#15: Wednesday, 20 March, 2019.
Wednesday, 20 March Luke 7:36-50
Written by Dr Graham Leo. ©2019.
I have to confess: this is one of my very favourite snippets (pericopes, if you like) of all the Gospel stories – not including the crucifixion and resurrection stories, of course.
To properly understand the story, we need to understand some of the local culture. Otherwise, we’re inclined to ask questions such as: How could this woman just enter a private house and interrupt a meal? Or: Why was Jesus so critical of Simon’s hospitality?
In the local culture, houses of wealthy people were constructed in an open square, with a dining courtyard that was often open to the street, or at least open to others to look in, with envy. It was easy for a person to enter a private house and not be challenged.
Also, there were very strict customs about how to welcome guests. As a guest entered, servants would invite you to sit down; they would wash your feet, dusty from the road, with its animal droppings and dry, caked dirt surface. The guest would be offered another bowl where they could wash their hands and their face. No respectable Jew sat down to eat without first washing their hands in a ritualistic way, whether they were dirty or not. The host would kiss you, three times on the cheeks, in hearty welcome.
Luke’s introduction is pointedly sparse. Jesus was invited to a dinner at a Pharisee’s house and he went and reclined at the table. Note, not that he went, was greeted at the door, had his feet washed and all the customary graces. He went, he sat down. (Reclined, actually. Sitting on bottom, resting on one hand, feet stretched out to one side, slightly behind. This was how the woman managed to pour perfume on his feet and wash them with her tears.) No-one kissed him in welcome. He was the social pariah.
Why did these normal courtesies not take place? Surely not because the servants were lazy or forgot. To forget such an essential social politeness would have mean instant dismissal. No servant could have possibly overlooked it. They did it for all the other guests but pointedly, not Jesus.
There is only one conclusion; they were told by the Master of the house to embarrass Jesus by ignoring him. This was a deliberate social ambush. This is like the hostess of a grand party saying loudly to your wife, ‘What a lovely dress, dahling. I gave one just like it to the charity shop only last week.’
You can imagine the quiet sniggers and the meaningful looks being passed among the guests who are all ‘in the know’, as Jesus enters. They were probably all told to come early and watch the fun. The servants, embarrassed, ignore him as they were instructed.
Then, after the main course is served, that woman enters. Straight off the street, and heading straight for Jesus. Gasps as the other guests realise who’s here and what might soon be revealed. She is ‘a sinful woman’. This is polite code for a prostitute. Everyone knows who she is. Years ago, in Jerusalem, I met with a Christian group that was dedicated to sharing the Gospel with strict, orthodox Jews. Just like the ones in this story.
These Christians frequently faced a difficult problem, that made their evangelism more complex than usual. For a male orthodox Jew to leave his strong culture and become a Christian, he often had to settle his debts first. And the problem, I was told, was that these orthodox men often owed large sums to a loan shark to pay the local brothel.
According to the Torah law, a man cannot have relations with his wife for about fourteen days out of every month, and even fewer if she is bearing children. For some men, this just isn't enough, so they run up an account buying their sexual satisfaction. I was told that having debts around $20,000 (US) was not uncommon. The Christians were constantly raising funds to help them clear their debts, so as to enable them to leave that community and become a Christian.
I don't know if the same situation applied in Jesus’ day, but the easy recognition of this woman may have been due to the fact that she was known commercially by more than one of the men in the room, even as they sneered at her. The hypocrisy screams at us.
Jesus speaks to Simon. We imagine that his tone was quiet and firm. We tend to tremble when our boss says to us: ‘I have something I need to talk to you about’.
But Simon doesn't flinch. His reply is arrogant, as lofty as any Pharisee could be, his nose high in the air. ‘Tell me, Teacher’. (As if I care what you have to say! I've already made you look like an idiot and I haven't finished my games yet!)
Jesus tells his little story and makes Simon answer the sucker’s question. Who loved more? Simon has to reply: the one whose cancelled debt was greater. He’s not so glib and confident anymore. Perhaps he’s thinking of his own debts.
Then Jesus turns to the woman, but speaks to Simon. She becomes his lesson material. The whole room listens. Electric air. The onlookers outside hush to hear.
You didn't give me water for my feet, but she wept over them.
You didn't kiss my cheek, but she hasn't stopped kissing my feet.
You didn't anoint me with the oil of friendship among brothers, but she has emptied a magnum of Chanel No. 5 on my feet.
Jesus does not say in v47 that her sins were forgiven because of her love. He says that you can see how many sins were forgiven because of the amount of love she has shown.
Simon understands that Jesus is not saying that he has no sins. Jesus has told him clearly of his sins of failing to treat a guest well – an unspeakable sin in an honour-based society. He knows that Jesus is telling him that he is in desperate need of forgiveness – and that is why he hates. And so for everyone else there who connived at this public insult.
The woman who entered in shame, leaves in high honour.
The host who held his head high in self-proclaimed honour, hangs his head in shame.
The guest treated so shamefully by his host and the other guests, shows by his sin-forgiving that he is the Lord God himself. The antilogia-sayers shrink back in disgrace.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ, for being my forgiver. Help me always to treat you with deep honour, among my friends and in the public square. Amen.