“One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.” (Luke 7:36)
In the context of the chapter (Luke 7), it’s a little odd that he should have been there at all. Odd he should have been invited. Odd that he accepted.
The reason I say that is because the chapter is a combination of stories that deal with what is “clean” and what is “unclean.” The ancient Levitical codes – and the cluster of extra traditions that had developed over the years- marked down strict guidelines of what was morally permissible.
And the Pharisees endorsed and promoted those guidelines. They saw them as the very stuff of moral life. If you obey them you are a favoured insider. If you don’t, you’re not.So scan your eye over the chapter. It starts (in Luke 7:1-10) with the account of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman centurion.
1. The Unclean Foreigner
According to Peter (in Acts 10:28a) “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Was that why the centurion stopped him coming? Was it a delicate tact that didn’t want to get Jesus into trouble? But Jesus intended to come, nonetheless. And Peter -eventually- got the point: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28b)
2. The Unclean Corpse
The next section, (Luke 7: 11-17) has the story of the raising of the widow’s son,in Nain. In our culture and age, it’s easy to miss the vital clue. It’s the moment when he reached and touched the bier of the dead man.
According to Leviticus 21:11, even to approach a corpse was to “defile”oneself. Obviously, somebody had to do this stuff -that was understood- but the one who did it was rendered “unclean” for seven days (Numbers 19:11) and couldn’t participate in community and religious life (look at the story about this very issue in Numbers 9:6-10).
Now even today, care has to be taken about infections carried by corpses, and many of the ancient rules had their basis in hygiene requirements. But the simple rules of Moses had become cluttered with extras to a superstitious level, and Jesus ignored those extras and even seemed to challenge the rules themselves in the oft-repeated statement, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you…” In respect to Jewish dietary requirements, defending his free and easy disciples against the Pharisees, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19)
Now that last verse needs some careful study, but it indicates a serious division between Jesus and the Pharisees which the next section addresses.
3. An unclean lifestyle?
Luke 7:18-35 compares Jesus to John the Baptist. John was well-known as an ascetic, and by comparison, Jesus could be gossiped about as a“glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Jesus doesn’t really address the sneer itself, but instead honours John (“I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John,”) and pokes fun at critics behaving like children in the marketplace:
“We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.”
That is to say, John brought the dirge and I brought the dance and you don’t listen either way! There’s just no pleasing you.
So perhaps it’s not odd at all that the last section in the chapter (Luke 7:36-50) shows the conflict brought to a head.
4. An Unclean woman
“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.’
Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’
‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said.
‘Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’
Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’
‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.
Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’
Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’
Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ ” (Luke 7:36-50)
Well, the story tells itself. Sometimes if you over-analyze these accounts you lose a lot of the generous and loving reality of what Jesus was doing.
But I think you can read the calculated insult of the pharisee neglecting the kiss of welcome, a servant to wash the feet of the guest and oil to anoint his head. And Jesus steadily takes this on and weaves it into his challenge. And what a challenge! Who loves God most, Simon? The one who nitpicks about rules and regulations or the one understands how much God has forgiven him?
It recalls David’s psalm from a thousand years before:
“Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2)
Simon was full of deceit. The whole invitation was a ploy to check Jesus out and to provide legalistic self-justification for not believing in him. And the woman was full of sin and brought nothing but her sorrow.
And in the gift of the sorrow, and the tears (and the perfume), she provided what Simon did not.
Or could not? Was Simon unmoved by the tears?
And she received what Simon could not. Forgiveness, healing, wholeness. ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Lord, help me never to criticise or look down on any another human being. I promise not to try to justify myself any more. “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
But I receive it.