An unfinished story
This morning's gospel reading is a dramatic story that invites its hearers and readers to participate. We can imagine ourselves in the audience watching a play or as one of the dinner guests. However, most hearers identify, consciously or unconsciously, with either the Pharisee, who occupies a position near the apex of social acceptability, or the prostitute, who was among the least socially acceptable. Three elements of the plot deserve our attention.
First, Jesus welcomed both the Pharisee and the prostitute. Pharisees were Jews who strictly interpreted the Torah's 613 commandments. Moreover, the Pharisees "fenced" those commandments, that is, they imposed additional restrictions on their behavior to avoid unintentionally failing to observe part of the law. These additional restrictions eventually became the oral Torah, the Halacha. Illustratively, the Torah instructed Jews not to work on the Sabbath. The Halacha enumerated the actions that were and were not allowed on the Sabbath.
Simon, a Pharisee, vigorously practiced his faith, was hospitable, and sufficiently interested in spiritual growth to invite Jesus to dinner. Yet Simon was not perfect. He fell short in his duties as a host. He didn’t have a servant wash Jesus’ feet, which was an ordinary gesture of welcome in a hot and dirty climate where all wore sandals. He did not kiss Jesus, a gesture comparable to the Hawaiian practice of embracing acquaintances and guests. Simon was apparently curious, wanting to know more about Jesus, but didn’t want anyone to think that he was too close to Jesus. Probably for similar reasons, Simon did not anoint Jesus with a few drops of oil because that act signified honor and respect. In short, Simon saw himself as a decent, respectable, and devout person. My guess is many of us see ourselves in a similar way: pretty good, decent Christians, but not ready to commit to radical obedience nor desirous of being branded a Jesus fanatic.
The woman is a prostitute. Fully aware of her sins, her moral condemnation by the Torah, and her public ostracism, she fully appreciated the enormity of Jesus' welcome. She, an unclean woman, gratefully washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed his feet with expensive perfume.
Second, Jesus not only welcomed both the Pharisee and the prostitute, he also loved them. The prostitute experienced Jesus' love as acceptance. Instead of recoiling at her approach, he affirmed her intimate gestures of washing his feet with her copious tears and then drying them with her long hair. Jesus' actions in this incident remind me of the father embracing the prodigal in one of Jesus' parables, a healing embrace between two lovers, and all of the times when a person experiences God's love through a touch, gift of bread, drink of water, and so forth. The peace is important liturgically not only to enable friends and family to greet one another but also to follow Jesus' practice of loving the unlovable. As Paul Tillich put it so eloquently, "Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness … it is as though a voice were saying, 'You are accepted.'"
Jesus communicated his love to the Pharisee in a different way. Simon did not need food, shelter, or a healing embrace. Simon required instruction in God's unlimited love. So Jesus asked him, who would love a former creditor the most, a debtor forgiven 500 denarii or a debtor forgiven 50 denarii. The denarius was the usual wage for a day labor, so these were large sums in a subsistence economy. When Simon replied that the one forgiven 500 denarii would love the most, Jesus noted the parallel between hypothetical debtors and Simon and the prostitute.
Then the story abruptly ends. The plot has no final resolution. Did Simon recognize his own shortcomings and need for forgiveness? Did the woman successfully adopt a new lifestyle or did she, out of desperation and lack of alternatives, resume her occupation in the sex industry?
Jesus welcomes, loves, and then extends an invitation to follow him. Each person must decide whether to accept that invitation. Walking the Jesus path requires a long obedience in the same direction, repeatedly saying yes to God's love in Jesus.
Ben Hooper was born in the Tennessee foothills of the Appalachian Mountains early in the twentieth century. Children like Ben, born to an unwed mother, were ostracized and treated terribly. By his third birthday, other children would barely play with Ben. Parents did want their children associated with children like Ben.
The schools did not have kindergarten. When Ben entered the first grade at age six, he stayed at his desk during recess because the other children would not play with him and ate his snack alone because nobody would eat with him.
A new preacher came to town when Ben was twelve. People liked the preacher and groups visibly brightened when he joined them.
One Sunday, Ben decided to go to church, something that he had never done. He arrived late and left early, to avoid contact with the other parishioners. On the seventh or eighth Sunday that Ben attended the worship service, he became enthralled with the sermon and forgot about the time. Suddenly, the service ended. The aisles filled with people.
Then Ben felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and looked up, directly into the preacher's eyes. "Whose boy are you?" asked the preacher. Instantly, the church became silent. "Slowly, a smile started to spread across the face of the young preacher until it broke into a huge grin, and he exclaimed, 'Oh! I know whose boy you are! Why, the family resemblance is unmistakable! You are a child of God!'"
Jesus welcomes you. Jesus loves you, offering acceptance, assurance, forgiveness, and instruction. And Jesus invites you to walk with him, but the choice is yours. Are you walking with Jesus?