Us and Them
Simon the Pharisee
was a fine righteous man with one of the best homes in town. Only a few people lived in homes with space
to have a large gathering – and Simon was one of them. He was one of the people of the town and when
Jesus visited this town the important people were invited to a special dinner
at Simon’s home. What is not immediately clear to us because we live in
different times, is that Simon had some ulterior motives.
Simon was upright
and in the eyes of the town was considered to be a sort of model citizen who
obeyed the laws, prayed his prayers, and kept the expected standards. God had, it seemed, blessed him with wealth
and status. Jesus on the other hand was
causing a stir, healing people in the name of God and proclaiming a new Way if
Life that seemed to hang a bit loose with the established traditions. I think Simon wanted to put Jesus in his
place, to sort out this upstart preacher who was upsetting the applecart, and this
shows in his poor welcome of the guest preacher.
We’re not big on
welcoming customs, but when you invite someone into your home there will be I
suspect a handshake, the invitation to have a seat, the offer of a cup of tea.
All these things say something about valuing your guest. The expectations then were that Simon would
kiss his guest, offer him a place of honour reclined round the dining table, and
ask the servants to bring water and olive oil for the washing of hands and
feet. Only then could grace be said and the meal
begin. As we discover in this story
things were different this day. There is no kiss, there is no washing, there is
no welcome. This guest is not an
honoured guest. ….. He’s been invited
but he’s not really welcome.
The house is a big
house, and in those days there was no fence around the property or locked doors
to keep unwelcome guests out. People
knew everyone in town and there simply were no need of such things. This day a woman entered Simon’s house. We never know her name – she is simply a
woman with a reputation. Luke tells us
she was a sinner but everyone listening to this story knows she was a
prostitute. She certainly hasn’t been
invited, and when she makes an appearance at Simon’s house there are
whispers. Maybe some were uncomfortable
seeing her there for other reasons. Whatever
she was there. Maybe she has heard from a client what was planned in terms of
humiliating Jesus and putting him under a bit of heat. Whatever she is there and she has made her
way over to stand beside him, and heaven forbid she is weeping! What on earth is going on?
Maybe she is
feeling for Jesus as Simon puts him down in his snub of a welcome. She is feeling the hurt and the dishonouring of
someone she respects. You may feel deep
anger if someone you care about is publically humiliated, but this woman
expresses her pain in tears. How could
they treat him this way? I think it’s
clear that she knows Jesus, and of course for those looking on that was the
problem. He knew people like this and
yet claimed to be a religious teacher.
But I think she has experienced something in this man Jesus. He has met him before and he has opened her
eyes to see something she hasn’t seen for a long long time. There was a day
when she was someone’s little girl, when she felt cherished and enfolded in the
love of a father and mother but that was a long time ago. Maybe actually even those first years weren’t
that flash, and she was abused, and rubbished as a piece of cow dung. We don’t know, but we do know she now has
taken pride of place as one of the big sinners of town. The looks, the interactions, the mutterings, and
the payments all said she was just an object.
That woman. It
was a long time since anyone has valued her as a human being. It was a long time since someone had looked
into her eyes and seen something more than a body to be used. It was a long time since someone had looked
deep into her soul and seen the sacredness and beauty of God there. It was a
long time since anyone had said you belong, you are one of us. But Jesus had. Looking with the eyes of God, Jesus had. And the tears came freely. They were tears of joy with being treated as
a real human being, of relief that she was valued for who she was. They
were tears of discovery of something
very very precious – unconditional love.
She had some
special perfumed oil kept for the high paying customers, kept in an expensive alabaster
jar. If ever there was a right time to
use it this was it. So she sets about
anointing Jesus feet with the perfumed oil and her tears. Then she did something. She let down her hair. Respectable Jewish women always kept their hair bound in public. As
good Muslim women still do today, hair was to be covered. To do what this woman does, to let her hair
down was a divorceable offense. You may
remember a recent Prime Minister of Iran, PM Rafsanjani. One of his quotable quotes when asked why
women should cover their heads was this: “ It is the obligation of the female
to cover her head because women’s hair exudes vibrations that arouse, mislead,
and corrupt men.” We may laugh but we
need to understand his view is sincerely held.
What was happening here was extremely scandalous and shocking. In
traditional middle eastern society a bride on her wedding night lets down her
hair and allows it to be seen by her husband for the first time. This woman knows all this, but she is
desperate to express her gratitude for what she has found in Jesus. She is responding to Jesus with an
overflowing shocking gesture of gratitude that speaks of what she has discovered in his accepting
What is happening
is now of course centre stage and Simon is waiting for Jesus’ reaction. If he
were truly of God he would see into her heart and he would know what sort of
woman was now (heaven forbid!) touching him.
Everyone in the room would be expecting Jesus to judge her and stop the shocking
proceedings with a word to Simon who would have her quickly removed from the
room by a servant. Everyone would expect
Jesus to express shock and exclaim how terrible it was that this woman had
disgraced herself and the gathering, and put her back into the box she belonged
in – that woman who was a disgrace to
the town and not welcome here. She was after
all no saint.
But that never
happens. Instead she receives a cloak of
praise and protection from Jesus. He’s
not offended by the shocking behavior one little bit. It turns out he is offended by Simon’s
behavior in failing to welcome him as a fellow human being. He is offended by this invisable barrier that
puts some people in the ‘not welcome’, ‘not to be engaged with’ camp. Jesus is offended by this very common practice
of labelling a fellow human being as an outsider.
I listened to an
interesting conversation the other day.
I was with a group of good Christian folk talking about the terrible
tragedy in our city inflicted on the Muslim community and one of the group said,
“I’m worried they are going to retaliate.”
It’s a fair question I guess, but if you know a few Muslims you’ll know
they are human just like us and retaliation isn’t what’s being discussed out
there. It is the pain, the sleepless
nights, the worry about how we will cope without the breadwinner. Of course there are bad eggs in every basket
and who knows. But my question to her
was “who are ‘they’”. You see the
language we use tells us something and this language was telling me there was
an ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘They’ were not part
of ‘us’. ‘Us’ are safe and reliable, ‘they’
are unknown and dangerous. ‘Us’ are
acceptable and good, ‘they’ are dodgy.
Weren’t so many of Jesus’ stories about seeing ‘they as part of ‘us.’ ‘That woman’ in Simon’s eyes was a ‘they’. No name, no connection, no sense she is a
fellow human being. ‘That woman’ in
Jesus’ eyes was ‘us’. Precious child of
God, a real person with strengths and weaknesses like us all. Someone who bleeds like us, someone who has
feelings. When we keep someone in the
‘they’ or ‘them’ box, we don’t make any connection. When we include them in the ‘us’ box we listen,
learn, ask questions, see the human face, share some of their tears.
In my little Christian group I asked who actually knew a
Muslim person and there weren’t many hands going up. I gently tried to suggest that it often
changes everything when we put a real human face on people we talk about, they
‘theys’ of the world.
But I also want to look at this woman. She had put herself in the ‘them’ basket
too. It was the basket labelled no
good. She saw herself as a ‘they’ or ‘them’.
But in Jesus she has met a new way of life.
Unconditional love. She has
discovered God knows her name and she is no longer that woman but ‘Mary’ a
precious beloved child of God. She is
set free from her past, she is set free from the need to impress others, she is
set free to be her true self. She is in
Jesus’ words forgiven. We may hear these
words in our heads, but she has somehow directly experienced these words deep
in her soul. She now sees with eyes of
faith, eyes of God, and when she looks at herself she is no longer the rejected
sinner but she is the one who is loved.. People often say faith is about believing in
God but I would like to suggest a different take on that idea. I think this woman found faith in the amazing
discovery that God believed in her. She
discovered that despite all her sins which were many, God said ‘yes’ to
her. This is the faith that saved
her…… Belief in God changes little in
our lives, but knowing God believes in you changes everything. God put us all in the ‘mine’ basket.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about Abraham and the deal or
covenant God made with him. That
covenant was about God’s belief in Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a
journey into a new life. We gather
around a table today. We share bread and
wine and our scriptures tell us that this is a renewal of that deal, that
covenant. At it’s heart is the
affirmation that God believes in you. It
is also an affirmation that God believes in the person you sit beside. God believes in ‘us’ and God is leading us to a new land where ‘them’ is
an empty basket.
This woman has much to teach us, and as we gather around
this table may she speak to us afresh, because even in this room there are ‘us’
and ‘thems’. Around this table we are
family, we are us.
Dugald Wilson 7 April