Us and Them

Us and Them   Luke 7:36-50

   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 love.

   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 2019 he is feelin