One could get the impression from the story about Jesus eating in the home of the Pharisee named Simon (Luke 7:3-50) that this was going to be a pleasant dinner party, a break from the sparring that kept the Pharisees and Jesus apart, yet persistently and contentiously together.
“How nice,” Jesus must have thought, “that, despite our constant arguing this chap has the grace to be hospitable, to signal – by seating me at his own table – that I am his equal, maybe even to treat me, despite our differences, as a colleague.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption, because both Jesus and the Pharisees were intent on restoring a straying Israel back to its true calling, albeit by different means.
Jesus may have had fleeting second thoughts about this favorable evaluation of his host when he briefly realized that his own feet remained unwashed, undried and un-anointed. But that customary hospitality could be overlooked given the other signs of welcome.
It took an uninvited guest to disrupt the spirit of good will that had characterized the evening.
It was nothing that she said, mind you. In fact, not a word is recorded as coming from her lips. It was everything she did.
This uninvited woman – clearly a “sinner” – had learned that Jesus was dining with Simon. She broke protocol. She went to Jesus, bathed his feet with her tears, dried his feet with her hair, kissed his feet and anointed his feet with the expensive jar of alabaster ointment she had brought with her – and all the time weeping.
Rather than seeing her actions as an indictment of himself for breaking custom, Simon the Pharisee, under his breath, condemned the woman for her sinful condition and questioned Jesus’ credentials as a prophet for not recognizing that condition.
Jesus could perceive exactly what was going on with his host.
When the host indicated he was ready to listen, Jesus told a story about two people who owed money to the same creditor but in different amounts. When the creditor realized that neither borrower could pay their debt, the creditor cancelled the debts of both. Jesus then asked Simon which debtor would love the creditor more. The host correctly responded that it would be the borrower with the larger debt that had been forgiven.
Pointing to the woman, Jesus reminded the host that she showed respect and love for Jesus by washing his feet while all the time weeping. She showed respect and gratitude for what Jesus had done to receive her and, in that sense, to forgive her.
His host had shown a degree of respect by inviting him to dinner, but he had not expressed any deep sorrow for what he had failed to do.
Jesus tells his host: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
To recognize the full extent of one’s sins allows for those sins to be forgiven. To recognize only partially the extent of one’s sins allows for only partial forgiveness and, in turn, the capacity to love little.
What then began as a pleasant dinner party, ended up anything but pleasant, for Jesus had, in effect, condemned his host for not weeping – for not recognizing the extent of his sins nor realizing how desperately he needed forgiveness and, thus, continuing his incapacity to love fully.
By not being able to weep, Simon the host had not fulfilled the Great Commandment to love God completely and to love others as himself – a devastating condemnation.
Our question is whether we are weeping – weeping tears of sorrow for acts of commission and omission we have committed, or weeping tears of joy for the cancelled debts and forgiven sins and the freedom again to love God fully and one another – inclusively – as we love ourselves.
Some of those sins might be similar to those of the weeping woman who came to Jesus during the meal; some might be similar to those of the nonweeping man who hosted the meal so incompletely. But surely there are plenty of other sins, ancient and contemporary, that could be added. Are we or aren’t we weeping tears of sorrow and joy for them all?
There is a whole set of sins that might apply to many of us as Christian Americans – followers of Jesus, who have the capacity as citizens in this democracy to be involved socially, economically and politically in processes that can make enormous differences.
Have we used those capacities that are ours as Christians in this democracy?
Have we been concerned about the siege of Gaza, to stop the loss of life in Afghanistan, to press for a rigorous national energy policy, to reduce the growing inequality between the very wealthy and everyone else, to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable, to bring fiscal integrity and fair taxation to our state governments, to adopt comprehensive immigration and education reforms, to bring a renewed sense of restorative justice to our so-called criminal justice system?
Are we weeping tears of sorrow for the sins of what we have or haven’t done on all these fronts and tears of joy, in affirmation and gratitude, for the forgiveness and the freedom and the power we have, in Christ and as citizens of this democracy, to join with God in transformation of the small and large worlds of which we are a part?
At both the personal and private as well as the public and political dimensions of our lives, are you and I weeping?
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.