Jesus had a habit of doing things his own way, much to the consternation of those around him who preferred to be more conventional in their behaviour. Even being a guest in the house of a prominent pharisee didn’t cramp Jesus’ style. His values and behaviour were consistent wherever he was, all growing out of the love of God for each individual. When a sinful woman (for sinful read promiscuous) came and ministered to Jesus in the middle of a dinner to which he was invited, his host was shocked that Jesus could not detect what kind of woman this was. Jesus knew full well what kind of woman she was but he used her love and devotion as an object lesson for Simon. Whether he took it to heart or not we will never know, but we can learn from it still.
The readings at the 2pm SLT service were 1 Timothy 4:12-end, Psalm 111, Luke 7:36-end. The reflection follows:
We are blessed with a big bungalow (single storey house) to live in. We needed somewhere big when we moved from Scotland as we had three children. Not long after we moved we found we were to have four children! My husband Phil and I have always recognised how lucky we are and have enjoyed sharing our home with lots of people, some coming for a meal, some for a party (we’ve had up to 60 people here at one time), others to stay for various lengths of time.
Our middle son recently made a very good suggestion that I wish he had thought of ages ago. He said we should have a guest book. This was in response to my telling him that my friend from China would soon be visiting us. As a result of getting to know people online from all over the world, we have had quite a variety of nationalities staying with us in the past few years. Just recently my mentor from Australia spent a weekend with us, a little before that Rev Mark Brown was with us, a couple of years ago it was friends from the US and then a friend from Holland. It would have been so wonderful to have had all of them sign a book to say that they had been in our home. It may be several years too late, but I think I will still get a guest book. If you travel to the UK make sure you look me up!
As you can imagine there have been many meals shared with groups of friends and family. I really like to see many people seated round our table as we enjoy food and conversation. When I read about the get together at Simon the Pharisee’s house I easily associate it will gatherings in my own home. As we are quite used to people who know us just walking into the house, I can even relate to the idea of an uninvited woman turning up. However, my picture would be inaccurate as for this story to work, the woman would have to be creeping around under the dining table among many legs.
In Jesus’ time the rich often had an area in the courtyard of their home where they could dine. If someone special was invited to such a dinner, people from the community around would take the opportunity to come into the courtyard and listen to what was being said. They might in this way get a chance to listen to a great rabbi teaching the people there. There were rules about how to behave if you were one of those who came to listen. You were allowed to listen but not join in the conversation, and you certainly weren’t invited to eat.
The way the group was arranged to eat was not like we would do now, with a table and chairs. The diners would recline on low couches or mats, prop themselves on their left elbow and eat with their right hand. This meant that their heads were facing the table and their feet were on the outside of the circle of people.
You can see how the woman was able to approach Jesus at his feet with this arrangement. The woman was breaking all the rules, the social custom of the day. Not only was she a woman, she was a sinful woman, which meant that she was promiscuous, so would not have been welcome to approach the Pharisees and their guests who were trying so hard to remain holy. Observers of these gatherings were supposed to just watch and listen, not cause a scene as she did.
Although she was someone who would have been looked down upon by Simon and the other Pharisees, she actually taught him how to behave by her example. Simon should have known exactly how the etiquette of such occasions worked. It was the norm to have a slave wash and dry the dusty feet of the guests but Simon had not done so. The woman wept and let her tears flow over Jesus’ feet, washing away the dust of his journey there. In order to complete this task, the woman had to break another custom by loosing her hair so that she could dry Jesus’ feet. Those watching her might have judged her behaviour to be scandalous but her love for Jesus overcame any worries on her part.
Not only had Simon not arranged to have Jesus’ feet washed, he had not greeted Jesus correctly either. It was the custom for the host to put his hand on the shoulder of his guest and give him a kiss of peace. This indicated friendship and devotion. As Jesus was a great rabbi, custom would not have allowed this kiss to be omitted as it was necessary to show respect, and yet Simon had been rude and not kissed Jesus. It was almost like inviting a guest today and ignoring them. The woman on the other hand kissed Jesus’ feet again and again. There is no doubt that she was devoted to Jesus.
Not content with what she had done, the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. Once again she was making up for what Simon had chosen not to do, though he would know what he should have done. The custom was to welcome special guests on arrival by burning incense or by anointing the guest’s forehead with rose oil.
It seems that, rather than being shamed by the woman’s actions, Simon was judging her and judging Jesus as less than a prophet as he didn’t seem to know what kind of woman was paying all this attention to him. Jesus had to tell his story in order to try to help Simon to see what was really going on. Simon seemed to think himself so good and righteous that he had no need of forgiveness. He may not have been sleeping around, or murdering old ladies for their money but it’s fairly obvious that the thoughts he was having about Jesus were not good. Despising someone else is hardly a good thing to do. His own scriptures told him that no one does good, but that each has gone his own way. And even if those judgemental thoughts were the only thing he had done wrong, he was not righteous. As James was to say later in his letter, someone who ‘keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it’.
The woman, however, had a very realistic view of her state in life. While Simon chose not to show love and respect to Jesus, she risked all to show how much she loved him. Jesus used this woman and a simple story to demonstrate what was really going on. The woman had shown that she loved much and so received the forgiveness she craved. For all we know, Simon may have remained unchanged by the encounter with Jesus.
So often Jesus used the least in society to demonstrate the way we should live. In this story it was a promiscuous woman. On another occasion it was a child. Those who followed Jesus’ example later were also able to see the value in those that the world might discount as unworthy of notice. Paul can be seen building a young Timothy up when it could be that some of the older church members might have discounted his witness because of his youth. Paul sees the value in Timothy and encourages him to go on growing and learning and serving God.
Today we remember Hildegard of Bingen. She was not very well educated really and of course as a woman, she was not important in the society of the 12th Century. She had visions and felt that God had shown her how to understand religious texts. She wasn’t sure whether she should publish her visions. She consulted Bernard of Clairvaux who asked Pope Eugenius. It was with the encouragement of the Pope that Hildegard finished her first work and began to gain fame in Germany and elsewhere. It would have been so easy for him to ignore a woman, but like his Lord, Eugenius supported one who might have been overlooked.
Society is still a tough place to be, especially for the young, the old and those who are different in some way or thought of as inferior. Like Jesus, Paul and Eugenius, we should affirm and support the least and the lowest in society. They may have something to teach us.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor