Jesus – just not conforming!
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 7:36-8:3 ESV)
Who is Jesus?
I suppose you hope that I know the answer! Perhaps you’ve been asked that question and you were expected to give an answer. What did you say? Is it the same answer you gave 10 years ago? 20? Has the church been saying the same answers through the centuries?
Who is Jesus? Of course, we can give creedal responses. They’re good – concise – familiar and permanent – “and Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate …” – this Jesus died, rose again, and ascended. If we’re asked ‘What does that mean?’ we might reply “I believe that Jesus Christ true God son of the Father from eternity and true man born of the Virgin Mary is my Lord” and go on using Luther’s explanation to the 2nd article of the Apostles’ Creed to talk about how he bought us back with the only currency that counts – his own blood – his suffering and death. We can give answers – good ones – to such questions.
But the questions still come – maybe from others maybe from within. But who is he? Or maybe the question is more ‘What’s he like?’ and the hidden question is ‘Would you like to be stuck on a desert island with him?’. I think of the Jesus-es of the art world in my life time and I can remember law-and-order Jesus, hippy Jesus, revolutionary Jesus, political Jesus, and what is he today? After 2000 years of church history and with such an influence in the western world, the followers of Jesus know him to be the ‘good guy’ and even those who don’t follow him associate him with goodness, kindness, and caring – at best he becomes a great teacher. So when we hear about Jesus then everything he does is right and anyone who opposes him is wrong – and while that may be correct – it is now too easy to miss how Jesus was perceived by the people who saw him, walked with him, listened to him, had dinner with him, was helped by him. And that means that Jesus might still be easy to miss today.
Consider our gospel today. Simon the Pharisee versus Jesus. Well, as soon as we know that Simon is against Jesus then Simon ‘loses’, he’s in the ‘bad books’ and the woman is forgiven.
This is a public meal and Jesus is invited to be scrutinised. Simon the Pharisee regards Jesus as a prophet (maybe another John the Baptist) and possibly a ‘Teacher’ and scholars suggest that everyone who is present has heard Jesus speak. Luke records Jesus explaining himself and his work – his signs – we often use the word ‘miracles’ – to John the Baptist’s disciples and then to the crowd as Jesus explains John the Baptist’s prophetic role in preparation of the One to come and how foolish the current generation is who can’t read the signs. They call God’s messengers ‘demons’ and the Son of Man ‘the friend of sinners’. Repentance is the lens by which one can understand the times because there is hope, mercy, and forgiveness available. Dare one risk it and repent? The scene in Simon’s house is the practical demonstration of this teaching. Simon and guests scrutinise Jesus and don’t think much of him and in turn are clearly exposed.
There are exposed by the behaviour of a woman – not many details given other than she is some sort of public sinner – who puts Jesus’ words to the test and finding no rejection from Jesus even though she is behind him (and we can imagine she is aware of hostility and rejection from Simon and possibly the others) she discovers that Jesus’ words are true and her repentance weeps from her onto his feet which she then dries with her hair – an intimate act and one quite socially dangerous – for a woman’s hair was not to be loosened outside of the house – and she anoints his feet with perfume which she either had with her or had brought specifically to give to Jesus. The event happens almost before we realise it and then the thinking and talking starts.
Simon thinks – Jesus talks – and we suddenly realise that this was not some sort of polite social dinner party of urbane and witty guests – but this was a nasty situation. Simon has invited Jesus to be his guest but not observed the usual courtesies of kiss of greeting, washing of feet, and pleasant anointing. Whatever the motive, Simon treats Jesus as his inferior. Good manners back then also said that Jesus should have played the role of the polite guest – and thanked his host for his welcome and the effort he had gone to be hospitable – even if the host hadn’t. We expect Jesus to be nice and polite but he … isn’t. What Jesus does by calling attention to Simon’s poor hospitality in public – by comparing Simon the Pharisee unfavourably to the woman socially regarded as a sinner – is brazen and shocking. We might like this sort of comeuppance for Simon – he deserves it we reckon – but Jesus is quite tough.
Simon, you are an arrogant piece of work, a lousy host trying to point score in the righteousness stakes as a Pharisee when you are so blind that you cannot see genuine repentance in front of you – the big thing, which as Pharisee, you are on about. Your love is small, your forgiveness is small, you are a small. Now, I don’t know if you picked this up but Jesus says all this facing the woman – Jesus doesn’t even bother to look at Simon to tell him off! And like the story of the elder son outside the house after the prodigal younger brother has returned, so we are left wondering what Simon does but we know that the woman is forgiven, her faith in Jesus has saved her, the grace of God in Jesus has brought another into the kingdom of God. ‘Go in peace.’
And immediately we find Jesus on the road – a bit of a preaching tour – more gospel words bringing good news of the kingdom of God. And Luke gives a roll call – the Twelve – yes, we’d expect them. But there’s more … some women … those who had been healed or exorcised – we meet Mary Magdalene – not a prostitute but released from 7 demons – Joanna, Susanna, and many others not named – and here’s the kicker – they were supporting the group with their own funds! Practical ministering, deacon-table type work.
Um, Joanna, where’s Chuza your husband? Couldn’t he get time off from Herod? Is he happy for you to be here? The usual picture of Jesus and the Twelve takes a battering here as we realise that Jesus on the road was possibly quite a group (maybe up to 120 if we consider what Luke says in Acts) requiring logistical support. We have no indication of manna from heaven or miraculous meals from left-overs but instead we find the practical ordinary running a budget and getting supplies for a group that seems strange because … just how are these men and women related? We don’t know – and that has to be scandalous.
Our gospel today conveys good news – forgiveness and mercy – all centred on Jesus – in the house of a so-called righteous person and on the road – and yet when we pause and have a second look, a more studied look – we find that Jesus seems to disregard appearances, protocols, customs, laws, rules, etiquettes – in fact our gospel confirms what other passages also suggest that Jesus is really a Lord unto himself. He is focused – disciplined – about his Father’s business he said when he was 12 – doing the will of he who sent him – asking for another way but drinking the cup to the end. He knows what is best – you can’t beat him in any argument – he sees through traps and trickery – he answers questions you’re only thinking about – he’s not bullied or terrified by others – he’s not interested in keeping up appearances – he can’t be manipulated.
So let me ask you this – if I was describing anyone else except Jesus, would you want to be close to him? I suspect not. We might even know some people who almost fit the bill and humanly speaking, they’re insufferable, and no, living on a desert island with them would not be our idea of fun.
Yet the woman wanted to be close to Jesus. The band of men and women who travelled with Jesus stayed with him. And disciples of Jesus through the ages have said the same. What have they seen?
Why are we here today?
Finally, it’s all to do with a cross!
Jesus’ ministry on earth led to it and the ministry of the church promotes nothing else – Jesus Christ and him crucified. His focus, discipline, will, mercy, forgiveness, grace all zero in on … you! Jesus uses water, bread and wine, and sinners – he’s not fussy about appearances! – sinners who speak to come to people – to you to give you life and what you need to live with him. From our perspective, our faith and trust in him, cannot leave repentance – daily struggling with sin – and turning to Jesus trusting him in all things – that is our core experience of Jesus – whether we’re in tears of pain or of joy, whether we are on top of the world or the darkness is our closest friend – whether our faith can move mountains or its only a mustard seed and we keep saying “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.
Today you might be Simon – ‘good’ Lutherans who know theology of grace but live it as an excuse to be selfish and to dodge repentance. Stop, don’t do it anymore.
Today you might be the woman – ‘bad’ Lutherans ashamed of sins who repent – maybe make private confession – and who in response to Jesus’ mercy seek to amend daily living which means changing behaviour and that will be noticed (eventually) by those around you. Do it, Jesus is helping you.
Today you might not be a Lutheran – you’ve wandered in or woken up and discovered you’re here and not sure why – is Jesus genuine? Can he help? Will he?
The good news answer is ‘yes’!
Jesus has won salvation for you, forgiveness for you, new life for you – there is hope only in him! He died and is alive again, never to die – here for you. Jesus doesn’t conform to us – he rather recreates and transforms us to be like him.
That’s who Jesus is!
- Luke 7:36 - 8:3