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A Distressing Dinner

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Luke 7:36-50

                I came across a story from a Sunday School teacher named Ranai Carlton. Ranai writes, “During Sunday School, I was trying to teach the children that we all need God’s forgiveness. After the Bible story, I asked one of the girls, ‘Lisa, when is a time you might need God’s forgiveness?’ Her blank stare prompted a response from my son, ‘It’s okay, Lisa. You don’t have to tell her.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘We don’t have to tell you our problems. This isn’t the Oprah Winfrey Show.’”

            I think Ranai’s son was on to something. Forgiveness sounds great until we need to use it. Forgiveness is costly to give, but it also costs us to receive it. Maybe that’s why we work so hard to avoid it. Especially in religious circles, we strive to avoid receiving forgiveness. We understand the need to learn how to offer forgiveness, but we often assume that the longer we walk in the faith, the less we should need to receive forgiveness. We assume that we should be growing more mature, gaining in correct doctrine and knowledge which makes us more right in any given conflict. We should be gaining in leadership and influence which means we have fewer margins for error. Pretty soon our assumptions wall us off from others and even from God. Then one day we find ourselves face-to-face with God, and that meeting often takes the form of a horribly embarrassing moment. Turn with me to Luke 7:36.

            Whenever a Rabbi would visit a village, the local religious leaders would occasionally invite him to dinner and discussion. A prominent leader would invite several local leaders to his home. They would all gather around a table, and they would recline on some pillows around that table. Now this wasn’t just a friendly dinner invitation. The Pharisees have been hearing some remarkable, even perhaps outlandish, stories about this Rabbi named Jesus. They heard that he healed a Roman officer’s servant without even being in the same room. Even more outlandish was the story of Jesus stopping a funeral procession to resurrect the son of a widow in the village of Nain. What aggravated the Pharisees beyond this was what people were saying about Jesus. In Luke 7:16 people are calling Jesus a “great prophet.” Well, the Pharisees aren’t so gullible. According to Deut. 18.15-22, a great prophet like Moses would arise, but so would frauds. So every claim required careful testing lest the people be led astray. Enter the Pharisees. They stood like pillars among their people, the guardians and guarantors of the true faith. They aimed for purity through separation, and they focused on two key lifestyle distinctives: table fellowship and obeying their traditions. They labored for scrupulous piety and preservation of the faith as handed down by the forefathers. So when the leading local Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner, they are evaluating both Him and His teaching, and perhaps where He is off, they can offer guidance to this young aspiring Rabbi.

            So Jesus accepts the invitation. . Now the home was open to all in the community who wanted to listen, and many usually came. The door was open, and people would enter and sit around the wall of the room. There was an unspoken social rule that only those at the table could speak. Everyone else was to remain in the shadows and listen, but to the horror of everyone, someone steps out of the shadows (7:37-38). Each action took time, and with each action, the embarrassment burned through the room. The word for weeping is also used for rain showers. She is sobbing, and some might even say, blubbering. After some minutes of letting her tears wet Jesus’ feet, she then lets her hair down to wipe His feet. This borders on obscene in Middle Eastern culture even today. In many places today, a male Muslim hairdresser cannot touch the hair of a woman even for his business. Women do not let their hair down in public. Yet this woman shamelessly lets her hair down and uses it on a man’s feet. Then she goes even further: she kisses His feet. Finally, she pours expensive perfume on His feet, and the fragrance fills the room. These four actions were done with excruciating care.

            Somewhere in the middle of this horrifying display, the Pharisee reaches a conclusion about Jesus (7:39). Jesus obviously lacks discernment. How could He sit there and allow this woman with a known reputation dote over Him? This seems to confirm two failures on Jesus’ part. One, He willingly has table fellowship with the worst elements, and two, He violates the centuries of tradition about Who the Great Prophet would be. So this Pharisee draws a silent conclusion: this woman is publicly demonstrating her life of sin & Jesus is demonstrating that He is clearly no prophet. In fact, of the three, this Pharisee is by far the better person in the room!

            So far no one has spoken. Jesus now breaks the silence (7:40-43). He tells a very short parable. In today’s terms He might’ve said, “A banker called two customers with loans. One owed $20,000 on a car, and the other owed $200,000 on a house. Both customers needed to pay off the loan that day. Neither one could come up with the money. So the banker wrote off the loans. Which one will be more relieved and grateful?” Simon the Pharisee smells a trap. He answers the question, but he throws in the cautious phrase, “I suppose.” Jesus affirms his conclusion. Simon judged Jesus and this woman in verse 39, and his judgment was inaccurate. Jesus knows this woman far better than Simon could guess, but Jesus also knows Simon to the point of knowing his thoughts. On this parable, Simon offers a more accurate judgment. Now it’s time to turn that judgment in a more disturbing but helpful direction (7:44-47).

            This woman violated social protocol. Now Jesus violates it as well. Most people would expect Jesus to offer an apology for this woman and thus relieve the tension she created. Jesus could’ve said, “Simon, I am embarrassed by this. This is not the kind of scene with which I am comfortable, and I ask you not to be upset. On occasion I do eat with sinners, as you have heard, but we always keep the numbers down and we try to clean them up a bit before our meals.” Jesus, however, chooses not to preserve the dignity of his host. He instead attacks it! This woman through her actions exposed Simon’s lack of actions. Whenever we invite someone to our home, we have certain social customs. We greet them at the door, invite them in, offer to take their coats, offer them a seat, and perhaps offer them something to eat or drink. In Jesus’ day, they also had social customs. Simon deliberately ignored them, and Jesus points them out. Usually at the door, the host has a basin of water so the guest could wash his feet. Just like we shake hands, in the Middle East, they offer a kiss on each cheek. Sometimes the host will offer a cheap olive oil for the guest to rub on his feet after drying them off. Suddenly the woman’s actions take on a new significance. At some point, she has heard the teaching of Jesus about God’s love even for her. She accepted that love and it radically turned her lifestyle upside down and right-side up. She comes to the house to listen more to Jesus and is appalled at the lack of hospitality shown to Jesus. Her gratitude to Jesus motivates her to take a courageous step out of the shadows and into the glare of her community. She humiliates herself in favor of honoring Jesus.

            Her move put Jesus on the spot. Will He try to explain and maybe apologize for her, which will preserve His dignity and Simon’s dignity? Or will He defend her risky move? Jesus goes further than even she could have hoped for. Jesus in essence says to Simon, “This woman that you despise has made up for your failures as a host. You don’t think I should eat with sinners, but that would mean I shouldn’t eat with  you!” It is unheard of to insult a host in the Middle East. Jesus now directs everyone’s anger over her actions onto Himself.

            As if to seal the deal, He plunges even further into the den of anger (7.48-50). Simon doubted that Jesus was a prophet, much less the Great Prophet. Jesus now exceeds even that thought by forgiving sin. Only God forgives sin. So either Jesus is blaspheming, or He possesses the authority of God. This puts Simon and the woman back in the spotlight. For Simon, he can dismiss Jesus as a social ingrate, or he can overcome his pride and accept that he created his own distress by not treating Jesus with dignity. He can cling to his religious pride, or he can acknowledge that he, like the woman, owes a moral debt to God that he cannot repay, even if his debt is “smaller” than hers. He cannot repay his debt to God. I believe we have great hope that Simon at some point chose to receive God’s forgiveness through Jesus because Luke actually names him in this account. Luke wrote his book to a man named Theophilus, and possibly by naming Simon, Luke was offering Theophilus yet another eyewitness.

            The woman courageously approached Jesus and received even more than she could have hoped. Jesus affirmed to her that yes, indeed, her sins, which were many and known, are forgiven. Yet He also demonstrated to her why they are forgiven. Jesus stepped into the line of fire for her. Jesus was willing to direct everyone’s rage away from her and onto Himself in her place. That rage would reach an explosive and violent point at the cross. This woman, by taking a risky step of ministering to Jesus, watches Jesus move closer to her and her insight and devotion only grow because of it.

            So where are you in this story?

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