Friends, guess who’s coming to dinner? Do you remember this wonderful story in the Gospel of Luke? About a man named Simon the Pharisee? Well, Simon was hosting a special dinner in his own courtyard, and his very special guest was no other than Jesus, a sort of raising start in those days to judge by the crowds that followed him wherever he went. But who was Simon, you may wonder?
Simon was a Pharisee — a member of a prestigious, and somewhat feared, religious elite in Israel. The Pharisees spent their entire life studying religion and morals and encouraging everybody to live a holy life – which was not a bad idea after all! Yet they ended up believing that devotion to God required the strict application of commandments and rules to every day’s life – which was not necessarily a good idea after all!
For those folks, for instance, the key to pleasing God was to NOT do this or that, to abstain from this or that, always to play it safe, to risk nothing new and to reject anything that was not explicitly included in their laws and regulations. Over time they started to see themselves as more spiritual and righteous before God than everybody else – so they concluded that they were “set apart,” or “separated,” by God himself from the ordinary people.
What an arrogance!
That is what the word “pharisee” meant – separated.
Now, this didn’t square well with Jesus.
No wonder their many disagreements with Jesus, for Jesus always put people before rules and rituals, and God’s grace before judgment and criticism.
Now, I don’t think Simon invited Jesus because he admired him much, or to learn from him. I suspect Simon invited Jesus because he was a collector of celebrities, as someone said, and Jesus was becoming one himself. Yet Simon shows little respect for Jesus — he even patronizes Jesus. This very special meal takes place in Simon’s courtyard, and Simon has invited a few other pharisees.
A few feet away from their table, a bunch of neighbors sat on the edges, in the shadows. They were not properly guests – just curious neighbors, for it was the custom in those days that when a rabbi was invited for an occasion like this, everyone around the block would come in to listen to the wisdom a rabbi could share with them. This may explain well the presence of that woman, an anonymous woman whom Luke will soon remove from the margins to place right at the very center of the story.
The table is spread with an attractive array of dishes, and the distinguished guests –including some of Jesus’s disciples — are using their best manners. Until this woman steps forward and literally crashes their meal — again, she is not in the guests’ list — besides, she is just a woman! And also, a woman who doesn’t exactly fit in with such an occasion, for she is a social outcast, perhaps a prostitute, to judge by the way Simon talks about her.
Chances are, this woman’s sins, unlike those of the dinner guests, are well known. She suddenly moves forward and sits at the feet of Jesus, and then begins to cry –why, we may ask? I suspect that she had listened to Jesus speak from the margins, from the shadows, and had glimpsed in him the hand which would lift her from her spiritual misery.
Her tears rain down on Jesus’s feet, Luke tells us. Around her neck she wears, like all Jewish women, a little alabaster with a fragrance –to everyone’s amazement, she pours her alabaster on Jesus’s feet, and then she dries them with her own hair.
Friends, I have hosted some interesting dinner parties in all of my parsonages’ backyards – “gaucho barbeques”, for the most part. But nothing remotely like this ever happened to me –and I’m glad nothing like this ever happened to me! For if it had happened, I would not have known how to respond to that woman’s extravagant love. Neither how to respond to Simon’s warning – “Jesus, be careful, you have no idea what kind of woman is this”! What about you, my friends? How would you have responded in a situation like this? Chances are, you and I would have responded like Simon the Pharisee did.
But Jesus always surprises us with a radical perspective. He doesn’t worry about the extravagant woman – he worries instead about Simon. “Simon, you did not offer me water to wash my feet before the meal as you were expected to do with your guest.”
“Neither you welcome me with a brotherly hug and a brotherly kiss as you were expected to do with all your guests, but this woman hasn’t stopped kissing my feet.”
“Listen well, Simon – say what you say about this woman, but so far, she has shown much more love and appreciation than you did!”
Before Simon had a chance to react, Jesus turned towards the anonymous woman and showered her with his most wonderful words of life – “Ma’am, you have loved so much, how could God not forgive your past and give you a new beginning? Welcome into my life – and at my own communion table!”
Friends, here we are, once again, in this beautiful and welcoming house of grace, and in a few minutes we will gather around this Communion table to partake with grain and grape –saints and sinners together. And do you know why? Because God is sooo good! Because of God’s extravagant love, a love that welcomes us as we are — saints, and sinners; sinners and saints in all shapes and all shades between imperfection and perfection, and all the way back.
Now, how would you feel if anyone one here around this meal would suddenly stand up, and pointing at you, warn out loud to everybody – “Hey, folks, you’d better watch out, be careful with that guy, with that lady . . . the dudes in the band . . . that guy with a dark robe and one shoe only!” [Pastor Ferrari is still wearing an orthopedic boot after foot surgery.]
I understand Jesus’s disappointment, and even anger, with Simon – we all know how difficult it is for all of us to deal with a judgmental person – someone who has a real problem accepting things – and people — the way they are. Someone for whom the world is “black” and “white” – good or bad. Someone for whom diversity, inclusiveness, not to mention ambiguity, represent a threat to the spiritual and the moral order.
Someone who always patronizes and criticizes – whose “opinions” hurt as poisoned arrows, and who always claim the truth for himself.
Someone who typically put others down just to feel good about himself.
Someone who can’t see his neighbor right in front of his own eyes.
Jesus can’t keep his mouth shut – “Don’t you realize, Simon, how much you are hurting this woman? You are so distinguished, so spiritual, and yet you can’t see this woman; you can’t see neither recognize her human condition, her spiritual and emotional needs, neither understand her reaching out for forgiveness and accepting love? Can’t you see her?”
Right there, in Simon’s courtyard, around a table that was meant to be a welcoming table, all Simon and others see is a “bad woman.” But Jesus sees a “broken, dearly loved daughter of God” – someone who needed grace, not judgment,” as Rev. Hamilton reminds us in his Bible study for this week.
What about you, my friends? How do you see your own brothers, your own sister — anyone God may place on your way just to welcome and to accept? As a pain in the neck? Or as someone very special to be welcome around your own table?
Let me tell you a story — a little girl was sent to a nearby store by her mother. The girl took too long in coming back. When she got home, mother asked what had happened. The girl explained that on her way back home she had met a little friend who was crying because she had broken her doll.
“Oh,” said the mother, “then you stopped to help her fix her doll?”
“Oh, no,” replied her daughter. “I stopped to help her cry.”
That’s what Jesus means by to see our neighbor.
Friends, as you prepare to partake around this Holy table, remember — Jesus sees you, and sees you as you are – and still he welcomes you with extravagant love. To quote Rev. Hamilton, “Jesus sees your pain, your brokenness, your hurts and heartaches and hang-ups. And he sees who you were meant be. He sees you as a dearly loved child of God. And he says to you, as he did to [that woman in Simon’s courtyard] – your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, [now] go in peace.”
The Holy Spirit once again reminds us that this place is – or ought to be – a house of grace, a holy place where forgiveness and kindness, and second chances and new beginnings are grain and grape for all of us, not just for a few chosen and set apart. A place where we all can “drink,” as the apostle Paul reminds his congregation in Corinth, “from the same Spirit.”
Brothers and sisters, welcome to this holy meal of grain and grape and sinners and saints.
Image on Freepik