Jesus at Our Table
Psalm 5:1-8Luke 7:36-8:3
Imagine Jesus at our table. Imagine that the scene from the gospel lesson takes place at your house. You’ve invited over one of the neighbors for supper. From what you’ve heard, he’s a good guy – a bit strange, hangs out with an odd crowd, kind of a contrarian, but a good guy, nonetheless.
You’ve spent hours preparing the house, cleaning it, finally getting around to mowing the lawn and dealing with the pile of dishes in the sink. As always, you’ve run out of time as the hour approaches, and so the last remains of all you didn’t have time to sort – the piles of paper on the dining room table, the children’s toys strewn across the living room, the newspapers stacking up next to your bed – all of this has been shoved into the back closet, hoping no one will open it up and notice it.
While your sitting at dinner, the doorbell rings. Your heart sinks. It’s that neighbor that no one wants to talk to. She’s often out on the lawn in her bathrobe with her hair in curlers, shouting for her cat while a cigarette dangles out of the corner of her mouth. Before you can ask what she’s doing there, she pushes past you to the guest, bows down at his feet, and begins to wipe them with oil. Your mind races. Your first thought is on the floor, which you’ve just finished swiffing, and now you’ll have to clean up the oil slick. You wonder if she’s armed as you contemplate calling the police. And your guest? He just sits there and takes it, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world. What does that say about him? More than a little bit strange, you begin to think. You regret the whole evening and wish you had just brought home some Thai food and rented a movie.
There’s a part of us that can build up sympathy for Simon the Pharisee, if we allow ourselves. So many stories of the gospel become familiar after a while, or if it’s the first time we hear it, we know that Jesus is supposed to be the good guy, so we quickly make up our own minds about everyone else in the scene. Jesus likes the woman, so she’s the heroine. Simon thinks negative thoughts about Jesus – and besides, he’s a Pharisee – so he’s the villain. But when we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisee, imagining this strange scene taking place at our own dining room table, things suddenly shift and the certainty we might have felt about hero and villain becomes a little bit more complex.
Now of course, moving a first century Semitic story into the 21st century in North Atlanta may be part of the problem. There are details of the story which Luke’s original audience would have assumed, but which are utterly foreign in language and culture to our eyes and ears.
We learn a bit from Jesus about the customary hospitality of the day as he turns his attention to his host at the end of the lesson. If you were welcomed into someone’s house, you become part of their family. The host is responsible for your well-being. When Jesus entered, therefore, Simon should have given him the welcome greeting of a kiss on the cheek. “You are now part of the family,” it says.
And having traveled to be there, whether from another town or simply across the way, Jesus would have been dusty from the road. Simon should have provided him with that water to wash and that oil to cleanse, just as he would for his own. Simon, apparently, shirks his duty as a first century host.
Elizabeth and I got to know some of these traditional practices living in Palestine, where the rules of hospitality still hold sway in ways that we have lost in the West. One story comes to mind that shows the gap between cultures and centuries. Marwan, a close friend of ours, had traveled to the States to study nursing in Indiana. Bob, one of his fellow students invited him over to hang out on a Saturday afternoon. When Marwan arrived, Bob invited him in. “Would you like something to drink?” Bob asked.
Marwan, ever the polite young Arab gentleman, demurred. “No thank you.”
Marwan wasn’t used to American rules of hospitality. Back home, his host would have insisted. It is all part of ritual: the guest doesn’t want to appear greedy or presumptuous; the host doesn’t want to be accused of being stingy.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“No thank you.”
“No, really. What would you like?”
“I’m not thirsty. Thank you.”
“We’ve got water, juice…”
“What are you having?”
“Which do you prefer?”
“I’ll have what you’re having.”
Unfortunately for Marwan, he was in a brave new world. Bob asked him once. Marwan said no. Bob headed to the kitchen and popped open a beer. It was a hot July day, and Marwan was parched. After half an hour of conversation, Bob got up. “I’m hungry. Do you want something to eat?”
Again, Marwan’s mother had trained him well. “No thank you.”
Bob went back to the kitchen and started making himself a sandwich. Marwan was famished.
After another half hour, he hit upon a solution. “Bob,” he said, “What was that question you asked me when I first arrived?”
“You mean, ‘Would you like something to drink?’”
“Yes, I would.”
Unfortunately for Simon, our host from the lesson, everyone in the story was playing by the same rules. They all would have been more comfortable in Marwan’s world than in Bob’s. And in that world, Simon failed in his duties as a host. And to underscore this point this unnamed woman enters the story, with embarrassing extravagance, outdoing Simon’s pitiful hospitality with her own welcome and embrace. She kisses his feet over and over. She weeps profusely, perhaps in joy, perhaps in sorrow, bathing his feet, baptizing them in tears. She dries them with her hair, and anoints them with expensive oil from an expensive alabaster jar.
The story takes on the life of a living parable, as we read Simon’s thoughts about the woman’s wickedness and the questionable nature of this Jesus he has invited into his home. Jesus then turns Simon’s attention from the events taking place before his eyes with a parable about the two debtors and the creditor. One owes ten times that what the other owes. Who is more grateful if both debts are forgiven? The one with the larger debt, of course.
It is interesting what the parable implies: first, that both Simon and the woman are debtors to the same creditor. What an amazing thing to put the two of them on equal footing like that! The division between them is clear. The woman owes far more than Simon. But Simon’s debt isn’t zero – there is something that he owes. There is sin in him, too. And yet, the woman’s debt is clear. She is, as Simon has rightly judged, a sinner, one with great debt. And both are offered forgiveness by the creditor. Of course she rejoices, with this embarrassing extravagance, with tears and hair and oil and kisses.
The lesson should be clear to those gathered. The woman is forgiven and becomes the model of faith. Simon, on the other hand, blows it. He’s a decent fellow, still respectable in the community, with his minimal debt level, but as a grateful host, he misses the whole point. The one at the margins is brought center stage. The righteous Pharisee is humiliated in his own home.
But the story doesn’t end there. Even Luke’s first century audience, who would have caught all of the cultural cues that we might miss, knew that this two-level parable wasn’t about Jesus, a woman, and a Pharisee. They knew that we, too, are caught up into the lesson, that we are characters in this grand drama, inviting Christ to our table, weeping at his feet, embarrassed by the actions of those who show gratitude and whom we would rather not be around.
It is for us a lesson far beyond whom we name as villain and hero, but rather how we see ourselves in the story: who we are, or who we fail to be.
Is it Simon that we are most like? As we imagine the scene taking place under our own roof, does our sympathy for him grow, as we begin to wonder about the scene before us? Do we wonder what the other neighbors might think, seeing the weird bathrobe lady at our door? Is our own respectability at stake, our role as decent folk in the community, if we open the door to her? Are we willing to open our minds to God, that those thoughts of which we are most ashamed might see the light of day, and be brought into their own living parable of debts and forgiveness?
Or is it sympathy for the unnamed woman that overflows? Do we feel ourselves on the margins of society, others looking askance, not bothering to give us a name? Do we know the weight of debts, of sins too great to carry or reveal? Or do we know this gratitude that gives us to scenes of abandon, with tears and hair and oil and kisses? Or is that too much of a stretch? Would it be too much to let our pain and gratitude out in such embarrassing displays of grief and affection for one who loves us and is willing to let our debts be forgiven?
Or is there a clue for us in Jesus’ response? As Simon wonders at the company he keeps, it is not Jesus’ actions which are being questioned, but those with whom he hangs out. Respectable folk don’t spend time with the likes of this woman. Is there something in Jesus’ calm response, his welcome of this extravagance, which can teach us something of what it means to be his disciple? Can we learn what it means to welcome those with whom we’d rather not spend time, not because of what we might think of them, but because we’re worried about what others might think of us?
Friends, in some way, this whole story is illustrative of the Church. We are, as a community of faith, by definition, a mess. Here in this place, we are respectable Pharisees and unnamed women. We are debtors to the same creditor. Some of us owe more than others; only the creditor knows for sure. But before we even set foot in the house, we are welcomed at the door. We are kissed profusely. We are welcomed home as family, our well-being entrusted and protected. We are bathed with tears, with the waters of baptism, and anointed with the healing touch of Christ. It is here that we begin to recognize that it is not we who invite Jesus to be at our table; instead, we are all invited to be in his presence.
May the richness of our gratitude embarrass us.