Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
A Sinful Woman Forgiven
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, denarius was the usual day’s wage for a labourer'); and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
Some Women Accompany Jesus
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I struggled to fit in at secondary school. Most of the kids were into football and few were interested in science. I was quite the reverse. And whereas most of the boys seemed to have little difficulty in playing the popularity game, I was a novice and totally inept when it came to most social skills.
Consequently I was always on the outside, looking in, and was regularly the butt of people’s jokes. It came as a surprise, therefore, when a girl, let’s call her Sarah, invited me to a party. Now I had known about this party for a week or so, and it seemed that lots of people were talking about it, but I hadn’t been invited..
Sarah was one of the ‘popular people’ who knew how to play the game. I had never been remotely on her radar as a person of interest, and, as you might expect, she had invited people who were at the centre of things. It came as a huge surprise when she fairly sheepishly asked me to come along. Now when you’re a spotty fat teenager and someone invites you to a party, you don’t question their motives, you just say ‘Yes, sure, I’d love to come’.
But gradually, over the course of the next couple of days before the party, her motives did begin to filter through. Sarah had a strict code about her party: there was to be an equal number of boys and girls there. She’d been gradually working her way down the social hierarchy and had her complete guest list, but then three days before the party one of the boys had dropped out.
She needed to fill the space, but now she was nearing the bottom of the pile. Pretty much the only alternative left was yours truly; so I got an invite. When the penny dropped I realised that I was being used, being exploited by her for her own ends. So having said yes I just kind of forgot to turn up, leaving her back with an odd number of guests. I did not want to be used by someone.
In our gospel reading we find a similar kind of thing is going on. There are three key players in the text: Jesus, Simon the Pharisee and the woman. We also need to reckon on a considerable number of onlookers. Although there were the specifically invited guests, of whom Jesus was one, there were plainly others who came in and out of the room.
So what do we know about Simon the Pharisee who was throwing the party? Well we don’t know very much, but we do know that the way he had treated Jesus was deplorable. Jesus was shown none of the usual hospitality. He had walked into Simon’s house. Jesus would have been wearing sandals, but with nothing else on his feet; no socks or any other protection.
Not only were his feet exposed to the usual dust and dirt of everyday life, but there were of course animals around who don’t usually clean up after themselves. Jesus, like all of the guests, would have arrived with dirty feet and the usual social nicety would have been to have had a servant wash the guest’s feet as they entered. No one had done this for Jesus, but the implication was that the other guests had been washed.
And he had offered no oil to anoint Jesus’s head, another social nicety that had been missed out, again implying that the other guests had all received this treatment. Jesus had been invited, and yet excluded. What on earth was going on? Well maybe it was this:
Jesus had, by this point in time, gained a degree of fame. There have been several prominent healings; a widow’s son has been raised from the dead and a great deal of public teaching has been given. The result of this was that the people were widely acknowledging that Jesus was a prophet. And so Simon invites him to a party. What’s more this is a public kind of party so anyone can wander in and see Simon with his famous guest.
So there they all are, reclining around a table eating. To the guests, to those on the inside, nothing would have been amiss. But to the outsiders it was clear that, in contrast to all the other invited guests, Jesus had dirty feet and unkempt hair. Simon was using Jesus to enhance his social status, but clearly didn’t care at all for him in reality. Jesus was a plaything to be exploited.
He’d got the new prophet to come and have supper with him, and had invited all sorts of important people to see this take place, and had then left the door open so that anyone could troop in and see. Simon was exploiting Jesus for his own end. Simon was using Jesus as stepping stone to enhance his own importance. Jesus had not been invited to the party because he was Jesus and Simon liked him; he had been invited because Simon wanted to enhance his own reputation.
Yet to the outsiders, those not sat at the table, it was painfully obvious what was going on, as indeed it would have been to Jesus, and it’s a mark of his big heartedness that he still went. In his shoes I would have gone elsewhere. And now the woman comes on to the scene. She is also an outsider. Her attention to Jesus gives Simon the chance to look down on Jesus; to allow Simon to feel that he is better than this so-called prophet.
The woman was referred to as a ‘sinner’. Who knows what that means, but to the puritanical Simon she was an outsider who was not good enough to be in his social circle. But for the woman, perhaps she is worried that Jesus would be embarrassed by the social insult that is taking place. She knows what it is like to be on the outside, and she knows that Jesus deserves better.
And so, as tears well up within her, for him and for herself, so she weeps on to his feet. Her hair is down, something not considered appropriate for a woman in public, but she doesn’t care as she uses it to wipe the feet of Jesus. She also has ointment with her which she uses on his dry, dusty and worn feet, surely bringing him some relief.
She is an outsider too, and she knows it. She knows that she has lived a life that had been full of poor moral decisions, but she cannot bear to see Jesus treated as she has been treated. She loves this other outsider from the very depths of her being, whereas to Simon, Jesus was just another rung he could use to climb the social ladder.
She is therefore the one to whom Jesus turns his attention. She is the one who receives grace and forgiveness. Simon doesn’t think he needs it, so doesn’t ask for it and doesn’t receive it.
And then when we allow the narrative to flow onwards a little we find Jesus continuing on his journey with a note about some of his travelling companions. Amongst them is Mary Magdalene, another outsider who had been cleansed of seven demons, and several other women who Jesus had healed. All the way through this passage you get the feeling that Jesus is more than happy to associate with the people that everyone else casts off.
And so the spotlight turns on to us. Jesus was a friend of outcasts and sinners. I know that’s me. It’s actually quite curious being a priest, because you’re forced into the centre, whereas for me I was always on the periphery. And so were all my friends. We were all outsiders, and I don’t ever want to forget that. The moment I forget I run the risk of starting to climb the social ladder.
Who are your friends? Do you value them for who they are or because it is good to be seen with them? Do you have any friends who are embarrassing? If not, why not? Is it because having them as friends would be a social stigma?
It seems to me that we should treat everyone as if Jesus had personally invited them to our party and had come along with them. We should never befriend someone for any other reason. People are not to be used for the simple reason that everyone has intrinsic value to Jesus and he doesn’t use people; he loves them.
So let me finish with two questions, and I’d like you to close your eyes and think about this.
Who are your friends?
Why are they your friends?
Let’s keep a moment of silence to think about who we associate with, and who we distance ourselves from and why...