a sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3 for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on June 16, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Jesus had a bit of a reputation. He had started out as just another teacher wandering around Galilee to offer an interpretation of the scriptures, following in the footsteps of his cousin John the Baptist and proclaiming a new way of life for the people of Israel, but he had quickly moved on to start healing people from seemingly incurable illness and had even revived a man whom everyone else thought was dead.
As his reputation grew, one of the religious leaders decided to invite him over for dinner—even they had to take notice of him. As this Pharisee, a man named Simon, saw it, he was doing Jesus a favor, giving him a nice meal in a nice house, surrounding him with the right kind of people, offering him the audience he needed to get his words into the right ears. Of course, it didn’t hurt Simon to be seen with Jesus, either—the people had warmed to Jesus’ message and clamored for him to come into their villages to tell a parable or heal the sick, so anyone who could be seen as offering him hospitality would get an extra benefit! But when Jesus arrived at Simon’s house, he was ushered right into the dining room to sit down for dinner, almost as if the host was as anxious to have Jesus leave as he seemed to have him come. His reputation preceded him, after all.
As they settled in for dinner, an unexpected guest wandered into the house. Like Jesus, she had a bit of a reputation, too, but hers was very clear. Everyone in town knew that she was a sinner, though Luke does not tell us exactly what sin she was known for. As dinner went on, she made her way to the table where Jesus was and began to weep as she stood behind him. She collected her tears and began to wash his feet, then she dried them with her hair and anointed them with the ointment that she had brought along with her.
It was a scandalous moment. The most notorious woman in town, known as a sinner to seemingly everyone, was washing the feet of this special guest who claimed to be a teacher and a prophet. Simon the Pharisee and host was astounded, although he did not utter a word. Still, he was not happy that his house would be scandalized in this way, and he just wanted Jesus to see her for what she was, condemn her, and send her away.
But Jesus’ reputation was also very clear—he was just the kind of guy who would eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners. He could tell that his host did not want this sinner-woman crashing his party, but he would not be the one to send her away. So rather than confronting or engaging, Jesus asked his host the Pharisee about forgiving debts. If two men had both had their debts forgiven but one had debt ten times larger than the other, would both men show equal love for this generous act? Simon responded that the larger debt would inspire greater love, but then Jesus pointed out that this woman was just like that man. While Simon had offered Jesus nothing more than an invitation to dinner, this woman had made him feel welcome, washing his feet and showing him true hospitality. She was truly thankful for what Jesus was and offered him a deep and wondrous gift.
So Jesus lifted up this sinner-woman as a model of faithfulness to this pious religious-man, for she had shown Jesus great love and welcome in someone else’s house simply because he offered her a place to find the fullness of new life. Her sins were forgiven, and Jesus sent her on her way: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” She had a new reputation now.
Christians these days don’t have such a good reputation in dealing with those named as “sinners”—if anything, we usually are the ones calling the names, not the ones extending grace. In the world’s eyes, at least, we seem to be much more like Simon the Pharisee than Jesus: singling out groups for special hatred or lower status because of their gender, sexuality, life circumstance, or religious persuasion; complaining about our mistreatment as Christians mostly because we aren’t as dominant in society anymore or those of other faiths demand the treatment once reserved for us; claiming that God’s favor is upon us and us alone, to the exclusion of those who are different; and struggling to extend the grace that we have known to anyone other than ourselves. We seem to be far more about controlling our religion than about following Jesus.
But Jesus’ dinner at Simon’s house tells us that we should have a different kind of reputation—a reputation of welcome, generosity, and grace. As commentator Justo González puts it,
Even though Jesus is a religious teacher, his teaching is not about religion. It is not about how to be more religious. It is not about how to gain God’s acceptance. It is about a God whose acceptance of sinners the religious find jarring. It is about a God whose love cannot be bought even by great acts of praise or mighty deeds of justice. It is about sinners who rejoice at the great forgiveness they have received, [as opposed to] religious people who wish God were more religious [like them]—more amenable to being mollified by acts of worship, piety, and devotion… [Ultimately,] the sinful woman is able to receive and accept grace in a way that the religious Pharisee cannot. (Luke, p. 102)
So in this encounter with the woman, Jesus insists that our reputation needs to be different, that our life in the world must be marked with the amazing grace that we ourselves have come to know and love, that our actions toward others must demonstrate the same kind of welcome that Jesus himself offered to this woman and everyone he met, and that our generosity must be not about holding on to what we have or even perpetuating a faithful way of the past but rather about using our gifts to extend God’s welcome to anyone and everyone.This is ultimately our greatest call as people of faith: to show God’s love to those who seem all but unlovable, to extend God’s welcome even to those we would rather keep away, and to embody God’s priceless grace in a world where the focus is all too often on counting the cost. We should have a reputation for these things, for faith, hope, and love beyond measure, without cost, shared with anyone and everyone, a reputation for being like Jesus.
We don’t build this reputation by joining the church, putting a little extra in the offering plate, or even being honored or remembered in a gift made by others. Instead, this kind of reputation comes as we follow Jesus in our individual lives and in our common life. We can go with him to proclaim and bring the good news of the kingdom of God to people who are used to hearing nothing but bad news. We can tell others what we have seen, what we have heard, and what we have experienced as we have walked with Jesus along the way in hopes that they might join us on the journey too. We can offer strange and surprising acts of hospitality to those who come into our midst as this unnamed woman did with Jesus, setting aside our fears and trusting that God is somehow working among us beyond our understanding. And we can provide for the needs of this community and the whole witness of the household of God just as these faithful folks, named and unnamed here, did with Jesus. In these and countless other ways we can embody Jesus’ welcome of all people, show God’s love for all creation, and receive and pass on God’s amazing grace in the world.
So may we get a reputation of mercy, grace, and love because we offer God’s deep welcome to anyone and everyone in our life together, because we show our deepest care and concern for others, and because we join in God’s transformation of our world begun for all in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.