The Woman Washes Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus has gone to eat with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the purity of themselves and their faith community and they did that by following and interpreting the law given by Moses and that we find in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Pharisees rarely ate with people outside their own group. If they did invite someone outside their group to their home, they would ensure that proper washing had taken place and that the guest was wearing a clean garment which they provided.

Jesus arrives for dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. No water or clean clothing is provided but the food is served. Part way through the meal, a woman arrives with expensive perfume. We are told that she is a sinner. We are not told anything about her sin.

When we read scripture we sometimes think of sin as prostitution or adultery. In Jesus’ culture sin simply referred to not keeping the Jewish law. If you were not particular about who you ate with, or the foods you ate, you could be labelled a sinner. In our own culture, it might be helpful to think of sin as brokenness in a relationship. The broken relationship might be with God. It might be with ourselves. It might be with another person. It might be with the earth. Sin is the action that leads to this brokenness. Sin causes hurt and pain. When we say the Lord’s prayer, I use the word sin rather than trespass because sin carries the weight of hurt and pain. To me, trespass means I have walked somewhere I shouldn’t have—a vacant lot for example. There’s really no harm involved and minimal consequences. Sin implies something different—it is word used exclusively to describe the hurt and pain that causes brokenness.

In our culture, we associate doing something wrong with a sense of shame or guilt that we place on ourselves. Our conscience kicks in and we can often (but not always) tell when we have said or done something that causes pain to ourselves or others. Sometimes, these hurts are a blip. Sometimes we can heal the relationships that have been damaged. In Jesus’ culture, the guilt and shame was not internally based and self-directed. The community was the conscience. It was the community that identified when sin had been committed and responded by labeling someone a sinner. Being identified as a sinner excluded people from social gatherings, limited access to the temple or synagogue and made earning an income difficult. There was also an understanding that an illness or something bad happening might be the result of sin. Whether you had done something or not, you could be labelled as sinner. People who were labelled as sinners became isolated from their communities and found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty and broken relationships.

In the story, a woman who is labelled a sinner arrives to wash Jesus’ feet and anoint him. We don’t know anything about her sin. We don’t know where she came from or her connection with the household that Jesus is visiting. We don’t even know how she knew Jesus was there and that the host had not offered correct hospitality. Simon, the Pharisee, is perhaps grumbling to himself about the woman who has entered, is now touching Jesus and making him unclean. Simon also thinks that Jesus should know better than to associate with sinners. Jesus calls Simon on his behavior. He begins by telling a story about forgiving debts. Two people owe debts—one owes 50 coins, one owes 500 coins. Neither can pay and so the person holding the debts forgives them both. The obvious lesson from this is that the person with the bigger debt will be more grateful to the money lender.

But the story isn’t really about the money lender and these particular debts. Jesus really has something to say about the Pharisee and the woman who is washing his feet. Simon has sinned by not offering correct hospitality—by not washing Jesus’ feet or providing clean garments. Simon, as a Pharisee, should have been particular about these rituals. Simon—who might be a bit obsessed with keeping the law, and avoiding sin—has sinned by not providing hospitality. The woman, that Simon was looking down his nose at, has provided more than the correct hospitality. Even though she was “the sinner,” she was the one who knew how to do what was right. She was the one who knew how to love. That love overflowed from her in how she cared for Jesus.

Sometimes the people that we want to label and keep out of our communities and gatherings are the people who have something to teach us about showing love and hospitality. Sometimes we want to keep out people with mental illness or disabilities, sometimes we want to keep out people who practice a different religion or whose skin is a different colour from our own.

Sometimes, expected behavior doesn’t match the social location that we place people in. We would expect the random people eating pizza to share. They have an abundance and so we should expect more of them. That’s not how this video played out. The person who didn’t have money to buy pizza and who may not eat tomorrow shared his pizza. In the gospel story, we see Simon, the insider fail to provide hospitality and the woman who is “a sinner” welcome Jesus and tends to him. Who is more faithful in this story—Simon, the Pharisee, who talks about the law and purity or “the sinner” who provides hospitality?

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Where are you looking for God’s Kingdom?

In Luke 7:18-35 John the Baptist’s followers have been watching Jesus and bringing word back to John about all the things that Jesus is doing. There may even have been some rivalry between the two groups. John sends a couple disciples to check out what Jesus is up to. John wants to know if Jesus is the messiah or if they should they wait for another.

They find Jesus continuing to do exactly what he has been doing. Jesus is curing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits and giving sight to the blind. The lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news. Jesus sends this message back to John.

John’s messengers go back and Jesus continues to preach to the crowd. It seems that Jesus is preaching to a group of people who were followers of John. Perhaps they have become disenchanted with something John said or did. Perhaps Jesus has more pizzazz. Perhaps Jesus is spending more time in the communities and less in the wilderness. This is a group who have been to the wilderness with John and are now following Jesus around. And Jesus asks them why they even bothered to go to the wilderness with John. What were they expecting to find out there? Jesus asks if they went to see a reed shaken by the wind. This might be a reference to wild sugar cane. It would grow 4-5 feet tall and during the day when it got really hot the tops of the canes would droop to the ground. It was apparently very pretty but not really the focus of a trip into the wilderness. Perhaps they went to see someone in fine clothing and living in luxury. Why would you go to the wilderness to see that? You would be looking in the wrong place.

Jesus is asking, “If you didn’t go to look at the wild sugar cane and you didn’t go to look at the wealthy people in their finery, why did you go? What was in the wilderness for you? Maybe you went to see a prophet—a prophet like John who is sending out the message that the messiah is coming.” Jesus has a crowd of people who have heard John’s message. They have even, like Jesus, been baptized by John. The crowd is made up of an assortment of people—including tax collectors who were perceived as corrupt. This crowd of people was looking for the kingdom of God. Looking for what was to come. They had gone to the wilderness looking for the kingdom of God and hoping to find it in John and in baptism. They were seeking something—something better than what they had. They were looking for hope that their oppression would end.

The Pharisees were trying to maintain their purity and obedience to God’s law. They saw the John and Jesus movements as barriers or threats to the Jewish people’s ability to keep God’s law. Jesus was crossing too many barriers and breaking too many of laws they felt were necessary to be faithful. They were looking for new life in the laws.

At the core of Jesus’ message is a sense that the important thing is not the law but to bring good news to the poor. You might remember from several posts ago, that the poor refers—not just to the economically disadvantaged—but to anyone who is socially marginalized. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was touching people who lived with illnesses. He was touching dead bodies and raising them to life. He was healing on the sabbath. All these things make him unclean and impure in the eyes of the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, it was more important to keep the law.

Jesus goes on to speak about the Pharisees as those who refused to participate in God’s kingdom. He describes them as children who haven’t learned how to behave appropriately. They haven’t learned that when there is music you should dance. At a sad time, like a funeral, you should cry. Because they haven’t learned how to behave appropriately, they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Yet children know instinctively that when there is music you should move and dance. Children pick up on the emotions around them and know when others are sad or upset. The Pharisees should instinctively know how to participate in God’s kingdom and yet they choose not to.

How many opportunities do we miss to participate in God’s kingdom? I have been reflecting lately on my own reaction to conflict. It is sometimes easier to walk away and remain silent rather than risk creating a scene or getting into an argument with someone. I find myself responding to difficult situations in this way. We learn ways of dealing with conflict in our homes as children. Sometimes, families have good and healthy ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conflict is surrounded by silence. Sometimes it is surrounded by violence.

One of the ways I deal with conflict is by remaining silent. By doing so, I miss the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. We sometimes think—and are taught to think—that God wants us all to get along and so we cannot disagree openly. Jesus engaged directly in conflict. By not engaging in conflict, I sometimes let injustice or inappropriate behavior go unchallenged.  In doing so, I maintain the status quo and miss an opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Instinctively I know how to participate in God’s kingdom but at times choose not to.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to engage conflict. He wasn’t afraid to disagree openly as a way of helping people to understand God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t afraid of challenging people who thought differently from himself. He always grounded the conversation in his understanding of God and God’s kingdom. He didn’t just tell someone they were wrong. He brought the conversation back to what God’s kingdom would look like. He brought the conversation back to the teachings of the prophets. This seems like a good model for engaging conversation with people who have fundamentally different world views. As people of faith, we need to learn how to speak about our values in a way that reflects our faith and expresses our understanding of who God is and how the world is meant to be.

 

 

The crowd Jesus is speaking to had gone looking for God’s kingdom. Some had gone looking for it in the wilderness. Some had gone looking for it in following the law exactly. God’s kingdom is not in either of those places. God’s kingdom is found as we challenge injustice and seek to welcome the stranger and those on the margins. Many of us know this instinctively but are hesitant to risk being hurt.

I sometimes find it difficult to engage in what could be a conflict but as I see what’s happening in the world, I am reminded again God’s kingdom is not found in wealth and power. God’s kingdom is not found in dividing people but in drawing us together. God’s kingdom is not found in destroying life but in creating hope.

Absolute Rules?

In Luke 6:1-16, we see Jesus continuing his ministry and he’s finding himself in conflict with the religious authorities. They want Jesus to stick to the rules—the way they think they should be interpreted. Both Jesus and the Pharisees value scripture but the Pharisees want to stick to the letter of the law. Being faithful becomes about following the rules, rather than the rules giving life. Jesus’ focus was on how the laws could bring life.

Jesus and his followers are walking along on a Sabbath day and they are hungry so they pick some grain to eat. Picking grain was considered work so Jesus and his disciples were in violation of the Sabbath laws. Some Pharisees see this and question Jesus. Jesus refers them back to scripture and reminds them that David and his followers were on the run and they were hungry. (1 Samuel 21) They asked a priest for help and were given the Bread of the Presence which was only permitted to be eaten by the priests. David went on to become the great King of Israel. So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that David did not lose favour even when he broke the rules. The conversation about the Sabbath continues as Jesus enters the synagogue and heals someone’s hand.

Rules are not absolute. They help create a social structure and set boundaries but Jesus is warning against allowing the rules to rule our lives at the expense of truly living. In Jewish society, if you followed the rules you were an insider. If you did not follow the rules, you were an outsider. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus is challenging the whose social order. When someone had a disability, they were seen as unclean, as an outsider. After being healed this person would be welcomed back into the community. Jesus, on the other hand, places himself on the outside by healing on the Sabbath. It raises questions—yet again—about who is in and who is out. It raises questions about the role of the law and whether there are times when it is appropriate to break the rules or break the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian born in 1906. (For a good biography of Bonhoeffer check out: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Paperback by Eric Metaxas.) Bonhoeffer was a young man as Hitler and the Nazi regime rose to power. He was a pacifist and an outspoken critic of Hitler. His pacifism was grounded in his faith and in his belief that Christianity could not just be an intellectual belief but must be lived. His faith led him to resist the Nazi regime. He watched holocaust happen. He watched the Nazi invasion through Europe and struggled with what to do. His faith told him that to use violence to resist violence was wrong but he could not stand by and watch these events unfold. His non-violence resistance seemed to be losing ground so  he and some other religious leaders became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Even someone who took their faith seriously and knew the rules, struggled with how to respond. To stand by and watch was wrong but to kill was also wrong. Which of these is the lesser of two evils?

 

Most of us will not be faced with this type of extreme situation but we do have situations in our lives where we need to decide whether rules should be kept or broken. Throughout history, and depending upon culture, the rules change. At one time, women were required to wear hats to church. And we no longer have that standard. At one time, it was standard for men to wear hats to church but now people are offended by men wearing hats in church. Sometimes rules around appropriate dress can prevent people from feeling welcome if they don’t know the rules or are unable to fulfill those rules for some reason.  Rules do play a useful part in ordering our lives and structuring our culture but rules for the sake of rule are sometimes destructive.The rules change and what we know of the rules—whether it is about the Sabbath or appropriate clothing or proper behaviour—always needs to be questioned in terms of whether something brings life or destroys life. Does it help people to be faithful or is it a barrier to being faithful?

What rules might God be calling you to reconsider?

Amen.