As many of you know, Britt and I met during seminary. I grew up in PA and Britt grew up in Ohio. The fall after we married, we knew it would soon be necessary for us to make the decision on where we would live once seminary was completed. Each fall, representatives from the conferences would come to the seminaries and visit with their students and, usually, have dinner with them. That particular year, the Western Pennsylvania representative visited on a Tuesday. Britt and I both had a Tuesday evening class. But he had relatives in the area and told us that he would be happy to stay over an extra day if we could have dinner with him the following evening. We agreed. He greeted us warmly. The waitress came and took our drink orders, then returned shortly with the beverages bread. As she set the bread down, Dick turned to Britt and me and said, “It was important to me to have this opportunity for us to break bread together. Let’s pray,” he said, and proceeded to say a word of grace that created a truly holy moment. Never before had I heard someone invoke the presence of Christ over an evening meal in quite the same way. At the end of that evening, it was clear to Britt and me that something extraordinary had happened in that meal – something simple, yet something sacred.
What Britt and I experienced that evening at dinner with the district superintendent was what some might define as a sacramental. That’s your word of the morning. It has a lot of letters in case you need a long word for Scrabble. Most of us, I assume, have heard the word sacrament. In the United Methodist Church, we have two sacraments: Holy Communion and baptism. Yet, baptism and communion do not hold the monopoly on God’s grace. We have other signs or actions that, when they take place within the context of Christian community, become a real and palpable experience of the grace of Christ. That was what happened to Britt and me that evening at dinner. We did not, technically, partake of Holy Communion. And yet, because we gathered together to break bread and to celebrate Jesus’ presence in the midst of our lives, our ministries, our studies, the eating of that meal became a sacramental, an event through which we experienced the grace of Christ.
In the ancient world, breaking bread was no small thing. First of all, just having an adequate supply of bread to eat was no small feat for a first century Palestinian. Furthermore, eating was always a social or communal experience. What one ate, how one ate, where one ate and – most particularly – with whom one ate, were all matters of great importance. Perhaps you have noticed in your own bible reading how often Jesus tells parables involving meals and how often his teaching takes place within the context of meals.
The context of this morning’s parable is that of Jesus dining in the home of a Pharisee. Now who one ate with was of tremendous importance for two reasons: it reflected and reinforced the host’s reputation or status AND it reflected and reinforced the guest’s reputation or status. Here is how it played out… The Middle East was and still is a culture concerned with hospitality and reciprocity. I have already shared with you all the story of my trip to Petra in Jordan on what turned out to be a dreadfully cold day. When our guide saw me shivering, he laid his scarf over my shoulders. And when we returned to our bus he had no intention of letting me give it back. But here’s the thing… after receiving that scarf, I then had to rise to the challenge of purchasing a gift for our guide because that is how things work in eastern culture. To receive his gift without giving him something in return would have been an insult. Even with intangibles, like compliments, as you receive one you are expected to give one. To simply respond to a gift or a gracious word with nothing more than a “thank you” is insulting. It functions as an abrupt conclusion to our interaction; as if I have verbally turned my back on you. Therefore, in the world of Jesus, when one hosted a dinner, one only invited to the dinner those who were in a position to return the favor. And one would only serve food of a quality commensurate with the diner’s ability to reciprocate. In other words, if the best you could provide for me were hotdogs and hamburgers, I would not invite you over for steak and lobster. It would be both foolish and insulting. Secondly, to eat with someone was a kind of public proclamation that you considered that person acceptable to you and that you shared common values and principles. So, if you are a good, reputable Pharisee, you will invite to supper those you consider good and reputable. You certainly wouldn’t invite the poor to eat at table with you. You would give them alms, charity – because that’s the proper thing to do for the poor. You wouldn’t invite them to eat with you because they could never return the favor. They have not the means or the resources to do so. And, you wouldn’t invite prostitutes and tax collectors to dinner because you certainly don’t want anyone to think you share their values.
So, let me tell you how that relates to our understanding of this morning’s parable… It is about an obviously wealthy man who is hosting a dinner. He sticks to what would have been a common social custom in his day – the double invitation. One first sends their servant to the guests to give notice of the upcoming meal. Later, after everything has been prepared and is ready, the servant goes back to let folks know it’s time for the feast. Now, two things can happen in the interim between the two invites. First, on a practical level, folks clear their calendars. That’s not strange. We do that today. Secondly, folks talk to each other. They figure out who all has been invited and decide whether or not this little shindig is in keeping with their social reputation. And it is very likely that those on the same social level will, together, respond negatively or affirmatively to the invite. If those invited determine that attending this dinner will in any way jeopardize their good standing, they will come up with an excuse and when the servant returns to announce that everything’s being “plated,” so to speak, the guests that do not consider this party good enough for their reputation will come up with some reasonable sounding excuse for their absence.
Now, if that happens, it creates a real conundrum for the host. He has been slighted. And, his good reputation can only be maintained if he is able to find substitute guests of as good a reputation as those on the original guest list. But in a culture of “one for all and all for one,” this will not be an easy thing to do for word spreads quickly in a communal culture.
The host in our parable, however, comes up with a very radical solution. This food will not go to waste. He’s going to offer this feast to those who are way, way below his social standing: people from the other side of the tracks, from deep in the hood, folks in the ghetto or the projects. This would have been like throwing a dinner party at Lawry’s Steak house in Chicago for residents of the notorious Cabrini Green. Only today we might have at least thought that the dinner host was just trying to be charitable or looking for a tax write-off. But, in the world of Jesus’ day, there would have been no upside to this behavior. This dinner host, whose reputation has already been insulted, would have surrendered his last shred of decency by inviting these kinds of folks over for a meal. And yet that is exactly what he does. The rich host of the parable invites the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Jesus had already instructed the Pharisee who invited him to dinner by saying, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers, or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” And why? Because, these folks will not be able to provide you with an immediate reciprocal gain – a social tit for tat. They were just the sort of folks Jesus ate with. As last week’s story about that notorious tax collector Zacchaeus revealed, Jesus chooses to eat dinner with Zacchaeus, a scoundrel and a swindler. Jesus is clearly none too picky about the company he keeps… and he expects the same of us.
There is a wonderful little book entitled “Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation.” It is about the amazing, grace-filled moments of ministry that take place when the church begins to fully embrace the meaning of breaking bread together – not only among ourselves, but when we reach out to draw others in to our circle of fellowship. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. That comes from two words – philo, which means love and xeno which means stranger. So the Christian practice of hospitality, strictly translated means: “the love of strangers.” To practice Christian hospitality doesn’t mean simply to invite friends over for tea. It means to go out of our way to break bread with someone we do not know, a stranger.
Rev. John Koenig, the author of “Soul Banquets” begins his book with the story of St Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan near ground zero. Their unique mission began when the staff found themselves gathering at a nearby restaurant immediately following 9/11 for food and fellowship and mutual comfort. But there was more to it than that. Their pastor, Rev. Lyndon Harris, explained. They also began to pray and plan for ministry. New Testament stories of Jesus’ words and actions at table came quickly to their minds leading them to determine that their first response to this horrible disaster would be to provide round-the-clock food service for all the rescue personnel. Initially, the church was not cleared for entry. So they set up a grill outside. Soon thereafter, however, they were informed that outdoor air quality was not acceptable for cooking. And yet, at the very same time, their sanctuary was cleared for occupancy. They moved in doors and made another decision. The meals they would prepare would be of the highest possible quality. Rev. Harris said, “We wanted people to see and savor the extravagance of Christ’s love.” Over time, local restaurants joined the ministry donating meals and chefs.
Ten days after 9/11, when the church building was fully secured, public celebrations of communion began to take place each day at noon. The timing was intentional. People who came to lunch could also attend the service, and while the majority of diners did not join the worship in a direct way, they honored it as a sign of the church’s mission. Without conflict, the wall between secular and sacred virtually disappeared. One guest described their experience:
I attended communion with the most incredible hodgepodge of humanity I’ve ever seen gathered in a church… There were chiropractors and massage therapists doing their thing along the side aisles. There were rescue workers sleeping or eating lunch – some of them Jews with yarmulkes under their fire helmets. There were National Guard troops from the forests of upstate New York looking very lost in the big city. People sat on the floor and the steps leading to the choir loft. Some of the rescue workers who had not shown much interest in the service when it began suddenly found themselves drawn in by the prayers that promise life everlasting with God and they ended up taking communion with tears in their eyes. This was the church in all its messiness, diversity, ambiguity, brokenness… and holiness.
What the people of St. Paul’s experienced was more than the sacrament of holy communion. In fact, their entire ministry of hospitality became a sacramental as they shared with friends and strangers not only the gift of bread, but the gift of Christian fellowship. As they broke bread together, Jesus was in their midst, touching their lives with his grace.
Friends, as we travel the journey of the Visioning process we have begun, our journey will not go far without sacramentals and philoxenia. Hospitality is far more than turning on the lights on Sunday mornings and unlocking the doors. True hospitality is a love for those we do not yet even know; a love so strong that we will go to them and not simply wait for them to stumble through our doors. And, when we love like that, we will find ourselves caught up in the wonderful web of God’s grace.
And this morning I want to encourage you to take one small step in that process. As most of you know, on Easter morning we don’t have our regular Sunday School classes. Instead we gather during that Sunday School hour for an Easter breakfast with fun activities for the children and wonderful opportunities for fellowship. I want to challenge you to invite someone to come with you for that breakfast. Of course, we’d also love to have them stay for worship. But maybe they’re not ready for that yet. Don’t worry about whether or not they go to church anywhere right now. If they do and it interrupts their Easter worship celebration, they will no doubt thank you for thinking of them and explain they are already committed at their church. But what if you are only assuming they’re going to church on Easter Sunday? Wouldn’t it be sad for them and for us to miss that opportunity for breaking bread together? After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good breakfast? So go down the road, down the street, or down the lane and issue an invitation. It’s just as easy as that.
Throughout this season of Lent, I’ve been preaching this sermon series called “Table Talk.” (Hence, the table that we have set up here down front.) Last week I spoke on the topic of forgiveness and we looked at the scripture about Jesus forgiving a sinful woman. A Pharisee had invited Jesus to a meal at his home. It was during the meal that this sinful woman snuck into the dining room and began to demonstrate her love for Jesus by washing and anointing his feet. Jesus responded by telling her that her sins were forgiven. It is a wonderful, powerful story about forgiveness.
But this morning I want us to consider the question: what is the point of forgiveness? [repeat] Is it just some cathartic process designed to give a boost to our self-esteem; I’m OK, you’re OK? Is it a “get into heaven free” card? What difference does forgiveness really make? What difference does forgiveness make in the living out of our day to day lives?
Well, last week’s topic of forgiveness cannot be separated from this morning’s topic: the topic of repentance. You see, God’s desire for us is not simply that we feel good about ourselves. Jesus didn’t come to turn us into narcissists who delight in our assurance of righteousness. God’s desire for us is reconciliation – a healing, a restoration of our relationships, not only with God; but with one another as well. And for reconciliation to occur there must be repentance.
If you are a parent, I am sure there has been an occasion when your child behaved badly toward another child, perhaps even a sibling. And, intervening, you said, “Now say you’re sorry.” But even as we say that we know that saying you’re sorry, even confessing your sin, stops short if it is not accompanied by recognition of the need for change; a sincere desire for change; that is to say, a desire to repent.
So, what does all of this mean for us sitting here this morning?
Well, this morning’s bible story is the story of a sinner by the name of Zacchaeus. Now, he’s a familiar character. If you ever went to Sunday School or even a Christian pre-school as a child, I’m sure you learned this song. Sing with me:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree;
and he said, “Zacchaeus, come on down
for I’m going to your house today. Oh, I’m going to your house today.
That’s a very cute kids’ song. And it makes Zacchaeus sound like a very cute character. I mean, what child can’t appreciate an adult who climbs trees, right?
But as some of you already know, Zacchaeus was anything but a cute character. He was a swindler. He was, by occupation, a chief tax collector.
Now, let me take just a few minutes to explain more about that. Palestine was an occupied country, of course – occupied by Rome. And here’s how their tax collection system was carried out. Roman government officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs. Those amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth in place could even afford to play this game. Furthermore, Rome really didn’t care if the system turned the screw to the little guy. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go from place to place and do the collecting on their behalf. It was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble and it was assumed that the local businessmen – the chief collectors – would also bill a little something extra for themselves. To top it all off, the chief tax collectors in Palestine were considered particularly despicable because the nature of their job required them to fraternize with these Roman Gentiles and, each time they did so, they made themselves ritually unclean for a period of time. When one was ritually unclean, one could not enter the temple and practice one’s faith. So, clearly, these guys give little regard for their own people and their own religion.
Now, Zacchaeus must have been very good at playing this little tax collection game because he was, according to our gospel writer, rich. And honestly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be very fond of rich folks in Luke’s gospel. Just a half chapter before this story, Jesus is approached by a ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the necessity of keeping the commandments. When the man affirms that he’s been keeping all those commandments since he was knee high to a grasshopper, Jesus tosses one more thing into the mix. He tells the man that he needs to sell all of his belongings and distribute the proceeds to the poor. Then, come join Jesus and his band of traveling disciples. But the man just can’t bring himself to do that. And Jesus concludes their interaction with these words of judgment: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[i]
And Zacchaeus is most definitely rich. But, this story has some suspense built into it, some ambiguity… Well, it did to the original audience; not so much for us nowadays. You see, the original listeners to this story might have thought: “Aha, Jesus is going to really rip this guy apart because he’s grown rich at the expense of a lot of poor, helpless peasants… But – and here’s where it gets tricky, he’s accomplished that by being a tax collector and, for some reason we can’t possibility begin to comprehend, Jesus seems to always be befriending tax collectors and other sinners. People are continually accusing Jesus of being a friend to those kinds of folks. So, this story of Zacchaeus begins with quite a bit of suspense. Will Jesus befriend Zacchaeus because he is a tax collector? Or, will Jesus condemn him because he is rich? Which will it be?
The suspense in the story mounts when our gospel narrator tells us that Zacchaeus ran and climbed a tree in order to see Jesus. Now, we might think it’s a little odd for a grown man to climb a tree in our culture; but we wouldn’t hold it against them. But, in ancient Middle Eastern culture, grown men never run and they never climb trees. It’s childish, dishonorable behavior. So when Zacchaeus runs and climbs this tree so he can see Jesus, he is inviting that crowd – who probably already intensely dislike him – he’s inviting them to ridicule and scoff at him. Yet it is a risk he is willing to take if he can just catch a glimpse of this Jesus guy.
And so I suspect – just as I suspected with last week’s sinful woman – Zacchaeus has already heard about Jesus; has already heard that Jesus goes out of his way to befriend tax collectors. And I don’t imagine Zacchaeus has a whole lot of friends.
Now, long story short, when Jesus reaches the tree where Zacchaeus is perched, he stops, looks up, and tells Zacchaeus to come down out of the tree because Jesus wants to go to his house for dinner.
What? Why on earth would Jesus want to do that? Remember how I said that Zacchaeus was considered unclean because of doing business with lots of dirty Roman Gentiles? Well, people didn’t keep uncleanness to themselves. That stuff spread faster than Ebola. So, if Jesus goes and eats at Zacchaeus’ house, won’t Jesus leave there unclean too, right? Or at least that’s what some folks would have thought. And so, the risk Zacchaeus takes in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus winds up being nothing in comparison to the risk Jesus takes when he announces his desire to share food and fellowship with Zacchaeus. And that, my friends, just pushes Zacchaeus over the edge. He has been so dramatically impacted by Jesus’ offer of friendship that he repents right there on the spot. And he demonstrates his repentance by naming some very specific changes that he is going to make in his life. He’s going to voluntarily relinquish ½ of his belongings and he’s going to make amends with the people he’s fleeced by paying them back 4 times what he took from them. Talk about repentance!
Now, that kind of unpacks the story, I hope. It gives us a little more insight into the significance of this interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus. But there’s more to this story because Zacchaeus probably isn’t someone most of us identify with very much. I mean, most of us here this morning were probably raised in Christian homes; many of us have been coming to church for years. It’s hard for us to identify with a character as despicable as Zacchaeus… someone who so blatantly exploited people and cheated them; someone who has amassed wealth on the backs of the little guy. Remember the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme a few years back. Well, think of Zacchaues as the Bernie Madoff of antiquity.
But don’t worry. I think there is a character or two in this story that we can identify with. How about those folks in the crowd? I’m guessing most of them were good religious folk just like you and me. They too have been waiting to get a glimpse of Jesus. They too would be honored to have Jesus come to their house for dinner. But what happens? Jesus opts to spend the evening with that Zacchaeus character instead – that sinful, no good swindler. Boy that would really make you angry, wouldn’t it?
I remember once when I was little – well, very young – my mom took me to a parade. We got there early and stood on the edge of the curb so that I would be able to see everything. There would be bands and floats… floats that tossed out candy. But as the crowd began to gather, people kept stepping in front of me. By the time the parade started, I couldn’t see a thing. It made my mom angry; angry enough to say something to some of those grown men blocking my view. Parades and candy are for children and they needed to move over and let me see and enjoy the parade.
Parades are for children, right? And Jesus is for good, religious folks, right? After all, here we sit, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. We faithfully support the church with our prayers, our presence, our service. And yet Jesus, the one who calls us to follow him, the one who calls us to do ministry that looks just like his ministry; well, he seems to have this peculiar desire to go out of his way for people that don’t really seem like good candidates for church. Jesus seems to give a lot of attention to those who are sinners; to those who are rejected, despicable, disinterested, and living on the edge; people who make us feel very uncomfortable. I imagine we don’t often think about the fact that Jesus took a risk every time he stopped to pay special attention to those kinds of folks. Each time Jesus did that I imagine that some of his followers felt very uncomfortable; some perhaps uncomfortable enough to just ditch Jesus. Some of you know I work with some seminary students in Ohio. Last month when we were on campus together, one of my students shared with the rest of the group that he would not be pursuing ordination because he had, for quite some time, been feeling God call him to be in ministry in an area of his city that is impoverished and riddled with crime and drug use. He is a very gifted pastor and his suburban church is growing. He has a wife and a young child. And I confess to you, I nearly tried to talk him out of it. I had to bite my tongue, but the thoughts were still there in my head: “Why would you take this risk? You have a family; you have a good ministry; you have a stable life; your parishioners love you and the church is growing under your leadership.” Finally I did ask a question that seemed reasonable to me. “Why don’t you first approach your District Superintendent and ask if the conference would consider planting a church in that community?” He replied that a friend of his had done that very thing two years ago and been told that community had not been deemed a viable location for a new church start.
I can understand the feelings of the people in that crowd in Jericho that day. If you were in church last week, you might recall the indignation on the part of Simon the Pharisee when Jesus allowed that sinful woman to touch and anoint his feet. Simon surmised that, if Jesus was really who people claimed he was he would not have allowed a sinful woman to touch him like that. Or maybe you remember hearing the story of the prophet Jonah in the belly of the whale when you were a child in Sunday School. God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah and preach to the people that they needed to repent of their evil ways. But what most of us didn’t learn as children was that Ninevah was the capital city of the powerful nation of Assyria that destroyed the nation of Israel in 721 BCE. Jonah (despite his best attempts to ditch his mission) does wind up preaching repentance to the people in Ninevah and they do, in fact, repent. But it is not a fact that Jonah appreciates because, admittedly, those folks were far more deserving of judgment and destruction than they were of divine mercy and forgiveness.
It is hard, my friends; hard to reach out to people like Zacchaeus; people who are sinful; people whose lifestyles and actions have harmed others. But those are precisely the people Jesus wants us to pay attention to. Those are precisely the people to whom Jesus longs to offer his grace in radical and life-changing ways. Those are precisely the people Jesus longs to have reconciled to him and to us. Friends, there is a point to forgiveness; and it does make a difference – or at least it should – in how we live our lives. And that point, that purpose, is to carry out the work of reconciliation so that we – all of us – can be reconciled to God and to one another.
[i] Story found in Luke 18:18-25
A story is told of a family out for a Sunday drive. Suddenly the two children in the back seat begin to shout, “Daddy, daddy, stop the car! There’s a kitten back there on the side of the road. You have to stop and pick it up.”
“I don’t have to stop and pick it up,” says the father.
“But it will die,” plead the children.
“We don’t have room for another animal. We have a zoo already at the house. No more animals.”
“We never thought our Daddy would be so mean and cruel to let a kitten die,” the children say.
Mother chimes in, “Honey, you have to stop.”
Dad turns the car around; heads back to the spot and parks his car on the side of the road. “You kids stay in the car.”
The little kitten is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas. When he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy, it bristles and hisses, bearing tooth and claw. Dad lifts the kitten up by the nap of its neck and brings it back to the car. “Don’t touch it,” he says sternly.
Back home, the children give the kitten warm milk and food… and a flea bath. They ask, “Daddy, can it stay in the house just tonight? Tomorrow we’ll fix a place in the garage.”
Father replies, “Sure, take my bedroom. The house is a zoo already anyway.” And the children make up a nice, soft bed for the kitten. Several weeks pass. One day dad walks into his bedroom, he feels something rub against his leg, he looks down, and there is the kitten. Checking to see that no one is watching, he reaches down. And, when it sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it purrs and rubs its face in his palm. Is that the same cat; that dirty, ugly, hissing kitten by the side of the road? What in the world can effect such a change?
To better understand this morning’s gospel story, it helps to know that it is immediately preceded by Jesus acknowledging that he has earned himself a reputation for befriending the likes of “sinners and tax collectors.” And so we segue into this morning’s story.
The setting is a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee named Simon.
Now as I’ve mentioned many times in recent weeks, in Middle Eastern culture, hospitality is of critical importance. An individual’s character is judged by the kind of hospitality they show. So, since Simon has invited Jesus to dine with him, we can only assume this meal will be a great demonstration of hospitality.
Now, to better understand what happens in this story, it helps to know a little more about the context and culture.
For one thing, homes tended to be constructed on an open plan. A courtyard was open to the street. And just beyond that courtyard, yet still visible from the street, was the inner dining chamber. So, when a banquet was given and honored guests were invited, people from the street could peek in and see who the honored dinner guests were. In addition, it was customary to place some lesser fare (the modern equivalent of a cheese ball and Vienna sausages) in the outer courtyard for those peasants who happened by. So, while we might view the woman in this gospel story as “crashing the party,” her presence at this Pharisee’s home would not have been unusual. Well, at least not if she stayed where she belonged – in the outer courtyard among the rest of the peasants. But as the story unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that this woman is not particularly concerned about social protocol or boundaries. She is only concerned with demonstrating love.
Now, if you have any visions of this woman crawling around under the table, banish those. For, in this culture, people didn’t sit to eat. They reclined with their feet away from the table. They reclined on their left sides so that they could take food with their right hand.
Nevertheless, this woman is bold when she breaches the boundary and enters the inner dining area with an alabaster jar of ointment. Next, this woman – who everyone around town knows to be… well, sinful – begins to make a spectacle of herself. I mean, she touches Jesus’ feet, she cries and her tears fall onto his feet and she wipes them away with her hair. She even kisses Jesus’ feet and begins to rub them with the ointment in her jar. Now, if the woman didn't have a bad reputation already, this kind of inappropriate behavior would have earned her one. In Jesus' culture, men and women who weren’t related didn't interact with one another and certainly didn’t touch one another. This woman shouldn’t have been touching Jesus at all, let alone in such an intimate way.
Meanwhile, Simon – Jesus' host – finds this whole display appalling. This woman’s behavior has been a disrespectful insult to his honor and Jesus’ honor. She has ruined his party. Furthermore, Simon is offended by Jesus’ failure to put a stop to this despicable behavior. He muses that, if Jesus were truly a prophet – as some have contended – he would know what kind of floozy this woman was and he wouldn’t be letting the likes of her touch him.
But, even at the very moment that Simon is reasoning that Jesus cannot be a prophet because he clearly doesn’t know this woman’s history, Jesus addresses Simon and proceeds to tell him a riddle.
It is a story about forgiveness and mercy. It is a story of two debtors whose obligations are forgiven by their creditor. You see, neither of them could pay… which should have resulted in shame and punishment. That’d teach them, wouldn’t it? But their creditor just writes off the balance. What incredible mercy and grace. Now, the one with the larger debt is the most grateful… an obvious fact that Simon, himself, points out.
Next, Jesus proceeds to explain the significance of this little story he has told. Simon, fancying himself good and righteous, a judgment his friends would have, doubtless, agreed with shows little kindness toward Jesus, a guest he’s invited into his home. I remember once visiting with a friend. The visit had been set up for months and she seemed very eager to see me and spend the weekend with me. The first evening we had dinner and a lovely visit. But the next morning, she informed me there was somewhere she needed to be for lunch and that, if I was hungry, there was a can of tuna in the pantry and I was welcome to help myself. But I did not feel very welcome as she dashed out the door leaving me with a can of tuna. Likewise, Simon did not bother to honor Jesus with the traditional forms of hospitality. He didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss on the cheek. You see, kisses were a common form of greeting in that culture. Those who considered themselves to be social equals greeted one another with a kiss on the lips. If I considered myself slightly beneath you, I would greet you with a kiss on the cheek. And if someone was significantly beneath another, they would kiss that person's feet as a gesture of humility. But notice what happens here. While the sinful woman has honored Jesus by kissing his feet, Simon didn’t greet Jesus with any kiss at all. Who knows? Perhaps Simon was waiting for Jesus to give him a kiss on the cheek.
Neither did Simon instruct a servant to wash Jesus’ feet or anoint his head with oil. Why, he didn’t even bother to show Jesus where the basin was so he could wash his own feet. Simon failed to welcome Jesus in a way that showed respect and, in a society where rituals of hospitality are very well-known and understood, the lack of hospitality was an obvious indication to everyone around the table that Simon didn’t really think all that much of Jesus. While this sinful woman honors Jesus, Simon disdains him. It’s quite likely that Simon already knew Jesus’ reputation as one who fraternized with sinners and tax collectors. And judging by her behavior, this woman must have known as well. I mean she took a big risk when she entered that dining room. One has to wonder: had she met Jesus already or just heard about him? Had she heard him teach? Had she already observed the kindness he’d shown toward folks like her; the forgiveness he bestowed so freely and generously?
Unlike Simon, who is puffed up with arrogance and self-righteousness, this woman knows she is in need of forgiveness. She’s not trying to fool anyone. She has many sins to answer for; but Jesus graciously forgives them all. And that forgiveness brings wholeness into her life and peace. And she is brimming over with love.
Now, without a doubt, at least on the surface, Simon had far less to answer for in the sin department. Yet, the point here is not that Simon had less for which to be forgiven; a lower score on the sin scale. The point is that Simon did not even recognize, much less acknowledge, his own need for forgiveness. It seems that Simon concludes this interaction with Jesus having received very little from him.
But the woman has received a great deal. She has received mercy, grace and forgiveness and it has changed her. She has received wholeness and peace. And it has transformed her.
Friends, just like Simon’s dining room, our world is filled with so much blame and shame. Dr. Marshall Rosenberg writes, “Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves… [or] sometimes they hate us.”[i] We are creatures that blame and shame. We see it in Genesis, in the third chapter. Their sin being revealed, the woman and man go to great lengths to blame and to shame. We are so good at it; we don’t even need others to shame us and blame us. We can do the job for ourselves. And yet, all the blame and shame in the world does nothing to make our world a better place, a more peaceful place, a more loving place. All the blame and shame in the world doesn’t fix anything; in fact, it only makes things worse because blame and shame can’t change us or anyone else. Grace and forgiveness, kindness and mercy; that, my friends is what changes us. If we are only willing to accept the grace Jesus freely offers; the grace he desperately wants us to have, we’ll have wholeness and peace expressed through acts of love. When others wrong us, we can blame and shame them all we want. We can give them the silent treatment. We can gossip about them. We can make ourselves miserable in our attempts to teach them a lesson. But nothing will change until we forgive them. If what we truly seek is wholeness and peace (for ourselves and others), we can only discover it through forgiveness and love.
Is that the same kitten? Is that the same woman? Is that the same man? Is that the same… (well, you fill in the blank)? I think we know what effects such a change.
[i] Nonviolent Communication, p. 152
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