Sunday, June 12, 2016
Full Service Audio
It is a coincidence that on the Sunday we are having our annual picnic that our text is about Jesus having a meal. The passage is one of the great encounters of the whole of The New Testament. It is one that you cannot overlook for the depth of its meaning is in every word and phrase. You see, it is clear that as we look at the Gospels and the life of Jesus so much of what he did revolved around meals. It seems that in those meals Jesus was able not only to convey messages, but to enjoy conversations, and fellowship with a variety of people. Jesus was somebody who engaged people in dinner conversation and thrived on it. Once again, we have Jesus in one of these settings. In fact, so many times when Jesus reveals the nature of his kingdom and his ministry he is having a meal, whether it is the Miracle of the Wedding of Cana and the turning of water into wine, or feeding people by the beach in the feeding of the five thousand, or inviting himself for dinner, which he did with Zacchaeus, saying “Come on, Zacchaeus, I am going to dine with you tonight”, or in the Upper Room in the most intense moments of his life with his disciples, or now here, in the house of a man called Simon the Pharisee, we get an insight at the dining table into the life and the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
It was fitting that it was in the home Simon, the Pharisee. It is hard to know why Jesus was invited to dine with this Pharisee. Some have suggested that maybe the main reason that he did it was because he wanted to take Jesus on, that he wanted to embarrass him, maybe that is why he wanted to do it, to trick him, to be an agent provocateur, to get Jesus to say something that could be used against him. Maybe he was attracted to Jesus. Maybe Simon, the Pharisee, genuinely thought Jesus was a prophet. Yet, as we can tell, there are moments here where he is disrespectful to Jesus as a guest. Or maybe it was, and I suspect that this is probably true, that he simply wanted to be in the presence of a star. He wanted to be in the presence of someone well known – a celebrity! By this time in Jesus’ ministry, he was already an itinerant preacher. People around Galilee knew who he was. He had performed healings; he had given prophetic speeches, he had disciples and followers, and Simon the Pharisee probably thought that by having this celebrity Jesus over for dinner, he was going to be able to influence other people.
You see, the power of celebrity is not something that is just new to our age; it has been around since time immemorial. It feels good sometimes, doesn’t it, to be in the presence of a celebrity. It lifts you up! It makes you feel for a moment as if you are vicariously important because of the relationship you have. This week, watching all the coverage of Mohammad Ali, my mind went back to 1969 in the lobby of The Princess Hotel in Bermuda (I shared this with you once before, years ago). My father and I were sitting in the lobby waiting for someone who was visiting the island who was a friend of ours, when this enormous man – and he really was! – came striding like a Colossus through the entrance of the hotel. My father elbowed me and said, “Do you know who that is?”
I didn’t have a clue. He said, “That is Mohammad Ali.”
So immediately, I went to the Front Desk, I asked for a piece of paper and a pen, and I ran up and asked him for his autograph, and he gave it to me and said, “You know who I am, do you, boy?”
I said, “Yes, sir. You are Mohammad Ali.”
He said, “Oh, I am more than that – I am the greatest!”
I thought I was being transported somewhere! I felt so important! I took Mohammad Ali’s autograph to school with me every day for three weeks, and every classmate began to hate me. I still have it, and if you want to see it by the way, you just let me know! There is something powerful about being in the presence of someone great, and maybe it was what Simon the Pharisee, calculating as he was, thought “Jesus is getting a good name. I should get to know him.” On the other hand, the dinner doesn’t go very well.
You see, Simon had opened his home not only to Jesus, but to visitors. This is not a well-known fact but Pharisees would often have open dinners. In the courtyard outside their homes, they would invite people to come and to learn from them in a rabbinical form. They would learn the stories of The Torah and the Bible. It was not uncommon for outsiders, strangers, to come and take part in the meal: not as the special guest, but simply as somebody who felt it was important to be there. Surprisingly though, for Simon the Pharisee, it wasn’t just anybody who arrived, it was the local prostitute. Simon the Pharisee was horrified that his house would be made impure by the presence of this woman. But she is not there for him; she is there for the celebrity. She is there for Jesus! In a most vivid encounter, as G. K. Chesterton described it, “This was like a play appearing before our eyes and not a poem.” This was a play, a vivid play, where this woman comes in to the house of Simon the Pharisee and she goes right to Jesus.
What she does there is profoundly Jewish: it was a custom. Jesus would be reclining, probably on his left elbow with his right arm being able to feed himself, but as reclining the feet would actually be on a bench or on a couch. She stands – as we are told in great detail by Luke – behind the couch and she starts to wash his feet. She washes his feet, which was a custom when you entered someone’s house, but to do it, she used her tears. Here was a woman who was distraught, she took her hair and wiped the tears and the dust off his feet. This is highly symbolic, for an immodest woman would have her hair loose, but a good woman would have her hair tied up in that custom. The fact that her hair was loose shows her lack of modesty, but she wipes his feet with her hair. And then, she kisses him, a sign of humility, but also a sign of affection. She then takes out an alabaster jar, which would be around her neck, again another common custom. It was often filled with concentrated perfume to be used very rarely, only in special moments to signify purity and the uniqueness of the situation. You would only wear your best perfume for the big events. But she took this perfume out of the alabaster jar in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth.
This was loaded with imagery! Can you feel the tension? The Pharisee is there with a prostitute kissing and wiping the feet of his guest. This star, Jesus, is now taking over the scene! Who is this man that he meets with such people? He calls himself a prophet, and these are the kind of people who follow him?! Simon was furious! He rejects what Jesus is doing. He rejects the woman. He can’t believe that all this is happening. Jesus, in taking the brunt of the wrath of Simon, then shows the contrast between them. He says, “Just a minute now, when I came here you didn’t wash my feet, you didn’t give me sandals for my feet, you didn’t dry my feet, you didn’t embrace me, which is the custom! You didn’t take out the most valuable things that you have in an alabaster jar and give them to me. Yet, you stand in judgement of this woman when she is the one who shows how much she loves, how much she understands.” Can you feel the tension? The contrast between the woman’s attitude towards Jesus and the Pharisee’s attitude towards Jesus could not have been more telling!
Why is this story in the Bible? Why has Luke gone to such lengths to describe this moment? The crowds were saying “What kind of prophet is he? If he can do this, what kind of a person is this that he would associate with someone like her?” I think it shows the magnitude of Jesus’ magnetism. When you look at the Gospel stories, have you noticed who follows Jesus for the most part? Who he actually goes out of his way to meet? And, who goes out of their way to meet him? It is often the disabled, the dying, the sick, the outcasts, the foreigner, the diseased, the blind, the ritually unclean, and the. Do you see a theme? The people who in the world’s eyes are the most vulnerable and weak are the ones who are turning to Jesus in their time of need. The world will often shun the vulnerable and the weak and say, “Let’s not deal with them anymore. Let’s push them out to the cloisters. Let’s keep them away. Let’s just get rid of them! Who cares in the end?” Not Jesus of Nazareth! To Jesus of Nazareth, every single life is deemed to be precious right to very last breath! For those who are the vulnerable and the outcasts, Jesus is there! And the magnitude of his ministry is that it is precisely those people who in the Kingdom of God find someone who loves them.
It is also for those who need forgiveness, for those who have had broken lives and need to be healed. This woman had no hope of being able to re-enter society after what she had done and been. There was no way back for this woman. Let’s be clear: her path was set for her to the end of her days. But Jesus forgave her. And, what was the great affront in this, because according to the Scriptures only God can forgive, so those who looked on saw that he was claiming a divine power, that he was claiming a unique relationship with God the Father, and they rejected him, because Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven. You are now put in a right relationship with your Maker. Never mind how your life has been up till now; it is what it will be from this moment forward.” This was powerful!
It was often common in Jewish society in the first century to sit around a table and entertain each other by telling riddles and stories. They would sometimes try to outdo one another with the quality of the riddle or humour. We still do that from time to time today when we have dinner with people, don’t we? Who’s got the best story of the night? You try to dig deep and find something that is entertaining. Of course we do! Who would want you as a guest if you didn’t have anything entertaining to offer, and who would go to a house if they didn’t entertain you? Jesus is having a moment with Simon the Pharisee, and he tells a riddle. He says, “Two people have debts: one has a lot; the other a little. If the debts are forgiven, who is the happiest?” This is a simple story, but makes a powerful point. In other words,” Simon, you who maybe have by the standards of this earth fewer sins, are not going to get too excited or too emotional when your sins are forgiven. But this woman, who has been shoved to the corner of the earth and will be banished from houses like your own, she will love a lot, because she has been forgiven a lot.”
Not very long ago, I did a stupid thing. I booked a hotel, and I thought I would save some money, so I used Marial’s points card. I booked the hotel and got a discount and was very happy because I had saved quite a bit of money. Just as I pressed the “Send” button, it struck me: I wasn’t booked into the room; my wife was. I panicked! I thought, “What happens now. Will I get the discount?” I phoned Customer Service at 1-800... and waited for twenty-five minutes, I was so upset! Finally, I explained what had happened and asked if they could change the reservation? They said, “Sorry, sir, we are not able to change the reservation now.”
I am thinking, “Hundreds of dollars down the tubes here!”
But then they said, “Are you related to the individual who is booked in?”
I said, “Yes, it is my spouse.”
They replied, “It is okay then, sir. As long as you are related and can show it, that is all that matters. You will be able to use the room. Everything will be fine.”
The air went right out of me! I had been so anxious, I felt this incredible burden being lifted. If you are related to someone, it is okay!
When Jesus allowed that woman to wipe his feet, when he received her kiss, took the perfume, accepted and forgave her, she was free! This is because Jesus had adopted her into his kingdom. Can you feel the relief? The Gospel is always in inverse relation with the world. The Pharisee didn’t have that much to give thanks for because he wasn’t aware of his own sinfulness. I love what Oscar Wilde once wrote in A Woman of No Importance. He said, “After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” After a good dinner, you can forgive anybody – but not the Pharisee! No! He was not as aware of his own shortcomings as he ought. He saw the shortcomings in the woman, but not in himself. As John Calvin rightly said, “We cannot aspire to God before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.” This Pharisee was not displeased with himself at all. In fact, in his rudeness and arrogance, he had shown his very own weakness.
It is those people, I think, and those of us who at times think ourselves beyond the need for forgiveness who are the ones who love the least, who are thankful the least, not because grace has any octane levels. There is no low octane and high octane grace: a low octane for the more righteous and a high octane for the unrighteous. Grace isn’t like that! As David said to me this morning, “All grace is high octane.” It applies to everybody. It is a gift. It is a gift of grace. But it is us that make the difference; not the amount of forgiveness of God. The forgiveness of God is there. It is offered in Christ. It is fulfilled in his Cross. But it is often us, in our hardness of hearts that do not love him, because we do not see its value. For those who love a lot, they have been forgiven a lot, and those who have been forgiven a lot, love a lot. But all are loved by Christ. And we learn all this from one meal! Amen.