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Imagine What Would Happen

June 17, 2013

“Imagine What Would Happen” Luke 7:36-8:3 © 6/16/13 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let’s be clear on one thing right away. Mary Magdalene was not the sinful woman in the story we heard this morning. That woman is in fact unnamed. It’s not the Scripture, but popular imagination and legend that identifies Mary as both a prostitute and the weeping harlot of the tale. But Mary was mentally ill, not morally suspect. You recall that Jesus cast seven demons out of her, healing her affliction. She became a prominent figure in the early Church. In the text today, Luke has her and other women traveling with Jesus and supporting him and the other men out of her private funds. So she was apparently well-to-do as well as independent and iconoclastic. Mary is even portrayed in one Gnostic gospel which bears her name as in conflict with Peter over leadership among the disciples. I wonder if The Da Vinci Code was right. You may recall author Dan Brown’s claim that the Catholic hierarchy decided to slur Mary and make her a prostitute in order to discredit her place among the apostles and thus discount women in leadership in general. At any rate, the Church ended up an old boys’ network for centuries, and the leadership women exercised in the early days as priests and deacons was suppressed and done away with.

That said, we also need to understand that the unnamed woman of the city is not necessarily a harlot. “Sinner” in that day and context simply meant someone who was not scrupulous about following every detail of the Law of Moses, which had had all sorts of interpretations and rules added to it over the years. Plenty of people were “sinners” in the eyes of the Pharisees. But from the way Simon is scandalized and from other details, we are probably meant to think that this woman did sell her body.

There are other aspects of the account that may not be clear. First, the feast. The woman was not a gatecrasher. Meals in the homes of the wealthy provided free entertainment for common folk. The doors and gates were left open, and the meal was in an atrium or courtyard. Anyone could come in and stand along the walls. The amusement came from the witty conversation among the guests. The riddle Jesus posed to Simon was part of that kind of exchange. The woman was simply one of the many uninvited people who were spending an evening at what amounted to unscripted theater.

Another aspect of the feast is the posture of the people eating. One reclined in the ancient world around a mat or low table on which the food was placed. Guests supported themselves with their left hands and ate with their right. Forget those images of Jesus and the disciples sitting in chairs at a long table; they’re wrong. So Jesus would have been lying on his side with his feet within easy reach of someone standing or kneeling behind him. The woman wasn’t crawling around under a table, dodging the feet of the other guests. She simply came to where Jesus was and began her work of adoration and anointing.

Next we need to grasp something about first century customs regarding social propriety for women. As in many Eastern cultures today, women wore veils when in public. And they wore their hair up in a modest style. It was only in the intimacy of the home and with their husbands that they let their hair down. So this woman having her hair down in public was considered a scandalous, provocative, sensual display. And the fact that she was touching a man not her husband in a way considered intimate only added to the shock and outrage Simon and his guests would have felt. When we come to the passage about the women who traveled with Jesus and the disciples, we need to remember as well that women did not keep company with men who were not related to them. And they certainly didn’t leave their homes and go about the countryside on a preaching tour for weeks at a time.

Finally, the Pharisees. Simon belonged to a group of dedicated laymen whose goal it was to see the law of God kept. These men were not priests or professional religious scholars. They were simply devout Jews who longed for the kingdom to come. This may come as a surprise, but in their time, they would have been considered liberals. That was because they accepted more modern writings than the Sadducees, the other major party, and believed in things like the resurrection of the dead and angels, which were products of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. They were against the Roman occupation, unlike the high priest and the lawyers, who were collaborators. It was finally the Pharisees that saved Judaism after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

Jesus argues with them a great deal. But that’s because he knows their potential, and he wants them to achieve it. It grieves him that they come so close, but can’t quite get it. Some of them, like Simon, simply did not see that they needed forgiveness and grace like the street harlot. They were self-righteous, and thus rejected what God wanted to do in their lives. We don’t know what effect the incident in the text had on Simon. Luke’s interest is not in him, but in the woman and the example she provides.

And that’s what we need to turn to now. Remember that the gospels were written to instruct new Christians in the faith. They are about how believers are to live. These stories are meant to provide guidance on what the church looks like, how we follow Jesus individually and together. And they still can do that if we are willing to hear their message.

So what does this account invite us to be and do? We might notice first that the Church and individual Christian envisioned here accept and practice forgiveness. The woman knew her sin was great, and that only a great and gracious God could lift such a burden, cancel such a debt. Simon, on the other hand, did not consider himself sinful. He felt he was righteous in his condemnation of a prostitute, with his pursed lips, dismissive tone, and scandalized sensibilities. Even though his arrogance and his pride in his holiness in fact condemned him before God, Simon felt no need for forgiveness. So he received none.

When we will not let ourselves be judged by God, we also will not let God be merciful to us. When we refuse to be accountable to God, neither will we allow him to cancel our debt. We are not guiltless just because we do not commit the overt, gross sins that make the news and come to mind when someone talks about wrongdoing. And remember, it’s not just active sin that marks us as deficient in holiness. It’s also our omissions, what we fail to do. Simon did not give Jesus a kiss or anointing or water; he did the bare minimum and thought he had done all that was required.

Our common need for forgiveness levels the playing field with every other human being. And the knowledge that we are all broken should lead us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Imagine what would happen if unlike the typical dysfunctional family, the typical politician, the typical media story, the Church as well as individual believers proclaimed and practiced forgiveness.

But if forgiveness is one practice commended to us in the text, so is hospitality. The woman showed hospitality to Jesus his host had failed to give. She did these acts of adoration because she had known the great love of God. Hospitality is the key practice that shows God’s love has truly taken hold of us.

In the first place, hospitality to Jesus. This is our adoration of our Lord, our welcome of his commands, our embracing of his way. The woman used the very resources of her body—her tears and her hair—to show love to Jesus. She spent her money to buy perfume. Jesus accepted it all.

We too show hospitality to our Lord when we give of our resources to his work. Maybe we will even shed tears in our grief over the state of the world or the loss known by a friend. Could be our task will be a humble and loving one for the benefit of another, like the woman undertook in anointing Jesus’ feet. We use our hands, our heads, our hearts, our minds, our money—all the resources at our command—to give to Jesus what is due him.

But if we show hospitality to Jesus, so also do we give hospitality to other believers and to our neighbors. In so doing we show that his love has permeated our lives.

In his book Unlearning Church, Michael Slaughter, a Methodist pastor, urges us to remember that “you don’t eat until everyone is at the table.” He laments that “we come to the wonderful spiritual banquet of God, and we start scrambling for the best seats. We fight for the best parking spots. We crowd ahead of others in the coffee line. We miss the heart of God, which is focused on those who aren’t yet at the table…. As long as one person is on the outside, God grieves. If you are connected to God, you grieve with God…. What does it mean to love God? I don’t want to eat until everyone is at the table.”

Another writer has some observations about possibilities for hospitality. After talking about entertaining in homes, he says: “We can think outside the box a bit, too, by remembering that having people over for dinner is not the only way to be hospitable. A single father I know sometimes invites a few men over for an evening of conversation and board games. The men bring their own snack foods and drinks, and have a wonderful time together. A college student can invite a visitor to the campus ministry to meet him or her at a coffee shop for lunch. A mother with small children can invite a few other moms over to bake Christmas cookies together. A person without transportation can be invited to come along on your shopping trips.

“In all of these situations a person new to the faith or new to your church may feel freer to ask questions he or she might be uncomfortable asking in a Sunday school class or other big meeting. And the better people know each other, the less likely they are to misinterpret or mistrust one another–which adds to the harmony in churches and families” (see note 1).

Hospitality that will renew the church is sitting down to a meal with friends or with people who are different. But it goes beyond meals and entertaining. It’s welcoming the ideas and longings of those we despise or suspect because of their lifestyle, dress or age. It’s following Jesus by welcoming those he welcomed. It’s authentic living that may earn us the right to be heard about our faith.

Welcoming others in such a way seems to be a lost art and in some circles, a suspect and rejected practice. Politicians in Washington bicker and blame and refuse to cooperate; it seems they intentionally don’t get anything done. The states do a little better, but as Professor Robert Reich noted last week, policies and laws in “many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. In effect, America is splitting apart without going through all the trouble of a civil war” (see note 2). Imagine what would happen if the Church of every stripe and individual believers truly modeled gracious hospitality in the way of Jesus. Might civility and courtesy, even genuine interest in the outlook of others, be restored?

Finally, the Church and the individual believer modeled on examples in the text do not follow the conventions of the culture but rather the call of Christ. Jesus accepted the woman of the street when others were scandalized. Women traveled with and supported him and his disciples, against the custom of the day. The Christian movement in its early days at least pushed against cultural boundaries.

Contrast that with what the church became. Just another hierarchy, another corporation, another club. Propped up by the culture, supporting the status quo.

The late Robert Webber was a respected writer and teacher on worship and the church in the 21st century. Here is his description of the state of the Church: “ Many people feel the current church is in crisis. So much attention has been focused on growth that we have lost the nature of the church. The church appears to be a mile wide but an inch deep. Many experience the church as shaped by the market, appealing to consumers, characterized by hype, and lacking in committed people. It appears to be more an extension of culture than a continuation of the Incarnation, more evangelistic than [mission-minded], more individualistic than communal, more hierarchical than relational.”

Bottom line: the Church is supposed to be different. That means in these days of rage, we are called to reconciliation. Acceptance, not anger. Helping, not hurting. Listening, not shouting down. Dialogue, not dismissal of every viewpoint but our own. Imagination, not insults to those with new ideas. Cooperation, not competition. Love, not fear. As the Book of Order once put it, “the Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity….The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.” What is the new reality? “The new reality revealed in Jesus Christ is the new humanity, a new creation, a new beginning for human life in the world: (1) Sin is forgiven. (2) Reconciliation is accomplished. (3) The dividing walls of hostility are torn down.”

Imagine how seekers hungry for forgiveness, hope, and healing would be drawn to such a community. Imagine an authentic fellowship following Jesus. Imagine going in peace. God intends it. God will do it. God be praised.

Note 1

Note 2


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