fit into it.  I only know that they do.

And because of this, nothing I do is actually in vain.  We are put on this earth to help one another, to live interlocking lives within the pattern, and whether the help I give is visible is not important. What is important is that there's no such thing as an insignificant life.  There's no person, whether they live for an hour or a hundred years, whose thread God doesn't see as part of an entire, beautiful weaving.

This isn't to discount the ugliness of ugliness.  This isn't about pretending that people don't do horrible things to one another, and it isn't saying that God wants these things or that they have anything to do with God's plan (see for instance Jeremiah 19:5).  But in spite of these things, God's plan endures.  In spite of these things, the tapestry-weaving continues until the whole thing is complete.

I used to feel I had to "do great things for God."  Now I understand that doing small things for God can also be great.  I used to think I had to "get a mighty vision."  Now it's enough to "see in a mirror, dimly" and to know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12).  

But I'm also glad that people who are 10, or 20, or 30, don't feel this way.  I'm glad they want to have big visions and high goals and grand adventures.  Because God does call some of us to stand out, to be instigators of whole new sections of the pattern, and if no one would step into those plans, where would the pattern be?

What it comes down to is that we all need each other.  We need one-year-olds and 10-year-olds and 30-year-olds and 80-year-olds.  We need big movers and little shakers.  We need all the perspectives from all the places, in all colors, in all different types of thread.

Because it's not about any one of us.  It's about all of us.  

And that's what I see at age 50.  I wonder what I'll see when I'm 70. . . . 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism

In the Christian group I belonged to in college, we believed we had all the answers.

Other Christians might differ from us in doctrine, but we knew the truth, straight from the Bible. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it," we would say.  We even knew why everyone didn't see things the same way we did.  They were deceived.  Or they were "in compromise" with sin and were trying to justify themselves.  Or they were "lukewarm" and just didn't want to "pay the price" to really "press forward in the things of God."

I remember the time I mentioned to an older church member that I wondered about young-earth creationism.  I asked her if maybe the earth wasn't six thousand years old.  Maybe God didn't intend the "days" of Genesis 1 to be viewed as 24-hour periods?

She became very upset.  "It was evening, and it was morning, one day," was what the Bible said.  How could I possibly be questioning that?  If we were going to start changing the meaning of Bible words, who knew where it could end?  If we started to believe the wrong things, what would happen to us?

I shut up.  But I couldn't help seeing what was behind her eyes as she put me back on the straight and narrow.


Oh, there was fear of the leadership, of course.  No one wanted the pastors to decide a demonic spirit of deception was upon any of us. They would take us into a private room where a group of the most trusted members would spend hours shouting at the demon to come out of us.  In the worst case scenario, we could be subjected to public rebuke in front of the whole congregation, or even be excommunicated.

But the fear went deeper than that.  It was in essence a fear of not believing properly-- a fear that we could find ourselves on a slippery slope towards actually falling away from Christ.

"It's very important what you believe," they told us. Whole sermons were preached on this.  We were saved by faith in Christ, and though we were supposed to enter a trusting personal relationship with Christ through that faith, what "faith" meant, ultimately, was believing the right things.  Hebrews 11:6 was constantly repeated to us:   "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."

Belief is high priority in Christianity.  Even apart from the spiritually abusive, controlling segments, it's high priority.  One of the most famous things Jesus said was, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16, Emphasis added.)  And Paul said, "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9, Emphasis added.)

But there's a problem.  Belief, as most often understood in the modern Western world means "Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something" or "Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons." The word also has a third meaning, "The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another," but when we say, "I believe in God" or "I believe in the Resurrection of Christ," that third meaning isn't usually what we're talking about.

But Jesus and Paul spoke of belief primarily in that third sense.  Belief in something as an accepted truth was not nearly as important as trust and confidence-- not in a set of tenets, but in Christ, the Father God and the Holy Spirit.  Belief in doctrine was meant to spring out of that trust-- not the other way around.

If you ask most Christians straight out, they will usually say that they do believe it's trust in Christ that saves them.  And yet so many times, we live our lives as if the really important thing was what we mentally hold to be true-- or even simply that we hold the approved opinions.

And the problem with this, of course, is that if every thought and opinion must be the "right" one according to our religious group, we are in danger of being so right-thinking that we never actually think at all.

Theologian and Bible scholar Peter Enns, Ph.D. says:
The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that degrees, books, papers, and other marks of prestige are valued–provided you come to predetermined conclusions. . . that doctrine determines academic conclusions. 
Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. It did not come to be in order to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma. . . As an intellectual phenomenon, the Evangelical experiment is a defensive movement.
How many times have you talked to a Christian who asserts that your disagreement with him or her is in fact a moral failing?  That your problem is lack of faithfulness to God or disrespect for the Bible? For many of us, it doesn't seem possible that someone could carefully and prayerfully examine a Bible text and end up honestly seeing it differently than we (and our minister or pastor) see it. 

Christians can come to believe that God gave us minds not for the purpose of learning and exploring the world He gifted to us, or for growing in our understanding of God, God's ways, and ourselves-- but for holding onto to our beliefs and dogmas against all comers. 

"Dogmatism" is the logical fallacy of "[p]roposing that there simply cannot be any other possible way of making sense of and engaging with an issue but the one you represent." Dogmatism is "[t]he unwillingness to even consider the opponent’s argument. . . the assertion that one’s position is so correct that one should not even examine the evidence to the contrary."

Dogmatism in Christianity, I think, comes primarily from fear.  If we believe we are saved by faith, and we define faith primarily in terms of having the right set of beliefs, then anything that challenges those beliefs must be resisted as evil.  Our thinking becomes defensive rather than inquiring, didactic rather than exploratory, closed rather than open.  We see our role as the instructors and correctors of others, rather than as listeners and learners.  

We all want in our heart of hearts to be listened to and understood.  But dogmatism strips us of our ability to listen and understand.  We become fundamentally unable to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

In the end, all we have is spiritual pride.  

And the Bible actually warns us against this.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1-2, "Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God."  And Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 9:41, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."

We aren't meant to believe we have all the answers, or to believe that's even possible.  We're meant to walk humbly with God, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to (Romans 12:3).  We aren't supposed to be one another's mental police, but one another's servants. 

To my readers who are Christians:  if "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)," we don't need to be afraid. We can be free to explore, to examine, to seek greater understanding in all things.  Having a difference of opinion is not a slippery slope to heresy. Questioning is not a slippery slope to apostasy.  

Questioning is a way of appreciating the complexity of the universe God placed us in.  And allowing others to think differently is a way of appreciating our own complexity as human beings. 

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18.  It's time to let go of fear of not being right.

Because we're not saved by being right.  We're saved by trusting in Christ.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Racism, Colorblindness and Me

"Stop staring!  What's the matter with you?"

I was about six years old, living in a smallish town in Colorado.  One Sunday afternoon we went to a park in a nearby larger town.  An African-American family had also brought their children to the park, and they were playing on the children's play equipment.

My eyes were riveted.  I couldn't look away.

I had never seen black people in person before. Only on TV.

I don't remember now whether my mother hissed those words, or if I said them to myself.  "Be colorblind," she had always told me.  "We don't look at people according to their race.  We simply see people."

I must be a racist, I thought to myself.  I had only seen black people on TV before.  These people looked strange, exotic, different.  I couldn't stop seeing their race.

I felt miserable and ashamed.

It was, I think, sometime in 1969.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and my parents-- white-skinned, white-collar people living in the Rocky Mountains in a house my dad built himself-- were against Jim Crow laws and very supportive of the protests happening in far-away cities.  But where we lived, there were no black people anywhere in sight.

Later, when I was in high school, there were a few African-American kids in my school.  They were immensely popular, considered "cool."  I was far down on the social scale.  They never noticed or spoke to me.

When we moved and I went to college at the University of Oregon, I finally had the opportunity to get to know some African-American students.  The strangeness finally fell away, and I relaxed and could be natural around my new friends.  Although the campus ministry I went to was coercive and controlling, it did have this strength-- it actively sought out people of all cultures, and it was probably the most integrated church in town.  I lived in a big sorority house with kids who were African-American, Chinese, Indonesian, Latino.  I began to see that the incident when I was six had been pretty much just a normal, childish response to a new thing.  I wasn't racist after all.  I had learned to be "colorblind."

And that's how I saw myself for about the next 25 years.

Nowadays I live in a smallish town in Oregon where there are very few people of color. The largest minority group here is Latino, but we don't see very many even of them.  Most black people in town are here because of the college.  When they graduate, they don't stay here.

I always thought it was because there weren't enough of the kinds of jobs they wanted.

But recently I decided it wasn't right for me, as a Christian egalitarian, to speak out only for women in the way I've been doing. Because simply by concentrating on the concerns of women like me, in the churches and communities I know, I am by default excluding women of color.

Because Christ calls me to speak out for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and not just for the group I belong to.

Because though I lack male privilege, I have white privilege and a host of other privileges.  So I need to listen to and learn from people unlike myself, and then speak out for them too.

Because a few years back I began to understand that being "colorblind" wasn't enough.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's 2003 book Racism Without Racists explains:
Color-blind racism. . . explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics. Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks' social standing as a result of their biological and moral inferiority. . . instead, whites rationalize minorities' contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks' imputed cultural limitations.  For instance, whites can attribute Latinos' high poverty rate to a relaxed work ethic. . .  
[C]ontemporary racial inequality is reproduced through "new racism" practices that are subtle, institutional, and apparently nonracial. . . And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards. . . Thus whites enunciate positions that safeguard their racial interests without sounding "racist." 
In other words, just because we aren't using racial epithets or promoting racial stereotypes, doesn't mean we're not, consciously or subconsciously, participating in subtler forms of a more modern racism.  As Bonilla-Silva states:
Relying on questions that were formed in the Jim Crow era to assess white's racial views today produces an artificial image of progress [and] . . . a rosy picture of race relations that misses what is going on on the ground.
This is why people like me, living in areas where we are privileged to never have to deal with racial issues directly (because of the lack of integration of our communities), can think racism is largely a past issue, rapidly becoming obsolete.  We would never, and we know of no one who would, use the n-word or deny housing to someone based on race.  So race just isn't an issue any more, or if it is, it's only down in those Southern states, right?

But isn't it time I asked myself why, after all these years, my city and most of my state remain so white?  According to this data, Oregon's population is 86.6% white-- 17th highest in the country.  And it is 37th in the nation for black population.

I decided to look a little bit into my state's history.  The Oregon History Project states that the Ku Klux Klan had a large presence here in the 1920s-- "one of the strongest state Klans in the country"-- largely because
[t]he Klan philosophy of “100 percent Americanism” rested primarily on three attributes: belief in a philosophy of white supremacy; adherence to Protestant or “American” Christianity; and the superiority of native-born Americans. Given Oregon’s long history of racial exclusion and the fact that almost 90 percent of the state’s population in the early 1920s was native-born, white, and protestant, Klan organizers had little trouble enrolling new members.
Wait-- Oregon is historically racially exclusionist?  Yes, very.  According to 7Stops online magazine, Oregon was intended by white settlers from the start to be a racially exclusive state:
Even in its earliest incarnations, the Oregon Territory did not legally allow slaves to be brought into the state. This law, though, had little to do with abolitionism; in fact, the first governor of the state of Oregon held a decidedly pro-slavery stance. Outlawing slavery was, in effect, just a way of keeping African-Americans out of the state. An article in the Oregonian on Portland’s lack of racial diversity quotes Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University, as saying: “Conventional wisdom at the time was clear… If you don’t have more than one race, then you don’t have any racial problems.” For working class or poor whites living in Midwestern and southern states in the mid 1840s, free blacks represented a threat not only to their job security, but also their social standing, as “white trash” was often placed on a rung lower than “black” on the social ladder. . . .
Oregon enacted several laws in an attempt to curb the influx of free blacks. There were exclusion laws to keep any new “negroes and mullatos” from entering the territory, and a law called the “Lash Law” that mandated that every black in the territory be lashed every six months until they left. When Oregon adopted its constitution, one of the amendments was an exclusion law, making it the only free state in the union to include an exclusion law in its constitution. In the 1860s the laws were reduced, and African-Americans, Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants, and multiracial people were allowed to live in the state for a $5-a-year fee, although they were not allowed to own property. [Emphases added]
I don't think my children learned any of this in school.  I know for a fact that race relations was not part of the curriculum in Colorado schools when I was growing up.  But the fact remains that my current home state has a long-standing history of hostility to minorities, and this deep-seated historical attitude almost certainly contributes to the lack of welcome minorities, and particularly black people, undoubtedly still feel today. If you then add modern policies like urban renewal that favors white development at the expense of the very few traditionally black neighborhoods, it's no wonder that cities like Portland have actually seen their diversity decrease in recent years.

It's seeming more and more to me that unless I start actively engaging with this issue and listening to the voices of those who don't look like me, I'm part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I don't want to be racist or to contribute to racism.  But good intentions aren't enough, as detailed by the Christian racial reconciliation website By Their Strange Fruit: Christianity and Race in Today's Culture:
Our modern racial paradox is that our society is filled with profound differences based on race, yet few claim to even see race at all.

This is perhaps the most dangerous form of racism. Because we refuse to acknowledge its existence, we are helpless to combat it. Racism is allowed to run rampant because we deny the reality of its strength.
As a Christian who knows my own sinfulness and relies on the abundant, freely-given grace of God, I needn't be afraid to face my unaware and unwilling participation in the status quo of systemic, institutional racism-- or even the deep-rooted, unwitting biases I may have-- but instead to trust in Christ's hand in my own as He leads me further into the ways of His upside-down kingdom, where no one clings to power but instead lays it down for the good of others.   The first thing for me to do is learn to listen well as a person of privilege.

I commit myself now to do that.  White readers, will you join me?

Because being colorblind is not enough.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"One Who Is Forgiven Much, Loves Much" - Jesus and the "Sinful Woman"

This amazing story of how Jesus treated a social outcast appears in Luke 7:36-50:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 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.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This story is sometimes conflated with the story of the woman (John's Gospel says it was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, John 12:1-8) who broke an alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus' head just before He went to His death in Jerusalem.  But that story is set at the home of Simon the Leper, not Simon the Pharisee.  (Matthew. 26:6-13 and Mark. 14:3-9 also tell the Mary story but don't name her). "Simon" was an exceedingly common name in 1st-century Palestine, so the different modifiers would be used to identify different people.

Other differences:  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is never identified as a "sinful woman"  (i.e., a prostitute).   The perfume in Luke's story is never identified as being costly, as Mary's perfume was (its cost, not her reputation, was the source of the dispute in the Mary story). And Luke's story apparently takes place near the beginning of Jesus' ministry rather than near the end of His life.  Also, while the Mary story is explicitly set in Bethany (in Judea), this one appears to take place in Galilee, in a town called Nain. (Luke 7:11).  So I think it's pretty clear that this story in Luke is not about Mary and is unique to Luke's gospel.

However, the blurring together of gospel women is a well-established church practice, dating from the fourth century after Christ.  A article on Mary Magdalene (though it assumes-- erroneously in my opinion-- that there can have been only one woman in Jesus' life who anointed His head with perfume) details how Pope Gregory I (AD. 540-604) retold the stories in such a way that Mary Magdalene became the "sinful woman," effectively decommissioning her as a venerated, authoritative figure in the early church:
Cutting through the exegetes’ careful distinctions—the various Marys, the sinful women—that had made a bald combining of the figures difficult to sustain, Gregory, standing on his own authority, offered his decoding of the relevant Gospel texts. He established the context within which their meaning was measured from then on:
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? 
There it was—the woman of the “alabaster jar” named by the pope himself as Mary of Magdala. . .  
Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side, “became,” in Haskins’ summary, “the redeemed whore and Christianity’s model of repentance, a manageable, controllable figure, and effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own sex.”
Despite this, it seems clear from the texts that the "sinful woman" of Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, nor is she Mary of Bethany. She is a nameless woman, outcast from society, who has her own remarkable encounter with Jesus. That encounter is what I am going to examine today.

I'm indebted for much of this to Kenneth Bailey, Th.D., and his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, and David A. deSilva, Ph.D., and his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture.

The first thing to be aware of when reading stories like this is the fact that Israel, like most of the rest of the first-century Roman world, was a patronage culture, as succinctly explained by Truth or Tradition:
Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.
A prostitute in that society was very much a "Have-not."  Jesus, even though He was a wandering preacher dependent on others to provide for Him, functioned towards the people in the role of a patron-- one who freely gave others what they needed, and who was to be given honor and loyalty as a result.  God was considered the ultimate Patron, and the recipients of His power in forgiveness, healing, provision and favor were the beneficiaries.  According to deSilva's book linked above, Jesus acted as the mediator of God's favor for the benefit of the people:
Jesus' ability to confer benefits of such kind derives from his relationship with God, specifically as the mediator of favors that reside in the province of God's power. . . The response to Jesus during his earthly ministry bears the stamp of responses typical of beneficiaries to their benefactors. (p. 134)
Whenever Jesus healed people, when He miraculously fed large groups of them, and when He declared sins forgiven, He was acting in the role of mediator-patron of God's blessings. The actions of the "sinful woman" towards Jesus in Luke 7 typify a beneficiary's response to a patron.  She had clearly encountered Him prior to this incident, because she deliberately brings with her the flask of perfume in order to honor Jesus by anointing Him with it.  In that honor-shame culture, the public honoring of patrons was the chief means by which their beneficiaries could return thanks.

Who knows exactly what their first encounter was like?  Just a few chapters earlier, in Luke 5:29, Jesus is seen eating and drinking with a large group of "tax collectors and sinners."  This woman may have been among them.  Her prostitution was probably her only means of supporting herself-- she could have been an orphan, a widow with no sons, or a divorced wife (women could be divorced by their husbands for pretty much any reason, even for burning food).  Though our instinct is to hold the men who took advantage of her situation responsible for her shame, she would not have seen it that way.

Jesus must have been different than any man she was used to encountering.

He must have treated her as neither an object of scorn nor as an object of self-gratification, but as a human being, a "daughter of Abraham" worthy of consideration and even respect.  When He saw that she wanted forgiveness and redemption, He may even have offered her a way out of her despised life. Perhaps He told her she could travel with His group and be supported out of their means.  Perhaps He connected her with another person who could help her to some other means of self-support allowable for a woman.  In any event, her biblical story begins with her appearance in Simon the Pharisee's home, knowing that Jesus has already considered her sins forgiven, and ready to do her Benefactor honor.

The rudeness of Simon the Pharisee, then, stands in stark contrast.

Kenneth Bailey's book linked above explains the cultural meanings that would have been understood by the original audience, which we tend to miss:

1.  The Pharisees had probably decided to invite Jesus to one of their homes in order to correct and mold Him, as a young rabbi who badly needed their wisdom and advice. They had already communicated (as I stated earlier) that they didn't like Him doing such things as eating with "sinners." The point of this dinner party was to shame Jesus into better behavior.

2.  Just as there are certain courtesies guests in our own homes expect, guests in homes of that day would have expected certain courtesies by way of welcome:  a kiss of greeting, then water and olive oil to wash and anoint their hands and feet before reclining at the low table to eat.  Simon offered Jesus none of these.  It was the same as if we were to open the door to a guest and then (in front of the other guests) turn away without a word, leaving the door hanging open for them to let themselves in, then ignore them when they speak to us and go on chatting with the other guests, making no room or offer for them to sit anywhere, and passing the refreshment trays over their heads without offering them any.  Jesus was quite deliberately being insulted.

3.  Jesus' response to this rudeness is to immediately go and recline at the table, without waiting for any older guests to recline first.  This was a probably a way of saying, non-verbally, something along the lines of "This is petty, childish behavior, so I'm assuming I'm the most mature person here."

4.  As is still traditional at Middle-Eastern meals, the lowliest members of the community are allowed to enter the room while the guests are being fed.  They can thus be beneficiaries of the host's patronage in feeding them, which accrues to his honor as a benefactor.  The woman would have entered as one of these persons, and would have been sitting against the wall when Jesus came in. She sees the way He is now being mistreated, and she is so upset that she begins to weep-- not for herself, but for Him.

5.  Her original intention was probably to anoint His hands and head after He had been washed and before He reclined.  This would have been an appropriate way to honor Him.  She did not plan to wash His feet (she brought neither water nor a towel).  But since (having been denied the washing) Jesus immediately reclines, His head and hands are now out of reach.  The woman determines to make up for the rudeness Jesus has just suffered, by washing His feet herself with the only means available-- her tears. By then kissing His feet, she is also offering an act of devotion so extravagant as to be a form of worship.

6.  Having no towel, the woman lets down her hair to dry Jesus' feet, thus willingly entering into the shame and public humiliation Jesus has just experienced by uncovering her own hair in public.  This mimics the behavior of a bride on her wedding night, which is a declaration of the ultimate loyalty to this man.  She thus opens herself to yet another rejection-- from Christ.

7.  What the woman has done is a blatant, non-verbal rebuke towards Simon and the other Pharisees.  By performing the washing ritual expected of the host, and by doing public honor to a person Simon wished to shame, she has turned the shame and dishonor back on the host (which was not how a lowly community outcast, there to receive food, was supposed to act!) and also has opened herself to attack from Simon and his Pharisee friends.

How does Jesus respond?  According to Kenneth Bailey:
Jesus accepted the woman's extraordinary demonstration, and in that acceptance confirmed her judgment regarding who he was-- the divine presence of God among his people. . . But Simon either could not see or perhaps could not accept any of this.  So Jesus turned to him (and through him to the entire assembly). . . The phrase "I have something to say to you" is a classic Middle-Eastern idiom that introduces a blunt speech that the listener may not want to hear.
 Jesus then tells a short parable in which the woman is identified with a sinner whom God forgives much, and Simon with a sinner whom God forgives little.  He thus reminds Simon that he, too, is a sinner, and ends up equating Himself with God the forgiver.  But the most extraordinary thing that Jesus does is this:  He verbally attacks the host for the same rudeness the woman has non-verbally (and very bravely) confronted.  Prior to the woman's involvement, Jesus was quite willing to simply convey His displeasure non-verbally as well, by reclining out of turn.  But now, as Bailey puts it:
Jesus shifts the hostility of the assembled guests from the woman to himself. . . Never in my life, in any culture, anywhere in the world have I participated in a banquet where the guest attacked the quality of the hospitality! . . . Jesus attacks Simon in public in his own home.  He is not a fool and must have a very good reason for launching such a public attack. . . By aggressively defending the woman, Jesus endorses her willingness to get hurt for him. . . (pp. 256-257) 
Jesus at last speaks to the woman, reconfirming her forgiveness by saying, "Your sins have been forgiven."  A rabbi was strictly warned again and again not to talk to a woman in any public place, not even to his own wife.  Jesus violates that dictum as he speaks to the woman with his word of reassurance. . . Simon and his friends refuse to follow Jesus' lead and shift their focus from the sin of this woman to her response to grace.  Simon focused on the woman's mistakes.  Now the invited guests focus on Jesus' "mistakes." . . . For Jesus, true prophethood involved getting hurt for sinners by confronting their attackers.  As the story ends, Simon is under the glass and is challenged to accept offered forgiveness, respond with love and revise the default setting of his outlook on the world. (pp. 258-259)
This is a story of a very courageous, faith-filled woman, and Jesus' final words to her, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace," are a tremendous affirmation of her dignity and worth.  His championing of the woman even goes so far as to deflect to Himself the anger she has incurred.  It is in more ways than one that He suffers on our behalf.

I myself have never been a prostitute, but I know what it is to be rejected and shamed by a roomful of people.  This story has resonated deep in my heart since I first heard it as a young, socially awkward high school girl.  Jesus' willingness to come to the defense of a social outcast-- His determination to enter into solidarity with her through unacceptable social behavior of His own--- reveal His willingness to come to my defense and His lack of concern with the social norms that labeled me an outcast.   As the article goes on to say:
Jesus’ attitude toward women . . . was one of the things that set him apart from other teachers of the time. Not only was Jesus remembered as treating women with respect, as equals in his circle; not only did he refuse to reduce them to their sexuality; Jesus was expressly portrayed as a man who loved women, and whom women loved.
Singer-songwriter Don Franciso probably said it best, retelling this story in a way that still makes me choke up whenever I hear the song:

Her sins were red as scarlet
But now they're washed away
The love and faith she's shown
Is all the price she has to pay
For the depth of God's forgiveness
Is more than you can see
And in spite of what you think of her
She's beautiful to Me.

I hope that wherever there is rejection, I too can learn to follow my Savior in championing the rejected and bringing them acceptance like this.