Staggering Rudeness, Confounding Love

(Deuteronomy 15:1-11; Luke 7:36-50)

Yes, I’d heard of Jesus; he had my fellow Pharisees in an uproar with some of the things he’d said and done.  When the news came that he was passing through my city, of course I went to hear him preach:  I wanted to take his measure.  I have to admit, I was highly impressed with his sermon.  He preached from the scroll of Isaiah, and offered a most insightful interpretation—I’m not sure even I could have done better.  Still, I wanted to know more about the man, so I invited him to my house for dinner.

Word got around, as it always does.  I sent a servant home to tell the rest of them to prepare the feast and set up the long table in the courtyard; by the time I reached my house, there were already quite uninvited guests standing in the courtyard as well.  That’s just the way things work.  They were standing against the walls, of course, so as not to be in the way of the servants; I was not such a fool as to feed any of them and they knew it, but they still wanted to watch.  They had nothing better to do—layabouts, all of them—and there was certainly nothing more interesting going on.

When that Galilean vagabond arrived, I’m sure he expected to be treated as an honored guest.  I doubted he deserved the honor, though, and besides, I wanted to test him.  He’d often been rude to my brother Pharisees, so I was rude to him.  In your culture, I believe you have rituals for visitors—you open the door and invite them in, you take their coats, you invite them to sit down and offer them coffee.  We have ours as well.  There is the kiss of greeting—on the cheek or the hand—and then a servant would wash your guests’ feet, or at the bare minimum bring them water to wash their own.  Feet are filthy, offensive to the nose and the eyes; dirty feet from the muck of the road don’t belong in the house, let alone at the table.  Then you would anoint your guests’ heads with a little olive oil.  I did none of it, and waited to see what this Jesus would do.

I thought he would probably take offense and leave, but he didn’t.  Instead, he went over to one of the couches around the table and reclined.  I see you sit in these uncomfortable upright chairs to eat; we prefer to eat like civilized people, lying on one side with our heads propped up on an elbow and our feet sticking out behind us, away from the table.  It was quite presumptuous of Jesus to do that; properly, the eldest reclines first, then the next oldest, and so on.  That young upstart didn’t know his proper place.

Well, that was bad enough, but no sooner had he done that then a woman in the crowd behind him burst into tears.  I looked at her, and of course I recognized her; every man in the city knew her, and many of them had paid for the privilege.  If I’d noticed her earlier, I would have had her thrown out.  But there she was, sobbing; and then to make matters worse, she rushed forward, fell to her knees, and began to weep over his dirty feet.  She was crying so hard, the tears were actually washing them clean.  Then she uncovered her head and unbound her hair—she could have been divorced for that!  If any man would ever have been willing to marry her.  She used her hair as a towel to wipe the mud and filth off his feet.  Then she reached into her dress and pulled up the flask of perfume that hung around her neck, and she poured it all over his feet, and began to kiss them all over.  Even for a woman like her, that was degrading.

All this going on, and that upstart from Nazareth just sat there looking at her.  He claimed to be a prophet, but a real prophet would have known what sort of woman was touching him, and would never have put up with it.  Then he looked at me and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”  He was a guest in my house, but from the expression on his face and the tone of his voice, clearly he wasn’t going to apologize for the disruption he’d caused; so I said, “Spit it out, Teacher.”

He responded, “Two men were in debt to a moneylender.  One owed him $3,000; the other owed him $30,000.  They were both broke.  Rather than having them thrown into prison, their creditor decided to completely forgive both their debts.  Which one will love him more?”

Well, that wasn’t what I’d expected, but there was only one possible answer.  “I suppose,” I said, “the one who was forgiven more.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “You have judged rightly.”  His tone of voice suggested this was a surprise—as if I’d been judging something wrongly.  I could feel my face heating up; this hill country mountebank was making me mad.  But he went on.  He turned to the woman kneeling at his feet and—without even looking back at me!—said, “Do you see this woman?”  Did I see her?  How could I not?  She was a disgrace!

Jesus continued, “I entered your house as your guest, Simon!  You know what hospitality requires.  Yet you didn’t even give me water to wash my own feet—but she has made up for your failure by washing them herself with her tears and drying them with her hair.  You failed to give me a kiss of greeting; she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet.  You failed to anoint my head with olive oil; she surpassed you again—she anointed my feet, and not with cheap oil, but with expensive perfume.

“Simon, she has exposed your many failures for everyone to see, and so you need to understand this.  Her sins are many—you know this, the whole city knows this, and so do I—but God has forgiven all of them; she’s been forgiven much, so she loves much.  But you, Simon—you think you’re a righteous man, and you’ve convinced everyone around you.  Actually, your sins are many, just as hers are—you’ve put some of them on display here this after­noon—but you don’t see them.  In your pride, your arrogance, your self-righteous­ness, and the hardness of your heart, you have rejected the love and grace of God.  Therefore you have been forgiven little, and believe you need little forgiveness; therefore you love little.  You have little love for God, and less for other people.”  Then he reached out and touched the woman on the shoulder; he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

I was so enraged I could hardly think straight, certainly too furious to speak; yet at the same time, my heart was cold within me, as if I had taken a spear of ice through the chest.  My ears were roaring, but I could hear my other guests asking each other—quiet­ly, so as not to attract that man’s attention—“Who does this guy think he is?  Not only is he willing to insult his host in his own house, he even claims to forgive people’s sins!”

But Jesus ignored them; he was still looking at the woman.  He said to her, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.”  She got up—unsteady on her feet—her cheeks were streaked with tears, her makeup had run, her hair was filthy beyond belief—but her face shone with joy and awe, and peace.  In fact, there seemed to be light all around her, and somehow, she looked beautiful.  Then she turned without a word and walked out of the courtyard.  Complete silence fell.  Even the insects weren’t moving.

How am I supposed to respond to this?  I keep the Law—I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything I own—and yet this uneducated beggar dares to call me a sinner?  He seriously expects me to believe that woman could be completely forgiven for her entire gross sinful life without even bothering to earn it?  Without even bothering to try?  The very idea is ludicrous—it goes against everything I believe.  And yet—I can’t quite shake it.  Is it possible I’ve been wrong about God all along?  Is it possible I’m just like those stiff-necked people Amos condemned?  Could it be I really am a great sinner?  Should I have been kneeling at his feet too?

The question that really haunts me is—this man was willing to love even such a terrible sinner as that woman, and even to let her touch him.  They call him the friend of sinners, and he certainly proved that.  Is it possible that’s the only reason he accepted my invitation?

Posted in Sermons and tagged .

Leave a Reply