The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
Jesus taught that the “blessed” – or the “happy” in an equally good translation of the original – are “the poor in spirit”: those who know they have no claim on God, but still hang high hopes and deep contentment on God’s gracious validation of them. Tim Keller has noted that many a church person has thought they knew better than Jesus and that it is even better to be “the middle-class in spirit”: those who, while acknowledging their imperfection, still believe God owes them some things on the grounds of all the good they do.
In today’s Gospel story a religious leader represents those who are “middle-class in spirit”; and a prostitute, those who are “poor in spirit”. I think it will soon become apparent who is the happier and more blessed!
Because life has changed so much since Jesus’ days, let me set the stage a little. Back in first century Palestine the wealthy would build big houses with courtyards at their center, where (among other things) they’d eat their suppers in the hot weather. They did not sit at tables, as we do today; but would recline on mats laid out on the ground, with their heads meeting in the middle and their feet spreading backward in every direction. They would lean on their left elbow, and with their right hand take food from family style bowls and plates from a low table in the middle of the circle their heads had formed.
Since in those days people were welcomed to drop in uninvited without warning at any time, and since strong taboos held in check any temptation to steal from neighbors, no doors or gates locked anyone out. Thus, if a celebrity of some sort were visiting, it was half-expected that most anyone might pop in to catch a glimpse of the person or to listen a bit to what he or she had to say.
The owner of this house was a man named Simon. He was a Pharisee, a member of the religious party that overwhelmingly viewed Jesus in a negative light.
Though Simon invited Jesus over for dinner, his exact feelings toward Jesus are unclear. His not extending to Jesus the culture’s customary courtesies of a kiss on the cheek, a drop of perfume on the head and a splash of cool water on the feet indicates, at best, ambivalence toward the controversial carpenter/rabbi. Simon might have invited Jesus over just to give himself a chance to check Him out first hand!
Certainly, Simon was suspicious of this popular, but un-credentialed itinerant rabbi.
If, however, once Simon had been reserving judgment about Jesus, all his suspicions were confirmed, and his negative estimation of Jesus became settled, once he saw Jesus put up with, apparently without any qualms, the unseemly physical affections of a well-known prostitute.
Back in the day, any unmarried man and woman touching one another in public was scandalous, and women only unbound their hair in the most intimate of settings. Moreover, this woman was not just any woman, but one who sold her body for sex. She was a prostitute, the lowest of the low to “decent” folk.
Back in 2011, Philip Yancey visited a mission that ministered to prostitutes. At one point, he told a group of them that Jesus had said that many prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders. Yancey then asked the women what they thought Jesus meant by saying that.
After several minutes of silence, a young woman from Eastern Europe spoke up in broken English. She said, “Everyone, she has someone to look down on. Not us. We are the lowest. Our families, they feel shame over us. No mother nowhere looks at her little girl and says, ‘Honey, when you grow up, I want you be good prostitute.’ … We know how people feel about us. People call us awful names. We feel it too. We are the bottom. And sometimes when you are at the bottom, you cry for help. So when Jesus comes, we respond. Maybe Jesus meant that.”
It would appear that what mattered most to Simon was the maintenance of decorum and his own reputation. So, when that woman made a scene, all he could see was an embarrassment to himself and a discrediting of Jesus.
What mattered most to Jesus was the return of one of the Lord’s beloved lost lambs to the green pastures of God’s great grace, and all he could see was a heart overflowing with love and gratitude, with hope and a renewed sense of her own value.
Though the Gospel gives us no particulars about her story, what else could explain her losing her head and all sense of propriety but her having received from Jesus a marvelous, life-transforming gift? How do her actions make any sense apart from what Jesus Himself suggests: that she was caught up in a giddy appreciation and celebration of God’s gift of forgiveness, love and a new identity? She who had always been viewed as less than nothing had heard from Jesus that she was something special to God. She who had always been called trash had been treated by Jesus as a princess of heaven.
Given how her life had just been redeemed and uplifted, can you imagine Jesus being bothered by a mere breach of etiquette?
What matters most to us? The keeping of our sense of how things should be or the saving of souls? The maintaining of decorum or the wild, happy partying of the angels in heaven? The satisfaction of our preferences or the rescue of those precious to God?
Jesus sent the newborn woman on her way with a sweet wish, “Go in peace.” But where could someone like her go and find peace? The religious establishments Simon represented, places that should provide a welcome and a home, would castigate and reject her. Was there any place for her to go other than back to the hard streets where she had for so long been abused, except by fellow victims? Yes, there was a place for her to go and find peace: the new community Christ was creating, a community of the forgiven and the forgiving, of saints with a past and sinners with a future, of the grace-saved and the grace-sharing.
I don’t think it is an accident that this Gospel story is immediately followed by a list of the women who financially supported Jesus to enable him to abandon carpentry and devote himself full-time to preaching the gospel. The two we know anything about were unsavory characters to the Simons of this world. Joanna was the wife of the chief administrator of Herod, an unprincipled career politician who played both sides against the middle and who collaborated with the evil occupying power (Rome) oppressing his own people. Mary Magdalene was a formerly deranged and bedeviled woman who had to have seven demons cast out of her. These were Jesus’ people. These were people with whom the former prostitute would fit right in. These were people we should imitate.
This story begs the church to be the church! It cries out for us to care about what God cares the world about: people and their redemption. Simon’s religion encourages us to keep a distance from the embarrassments of this world. Christ’s religion encourages us to draw close to them, embrace them and then launch them into a new life of grace with God. What are a few raised eyebrows compared to a broad smile on God’s face? What is our passing discomfort compared to the eternal comfort of others? Let us pray.