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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