We have just heard a vivid story. A Pharisee has invited Jesus to his home for a meal. For some reason he skips over the customary acts of hospitality – water to clean off dusty feet, a kiss of welcome, oil to moisten the skin from the arid heat. We don’t know if this host is in a hurry, just overlooks the social expectations, or if his invitation has a root of antagonism towards Jesus. What we do know is that Jesus is a guest but not a guest of honor.
Into this meal barges a woman identified only as a “sinner.” She wastes no time in showing Jesus marks of welcome. She falls at his feet with tears falling to the floor. The tears wet Jesus’ feet, and she wipes them away with her hair. She kisses his feet – not his cheek – and she pours oil on them. She never utters a word in the story, but her actions speak far louder than any words could speak. Her actions show her desire to welcome Jesus into her life. They show not just hospitality but an eagerness to find welcome and meaning in connecting to Jesus.
Understandably, this has caused quite a stir in the room, but the way Luke tells the story is like a movie director who has zoomed in on the expressions of Jesus and Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus into his home. I imagine they look at each other for a while, and Jesus sees straight into Simon’s heart at the deeper issue that is at stake here. Like a subtitle, Luke tells us what Simon is thinking. If Jesus were truly a prophet, then he’d want to be as far away from this woman as possible. She’s a sinner, and not just the kind of sinner who’s easy to get along with. She’s outside of the community. She does things that anyone with any sense would steer far clear of.
Jesus breaks the tense silence with a parable. This one is straightforward. A lender has two debtors. One owes a day’s wages to five hundred people. The other to fifty. The lender decides to forgive the debts of both. I suspect if I asked you the same question Jesus asks Simon, you’d respond in the same way. While both would be grateful for the cancellation of their debts, surely the one who owed more would be even more grateful.
This parable becomes immediately practical to the situation. Jesus turns to the woman and points out all the ways that she showed welcome to Jesus. She wept on his feet. She wiped them. She anointed them with oil. In these actions Jesus sees her heart. She sees her need of Jesus, and Jesus affirms her actions by extending grace to her. It’s really a remarkable thing. She utters no words, but her actions show her heart. Jesus’ actions show this to be true – the one who is forgiven much, loves much. Jesus goes straight to Simon’s self-righteous heart, bluntly telling him that “the one who is forgiven little loves little” (7:47).
Fred Craddock summarizes this story like this, “Here are two religious leaders suddenly in the presence of a sinful woman. One [Simon the Pharisee] has an understanding of righteousness which causes him to distance himself from her; the other [Jesus] understands righteousness to mean moving toward her with forgiveness and a blessing of peace.” Simon distances from her. Jesus draws near to her. Psalm 32 also goes directly to the heart of Simon (or anyone who thinks they have it together and who thinks that anyone who isn’t like them isn’t the object of God’s love). “The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven, whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!” I know Pastor Kristine made the point about confession last week that some have complained to her that it’s such a downer. This story and this psalm flip that narrative on its head. It’s not a downer. It’s the gospel! It is a weekly reminder of God’s vast love for us, no matter the condition of our hearts.
Many of us are church insiders. What do I mean by that? A lot of us have been a part of churches for much of our lives. While it’s an incredibly good thing to be a part of a church for a long time, I do think that the familiarity can dull us to the radical nature of God’s grace. As we take the edges off that grace, we start to cluster around people who are like us, people who view the world similarly, people who have their lives together, at least in our estimation. Yet, this story challenges us not to fall into that mindset. It turns out that the message of Jesus often has the greatest appeal and largest impact on those who know they need grace and mercy the most. It also turns out that those whose lives feel pretty well put together are usually the last to feel the need for grace.
So, who do you identify with more in this story? Simon the Pharisee, who is comfortable with Jesus but not dependent on him? The woman, who through her actions conveys that she desperately needs the welcome and forgiveness Jesus has on offer? Speaking personally, I suspect I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve felt like each of them, but as time has gone on, it is so easy to become like Simon – to be OK with Jesus but not really feel the sense of great need of him. Self-reliance can be a form of self-righteousness, right?
When we as individuals or as a church act like Simon, we begin to draw lines around who’s in and who’s out. We all have this issue. Who are the people in our community or in our individual lives that we might look at the way Simon looked at this woman? She has come to Jesus knowing he would welcome her, and he does without making her do anything to earn his welcome. He saw straight into her heart, and he knew she was ready to receive his grace and kindness. This is an act of hospitality.
Sadly, in our well-intentioned efforts to please God by doing what we think are the right things, we have separated ourselves from those who are seeking to know Jesus through us. We distance, but Jesus would have us draw near. They are those who need our hospitality. And we are those who need to learn daily how to be open to others who bring healing and grace into our lives, particularly in unexpected ways.
I have found that the more I learn about God’s love and grace, the wider my circle becomes. Any time I run into thinking someone doesn’t belong with Jesus, I need to check myself, because, frankly, I am acting like Simon the Pharisee and not like this woman, the recipient of God’s grace. Jesus understands righteousness as drawing near to those in need of forgiveness and peace. Simon understands righteousness as distancing himself from sin. Friends, we need to be more like Jesus. Understanding welcome means breaking through the walls that keep us separated.
Today is a communion Sunday, and I’m proud to say that our table is a welcoming table. At this table, Jesus draws near to any who would come seeking grace. This table does not exclude. All who would come, may come – no matter your age, your life story, who others say you are. It is a table where we are reminded that we have been forgiven much, so we are called to love much. At this table, Jesus draws near.
For within the bounds of God’s grace, all are welcome. Within God’s grace, there is no other.