A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 13, 2010
Psalm 5:1-8; Luke 7:36-8:3
Have you ever hosted a dinner party? I confess that this isn’t something done very often in the Hyde household, at least on a formal basis. We have a full set of nice china and the accompanying silver, given to us when we were married more than forty years ago. But it doesn’t get much use. Janet and I are rather informal people.
We had a couple of friends over one night for a meal. Tim and Kathryn were with us, having been married a couple of years or so by this time. As we approached the table, one of our guests asked if we had particular places to sit at the table. Kathryn answered, “Oh no. Their places are in there.” She pointed to the den where we usually eat off our laps while sitting in our favorite recliners watching TV.
I know, I know, it’s not a very good habit. We should eat more often at the kitchen table. It would make for better conversation. It’s even better for the digestion, I hear. But that’s just the way we are. We’re not given to hosting fancy dinner parties, and when we’re alone our den works just fine.
Evidently, the Pharisee in Luke’s story did this quite often; hosted dinner parties, that is. And for that day, it was probably a quite formal event held in the dining room. Why, he’s probably had the mayor over, maybe the Chief Priest or other dignitaries. He’s quite proud to show off his home, his servants, his best china and silver. It’s obvious the man has wealth and influence. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Right? If people with any celebrity about them come to town, this man has them over and knows how to play the host… to the hilt.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, why he invited Jesus to dinner? Yes, it is true that Jesus has received some notoriety. Word is, he’s done some pretty remarkable things, and the buzz is that the young Nazarene is not your everyday rabbi, to be sure. If he has indeed done the things they say he has done, you would think there would have been a certain curiosity involved on the part of his host.
But curiosity or no, it’s not as if the Pharisee – Simon is his name, we are told – is going to go traipsing all over the place after Jesus. Let these other peasants follow Jesus around like puppies. That was beneath him. To get a close-up view of the young rabbi, rather than chase him around the countryside waiting for him to perform a miracle or say something truly profound, he would just have him over for dinner… do a little observing, ask him a few pointed questions, see what he is made of. Simon won’t go to the young Nazarene; he’ll have the Nazarene come to him.
Or perhaps the Pharisee has run out of ideas for entertainment. He’ll see if he can get this Jesus to perform a few of his tricks, solely, of course, for the enjoyment of his other guests.
That’s the way people of privilege operate, after all. Isn’t it?
We’re being unkind, aren’t we? And do you know why? Because, instinctively, we don’t like this man… if for no other reason than we know the story, and we are aware that Jesus pretty much gets in his face when it becomes obvious that in inviting Jesus to his home and his table, Simon’s motives are not exactly pure. He is, to use Mark Twain’s expression, “a good man in the very worst sense of the word.”
But let’s defend the poor fellow for just a moment. After all, think about this… How would you like it if you were hosting a dinner gathering and a woman of the street comes in and starts making a spectacle of herself, right there in your home and at your table?! I think we know how you would react. No doubt, the same way I’d react… that is, if Janet and I were ever to host a formal dinner ïŠ. I can dial 911 with the best of them! That’s what I’d do.
Some of you may know this already, but there may be others who do not. The customs of that day, when it came to gatherings like this, were pretty odd compared to the way we do things. First of all, dinner gatherings like this were fair game to anyone who wanted to come along and observe. I know, I know, that seems strange to us. But that’s the way they did things back then. If someone had a dinner party in their home, anybody could just wander in and keep a watchful eye on the proceedings. Now, these uninvited guests couldn’t necessarily eat the food or drink the wine. In fact, they weren’t supposed to approach the table. But they could watch and listen. Sometimes, it provided better entertainment than the local picture show.
So along comes this unnamed woman who takes full advantage of this strange custom. She is different from the other observers, however. She hasn’t come out of curiosity, nor to be entertained. And not only does she take advantage of the customs of the day, she proceeds to bust them wide open! Observers were supposed to do just that and only that: observe. But she goes beyond that. She brings an alabaster jar of ointment, stands behind Jesus, weeping all the while. And then she begins to bathe his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Finally, she takes the ointment from her jar and anoints Jesus’ feet with it.
It was a planned, premeditated act.
Why has this woman approached Jesus this way? She has come to seek forgiveness. And Jesus is the only one in the house who can or will give it to her. From everybody else she gets a scornful look, a rude reception, whispers behind her back. But from Jesus she receives unmerited grace. She has come to Simon’s house, uninvited by the host, to express her love to Jesus the Forgiver, who is more than happy to receive her.
You would think, would you not, that Simon would call for his servants to hustle the woman out of the house? But he doesn’t do it. Instead, oddly enough, he turns on Jesus. Not to Jesus but on him. Except, in true cowardly fashion (oh, we’re being unkind to Simon again, aren’t we?) he doesn’t tell Jesus what is really on his mind. Luke tells us he says it to himself.
Muttering under his breath, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” Actually, it doesn’t take a prophet to know what kind of woman she is. With all the makeup, it’s literally written all over her face.
Jesus knows – believe it, he knows – what kind of woman she is, just as he knows instinctively what his host has just said to himself. So he responds, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
Quickly, Simon’s aggravation level settles down. He gathers himself for just a moment and then says condescendingly, “Teacher, speak.” So Jesus offers his host a parable. He tells Simon, and all who are in the house, about two men who were indebted to another man. One owed five hundred denarii, the other fifty. Neither could pay, so the man to whom they were indebted, the creditor, canceled their debts. It was, needless to say, a very gracious thing to do. In fact, it was more than that; it was absolutely ludicrous. That just wasn’t done, not in those days nor in ours. Jesus is talking about large sums of money. But, it’s his story so we’ll let him tell it the way he chooses.
Speaking of the creditor, “Which of them will love him more?” Jesus wants to know. Simon can’t help but answer in the obvious. “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
“I suppose”?! “I suppose”?! Why, Simon, the answer’s as clear as the nose on your face. What do you mean “I suppose”? But once again, let’s try to be kind to Simon. Before this episode is over, he’s going to need all the kindness he can get.
“You have judged rightly,” Jesus says to Simon. Okay, so what’s the point? It doesn’t take Jesus long to explain his point, and we have to admit – even though we’re trying to be kind to Simon – when he does, it doesn’t put Simon in a very good light. Truth be told, once he had told the parable and gotten a response from Simon, Jesus takes out his scalpel and begins to dissect, not Simon so much as Simon’s motive, Simon’s attitude, Simon’s heart… Okay, maybe he does dissect Simon.
With all his china and silver, his fancy furniture and highfalutin’ ways, not to mention his high standing in the community, Simon the Pharisee has not been a very good or gracious host. It is the custom in that day, for a dinner like this, that the guests take off their shoes. But when they do so, the host is to be sure their feet are cleaned, if not by themselves by their servants. Simon did none of that, which would have been the same as showing contempt for Jesus. Why, when Simon had the mayor over, he couldn’t wash his feet fast enough!
Knowing what he is thinking, Jesus asks him, “Do you see this woman?” Of course he’s seen her. But perhaps Jesus’ question implies something that is much deeper than the obvious. Do you really see her, Simon? Have you bothered to look beyond what she is wearing and into her heart, Simon? Do you see her, not for what she obviously is, but for what God sees in her?
“She has bathed my feet with her tears,” Jesus explains to the Pharisee, “and dried them with her hair.” She certainly had no water or towel, because Simon hadn’t bothered to provide them.
Another custom was the traditional kiss of greeting on the cheek. “You gave me no kiss,” Jesus says to his host, “but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil,” he goes on, “but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Remember the parable, now. One man forgiven fifty denarii, the other five hundred. Which will feel more forgiven, which will show more love toward his gracious creditor? The one who is forgiven the most.
The woman’s sins are many. After all, she is “a woman of the city,” and we all know what that means, so she has a lot to be forgiven of. Not only that, but we don’t have far to go in guessing where she got the money to buy that precious ointment she has poured all over Jesus’ feet.
Contrast her sinful life with the righteous Pharisee. His sins — at least according to his way of thinking, and ours as well — are few. She doesn’t have to journey far into her memory to recall her many sins, while he will have a hard time remembering the last time he did something wrong. But because she has been forgiven for so much, her love for Jesus is large. Because he, Simon, needs no such forgiveness, his love, not to mention his hospitality, is small.
Simon invited Jesus into his home, but did not treat him with respect. This unnamed woman asked Jesus into her heart, and in doing so sought forgiveness. Where do you think Jesus would rather be, in Simon’s home or the woman’s heart? And what does that teach you and me?
Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Evidently, the people at the table, including Simon the host, don’t get the point of Jesus’ parable. “Who is this who even forgives sins?” they want to know. Jesus ignores them when he says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Can we afford to have Jesus ignore us? Don’t think so. But the way we relate to others just may determine whether he does or not. Could it be that the manner in which we invite sinners into our church family is the way we invite Jesus into our hearts? Do we offer them places of honor in our pews, do we give them the greeting of peace, do we let them know that this is where forgiveness takes place?
If we don’t, Jesus might not be comfortable here either. So let us ask the question: when we ask Jesus to come through our doors, do you think he would take us up on our invitation? And if he does, will we treat him as our favored guest? After all, he might just bring a few sinners with him.
Come, Lord Jesus, and forgive us our sins. Then show us how to accept others in your name. Amen.