I’m trying something different for my sermon tomorrow. Instead of taking a passage section by section and expounding, illustrating and applying each point, I’m taking a rather more narrative approach. Many have done this before me, and much better. I have tried to retell the story, bringing in the cultural significance of certain aspects to add colour. My hope is that some listeners will make their own applications along the way. However I have concluded with a section of responses, which tell you the impact this story has had on me this week, and the challenging lessons it raises for me on the relationship between church, mission and kingdom. Here goes …
It was a meal with open doors, a typical Middle Eastern invitation to dinner
where the feast was in public. Groups of interested people formed religious societies
to discuss theological issues, and Simon the Pharisee may have invited Jesus
to one such dinner. This travelling teacher would be sure to provide some
interesting discussion material. He had a controversial reputation. This could
The principal guests would be placed in order of rank, reclining
in the centre of the room, leaning on their left elbows near the bowls of food.
Behind their feet (placed away from the food, because they were considered
unclean) would stand the onlookers from the community, who had wandered in
through the court gateway and the door.
Guests would normally have been welcomed in three ways. A servant
would have washed their dusty feet. The host would have given a kiss of welcome
(either on the cheek to an equal, or on the hands to a superior, such as a
rabbi, a master or a parent). In fact, all the male members of a house would have
stood in line to kiss a rabbi’s hand. Then his head would have been anointed
with olive oil, which was cheap and plentiful. Not to follow these customs was
more insulting than failing to take someone’s coat, invite them to sit down and
offer them a drink in our culture.
However, although this meal was effectively public
entertainment, Simon would still have wanted isolation from ritually unclean
food and impure people. Which made the arrival of a notorious woman discomfiting.
Everyone in the community knew her. Simon knew her – not that he was one of her
customers, but he knew enough about her to warn others against associating with
her or her type. Tension rises at what should have been a convivial evening of
feasting and debate.
For just as Simon has heard Jesus preach and been impressed
with his intellect or intrigued by controversy, so too the woman has heard him
before. And Jesus has made a life-changing impact on her.
She comes, prepared, with a flask of perfume. Women would
wear such a flask around their neck, and she sees the calculated insult Jesus receives
upon entry to the house when he is not even anointed with cheap olive oil, nor
are his feet washed, and nor does the host kiss him. So she takes her perfume,
which would have been so important for her trade as a prostitute, and instead
of pouring it over herself to make her body more desirable, she bathes his feet
with perfume. Servants would anoint the feet of noblemen in the houses of kings
and priests; so she anoints him as if she were his servant and he were
deserving of great honour. In response to the deliberate insult Jesus suffered,
she says, “I have no more need of this perfume for my old way of life. I am
leaving that behind, thanks to you. Let me offer this to you in gratitude and
devotion. Others may mistreat you, but I honour you.”
The atmosphere is electric. The temperature is rising. Jesus
has been affronted by his host, but the person who has made up for the social
snub is most unfitting! What will Jesus do? Nothing. He stays silent.
The dread and silent outrage are only to increase, though. For
the woman also realises Jesus has not been kissed. What can she do? She is in
no position, behind him, to kiss his hand or his cheek. Well, she can kiss his
feet. But in her devotion and anger, she bursts into tears, and the tears dripping
from her face wash away the dust that should have been cleaned from his feet
when he arrived.
However, she now has a problem. She had come prepared with
the perfume, but she had not anticipated the tears on his feet, so she has no
towel. Simon would certainly not give her one. What can she do? In attempting
to compensate for the offence shown to Jesus and in demonstrating her own love
for him, she answers with her most provocative action of all. She lets down her
hair, and uses it to dry him. A woman would normally only let down her hair in
the presence of her husband. For a prostitute to do this – and in such
respectable company, too – just feel the collective blood pressure rising. Rising
with anxiety. Rising with rage. Maybe rising with other unworthy thoughts.
All eyes are on Jesus. And all eyes are on Simon, the host.
Simon blinks first. Instead of being humbled by the woman’s compensation for
his inhospitable attitude, he insults Jesus further. ‘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.’ (7:39) He mistakes her touching for something
sexual. And he doesn’t recognise that Jesus is
a prophet (and more), who actually does know the woman, and that this touching
isn’t promiscuous but devotional. To Simon the woman is still a sinner, whereas
Jesus sees her heart truly, as repentant.
This is Jesus’ moment. He breaks his silence. He uses a
phrase designed in Middle Eastern villages to introduce a blunt and
uncomfortable statement. ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he
replied, ‘speak.’ (7:40) Why, Simon is so uneasy that he even calls Jesus, ‘Master’
– the one thing his hostile actions have effectively denied!
Yet the blunt statement turns out not to be condemnation but
a parable. Jesus tells a story, and invites Simon to find his place in it. He talks
of a moneylender and two debtors. One owes a small debt, the other a large
debt. The lender forgives both. Who will love him the more? It’s a strange
thought at one level in English – who would think of ‘loving’ a moneylender? But
in the Aramaic language of Jesus’ day one word means both ‘debt’ and ‘sin’, and
the words for ‘debtor’ and ‘sinner’ are similar. Culturally, there is a
contrast between the woman, who is a ‘sinner’, and Simon, who is socially in
debt. But in Jesus’ eyes, they are both sinners. Simon is trapped by Jesus’
question about who will love the more. Embarrassed, he stutters, ‘I suppose the
one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ (7:43)
Now Jesus gets bolder. Affirming Simon’s answer, he
continues speaking to him, whilst looking not at him but the woman – for he is
about to praise her. ‘Simon,’ he says, ‘you insulted me as a bad host. You didn’t
arrange to have my feet washed, you didn’t kiss me and you didn’t anoint my
head with oil. This woman, whom you despise, did all this instead of you.’
This isn’t just an exercise in contrasts. Jesus is trashing
social convention. It was always the rôle of the guest at the feast to praise
the hospitality of a guest, and it was always the function of the host to
provide every want of the guest, and to demur at the sound of all praise for
his efforts. However rude Simon is, it is also true that Jesus is a bad guest. However,
he is prepared to be a bad guest for the sake of grace and truth. In a
male-dominated society, he extols the virtue of a woman – and a woman of
dubious virtue. ‘Simon, I didn’t even ask you to wash my feet, I only expected
the water to be provided, but you couldn’t be bothered to do that. This apparently
despicable woman washed my feet with tears and wiped them dry with her crown
and glory, her hair.
‘You gave me no kiss – neither as an equal, nor as if I were
your rabbi. You might as well have slapped me on the face. But in place of one
absent kiss, this woman covered my
feet – yes, my feet, the symbol of degradation! – with kisses!’
‘One other thing, Simon: you couldn’t even run to
inexpensive olive oil for me. But this woman you consider worthless spared no
expense. Simon, in these three ways this woman whom this community considers
inferior to a man of your standing has proved herself superior to you. For those
who know they have been forgiven a lot love extravagantly; those who have only
received a little forgiveness only give love in small quantities.’
He doesn’t even say that Simon doesn’t need much
forgiveness, only that he has only received a little forgiveness. In other
words, Jesus’ devastating analysis is that Simon and the woman are both
sinners. The difference is that the woman has sinned outside the Jewish Law,
but Simon has sinned inside the Law. So much for the righteousness with which Simon
would have prided himself, which isn’t that unusual in religious circles
throughout history. Simon, it isn’t that you’re a good man with a few spiritual
debts, such as some social failings as a host; no, you are proud, arrogant,
hard-hearted, hostile, judgmental, shallow, insensitive, sexist and a stranger
to God’s grace. You are the unrepentant sinner, not the woman.
As I said, devastating. And if that isn’t shocking enough, Jesus assures the
woman that she has received God’s forgiveness. How dare he? Hearing that,
people have to come down on one side or the other regarding him. Heretic and
blasphemer or prophet and Messiah? With it, he protects her from the seething
religious crowd, for he sends her on her way: ‘Go in peace’ (7:50).
As the woman goes in peace, the diners and remaining spectators are left with
their question about Jesus. They have to answer for themselves, just as we have
to supply our own ending to the story, as if we were present.
Would Simon have admitted that he was as great a sinner as
the woman is, to the point that if Jesus really wanted to avoid sinners then he
should have given him a wide berth? Would he have recognised that he had not repented
of much and found God’s grace? Would he have responded to the woman’s model of extravagant
love in response to divine mercy?
Is it possible, then, that the longer we stay in religious
circles, the more we get into routines and familiar responses, the more we have
to guard our hearts from the danger of forgetting our fundamental need of God’s
grace in Christ? The moment we start labelling certain sections of society as
particular sinners as if we somehow are not, alarm bells should ring. We may
have lost our grip on grace and we may have wrongly labelled some people as
beyond the love and mercy of the God whose Son went to the Cross for our
Then there is the woman. She had already encountered Jesus
before this incident. Jesus’ mission did not begin here. The religious world
may be scandalised and offended by certain people, and Jesus never minimises
their sin, but his mission begins with love and mercy for such people. Grace warms
hearts, not condemnation.
And if Jesus’ mission has begun before his dinner date with
the theological students, then it makes me wonder about the way we organise
things in the church. We have an obsession – and it certainly affects me – to get
things right in the church before we venture out on mission. Part of that is a worry
that if people are touched with God’s love, then what kind of church will they
then encounter? This concern is based on experience. I have seen a young
convert trying to cope with a spiritually cold church. I have known a
congregation where one woman makes a beeline for new visitors, ‘welcomes’ them,
and within minutes starts telling them all the things she doesn’t like about
But Jesus’ approach upends all my concerns here. The woman,
the ‘new convert’, finds her way into the midst of those who consider
themselves experienced in the ways of God. And at first, she doesn’t get the
welcome into the pilgrim community. But Jesus is not under obligation to keep
that community going. If necessary, he will create a new community as
he gathers the sinners and outcasts who have found new life in him. In 1983, Howard Snyder wrote
The church gets in trouble whenever
it thinks it is in the church business rather than the Kingdom business.
In the church business, people are concerned with church
activities, religious behaviour and spiritual things. In the Kingdom business,
people are concerned with Kingdom activities, all human behaviour and
everything God has made, visible and invisible. Kingdom people see human
affairs as saturated with spiritual meaning and Kingdom significance.
Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice;
church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth.
Church people think about how to get people into the
church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church
people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see
the church change the world.
Jesus challenges our priorities. We are obsessed with saving
the church; he is committed to saving the lost. If we joined him in his enterprise
of saving the lost, then maybe the church will be saved in the process. The Simons
of this world will have to decide whether they come along or stay behind,
What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through
Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp 1-21.
Howard Snyder, Liberating The Church
(Basingstoke: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1983), p11.