29th Mar, 2018 Day 88
Ruining a dinner party?
Imagine you are at a respectable dinner party – at the local mayor’s house. The dinner is in honour of a visiting speaker. Of course you are excited, because you’ve heard about the speaker and are intrigued about his views. During the meal, suddenly the doorbell rings and you think nothing of it until a woman pushes her way into the room. The mayor’s wife’s face is a picture.
The new arrival is wearing a tight fitting low cut blouse, a short skirt, or is it a belt, and stiletto heels. She’s got gaudy make up and totters as she walks in. She looks like a prostitute. She goes straight up to the visiting speaker and throws her arms around him, pulling his head to her chest. “I’ll always be yours,” she mutters. She begins to massage his shoulders – then you notice she is crying, mascara streaking down her cheeks. Everyone freezes. How embarrassing. But instead of pushing her away he reaches up puts an arm around her and says something that sounds like “And you’re mine” – surely he can’t have said that. She might think it is a come on. Maybe it is, maybe he is a customer?
That’s a modern version of today’s meal with Jesus – in Luke 7:36-50
It’s an amazing picture painted. What do you do when you see a painting? Do you stand back and gaze at the whole thing or do you focus right in? That reminds me off that amazing scene in “Ferris Beuller’s Day off” – one of the best films of my teenage years – where Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are in the Institute of Art in Chicago and Cameron starts staring at a Seurat painting. The camera keeps cutting between Cameron’s eyes and the Seurat; zooming in each time closer and closer till you see the individual points but miss the whole.
Setting the scene
Do we look at the broad stokes or focus in, or both? Tom Wright writes of Luke 7, “Consider first the overall effect…. three characters dominate the stage: Simon the Pharisee, Jesus and the unnamed woman. The balance of the scene is superb, with Jesus keeping his pose between the outrageous adoration of the woman and the equally outrageous rudeness of his host and yet coming up with some thing fresh, something which, to the onlookers, was just as outrageous as the behaviour of the other two, The story sweeps to and fro between then with passion and power.”
Recently we saw how Levi, the tax collector – who should have been God’s go-between had become Rome’s go-between, a traitor ripping people off to collect taxes. Jesus ambushed him with “follow me”, putting him back on his prophetic destiny. Levi responds with a great feast mixing his non-Christian and Christian friends together. The Pharisees are there, hypocritically as it turns out as they criticise Jesus for being with sinners. Jesus’ response shows us that everyone needs to know God loves them, wanting to be with them, and so we need to repent – to turn to God and join the party of the kingdom of God. We need to repent, whether we know we are sinful like the tax collectors or think we are already righteous like the Pharisees.
So one of the Pharisees is intrigued. Simon invites Jesus to another feast. He wants to know more, to know whether Jesus really is The Prophet. Jesus goes, because who you eat with shows who you have solidarity with. Houses were much more open then than ours, people could come and go and see what was happening especially at such a prestigious home. This no ordinary home – Pharisees guarded their purity closely. The Promised land had been defiled by Roman occupation, but at least devout Jews could keep their bodies pure.
They were reclining around a table – heads towards the table and feet towards the walls.
The sinful woman
Into this dinner party a sinful woman comes, bringing a jar of perfume. To the Pharisees this woman is like an infectious disease, yet Jesus is clearly accepting her. It’s a shocking display of intimacy. She lets her hair down to wipe her tears from Jesus feet. In that culture letting your hair down was what you did in the bedroom. It would be like appearing topless now in public. She kisses his feet and pours perfume on them. Is he a client? But it’s the only way she knows how. He doesn’t stop her. He could have said, “I appreciate what you are doing, but it’s not appropriate here” but he doesn’t. One scholar writes “Jesus’ passivity in the face of this behaviour is extremely eloquent.”
As Tim Chester writes, prostitution is a commercial parody of hospitality. But Jesus recognises her actions as the real thing. He reinterprets what she does as a loving act rather than an erotic act. Jesus’ response is amazing – his reputation is at stake. One of the religious leaders of the day, Simon the Pharisee, is checking him out. He was wondering whether Jesus is a prophet. Now he is sure he is not. He says to himself “If this man was a prophet he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner”.
Just before this story in Luke 7:34 we find Jesus accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, an allusion to Deut 21:21 which describes how a rebellious drunken son must be stoned. They are saying Jesus is a rebellious son of Israel – but (v35) let’s see what fruit comes from this. The irony is he does die the death of a rebellious son, hung on a cross not stoned. And of course the fruit is the resurrection!
Jesus is a friend of sinners and happy to associate with them. He’s a friend of the foreigners, the riff-raff, the traitors, the unrespectable, the drunks, the prostitutes, the mentally ill, the broken and the needy.
He is a prophet – he knows what Simon is thinking, so in v40 he tells Simon he has something to say. He tells a parable of two people in debt, having that debt cancelled. He hooks Simon in with a question – which one loves more? Of course the one forgiven more. Debt was personal – not a faceless credit card company. Incurring a debt was a personal debt, that couldn’t ever be fully repaid. A creditor could forgive it, but the one who was absolved would forever have a debt of gratitude. Having drawn Simon in, Jesus then personalises it as Simon and the sinful woman.
Jesus describes what the lady had done… The etiquette of hospitality required that guests would have water to wash their feet as they came in from the dirty dusty roads. Today we may shake hands, take coats and offer a drink. In Jesus’ day it would be water for your feet and greeting with a kiss. Simon didn’t do that – he’s the host who isn’t the most. And the sinful woman is a host who’s not even a guest…
So Jesus contrasts them:
- You gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
- You gave me no kiss, but from the time she came, she has not ceased to kiss my feet
- You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
His lack of welcome and her lavish welcome say a lot about love and forgiveness – v47. The Pharisee was forgiven little, so he loved little. Perhaps he had less to be forgiven of, more likely he had repented less.
Her love didn’t bring about the forgiveness, it flowed from it.
Luke is writing to churches in around 80AD and to us, to challenge us with the words of Jesus. Do our attitudes and behaviour mirror Simon or the sinful woman? Do we welcome and are we reconciled with everyone who has repented and been forgiven?
Part of the message of Levi’s banquet was recognising that everyone needs to repent to enter the kingdom of God. This week we are faced with being reconciled to others who have come into the kingdom. Luke will repeat this theme in chapter 15 where the Pharisees complain about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. Then He responds with the parable of the lost coin that is found, the lost sheep that is found and the lost younger brother who is found. The older brother refuses to welcome him back.
Simon the Pharisee hasn’t shown the normal courtesies of a host and he despised this poor woman. He hasn’t shown love. The only conclusion can be that he’s been forgiven little – and probably not at all. He is a legalist. Meals express inclusion, but this meal has been warped by legalism. Simon wants to express the wrong kind of inclusion. He thinks he’s invited the righteous, so the unrighteous have to gatecrash. But Jesus shows us Simon has misunderstood righteousness.
Simon thinks Jesus can’t be a prophet because he hasn’t seen this woman’s character. But Jesus is, and had seen right inside – into her heart where she knows her sins are many and that she has received forgiveness. Genuine repentance makes a difference. It includes us in the kingdom. Simon clearly thinks once a sinner always a sinner – but the gospel transforms us! Simon “said to himself” and then Jesus responds out loud. Simon’s heart attitude has been exposed. Difficult people have a habit of doing that!
Whenever we look down on someone for being smelly or disorganised or lazy or emotional or promiscuous or socially inept or bitter, then we are being like graceless Simon. When we look down on others for not understanding grace, we are being like Simon. If you think this applies to someone else you are being like Simon. Jesus says to us if you look down on others, you love little because you understand so little of your own sin and my grace.
1) If you know your life has been a mess, Jesus welcomes you now. Forgiveness, acceptance – turn towards him and receive it.
2) If you look down on others, stop being like Simon. Repent and be forgiven much.
3) Be welcoming! We are known as the most welcoming church in the area. We can, with God’s grace, be better!
On Sundays, invite new people to life groups; we feel most welcomed when we eat with others – even simple food. Around a table everyone is a friend and if not it’s immediately obvious, an opportunity to deal with it!