Saints & Sinners

Readings in Luke Continued – No.29

Lk 7:36-38 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

One of the things that I have found, doing this series examining Luke’s contribution to the Gospel accounts, is that it has forced us to look more widely at just what went on in Jesus’ three years of ministry. John, you may remember, concluded his Gospel with, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.(Jn 21:25) In other words, so much was happening every day that it was almost impossible to keep track of what had been going on. The Gospel accounts are, in fact, just a tip of the iceberg of the things that Jesus did.

Now I say this because there can be some confusion that this account above is the same one that appears in Matt 26, Mark 14 or John 12, all involving a woman and expensive perfume. However, there are sufficient differences to suggest that this was a completely different incident. Yes, the name of the householder is Simon (v.40) and in Matthew’s account the householder is Simon, but that is where the similarity ends. This account is near or in Galilee while Matthew’s account is in the south in Judea. This Simon is a Pharisee, the other Simon is (or was) a leper. The reason for the woman using the oil or perfume was quite different. The one in Matthew was inadvertently anointing Jesus for death. This one has a different reason.

The big focus, it seems, in Luke’s account is the difference between the host-householder and the woman. Here in Luke, as we’ve already noted, Simon the householder is a Pharisee. He is part of that conservative group of Jewish believers who prided themselves in interpreting and keeping the Law of Moses. Virtually all encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, show the Pharisees as odds with Jesus. We wonder why, therefore, did this man invite Jesus to dinner? Was he simply interested in what he had heard about Jesus and wanted to find out more, or was he looking for an opportunity to find fault with Jesus? The latter seems more probable because, after the woman comes in and Jesus accepts her ministrations, Simon “said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (v.39). If you asked Simon to categorise the people in the room he would have put himself in the category of saint or godly believer, and the woman as a sinner. Jesus doesn’t have the same assessment as we’ll see in the next meditation.

For now we might wonder why Jesus went into this man’s house, almost certainly knowing that he was walking into the lion’s den as far as trouble was concerned. The answer to that must be that Jesus was never afraid of confrontation, and seems glad to take any and every opportunity to face up people with the truth. If Simon wants to bring him in to examine him, then the end result may be that Simon will end up examining himself! If you come full of criticism of Jesus, then you need to be warned; you are revealing your own heart and your own state and any criticism is likely to come back on you!

We need to consider this woman who comes in. We still appear to be in the town of Nain (7:11) and this is a woman “who had lived a sinful life in that town” and is obviously well known. Simon certainly knows about her and writes her off as a sinner. Jesus apparently doesn’t know her and simple accepts her – which Simon finds difficult. But then the truth is that Jesus does know each person and he would have been quite aware of the sort of person she was. As Jesus reclines on a low couch at a low table, as was the custom, his feet would protrude out behind him as he leaned towards the table, and the woman stood behind him weeping so that her tears dripped onto his feet. Suddenly aware of this she stoops and quickly seeks to wipe of her tears with her hair and then, perhaps to make up for this takes some of the perfume she has with her and pours it on his feet. We’ll see later how Jesus reinterprets what she does to cover any embarrassment she has. Luke, we have said many times in these studies, is a people-person and he is fascinated by people accounts. This three-sided account just has to be included!

Why was this woman weeping? Luke doesn’t tell us, for her misdemeanours aren’t the key issues here. Perhaps she has come to a crisis point in her life and in desperation she goes to this man she has heard so much about. Possibly she came with the alabaster box of perfume to pay him for his counsel because there is a hint in the description of her having lived “a sinful life”, that it was a life of immoral earnings and she expects to have to pay for whatever services she receives from this travelling preacher. Perhaps she just came in out of interest and the very presence of God in the room brings her to a place of conviction and she just breaks down, but Luke doesn’t tell us. That’s not the issue. The issue is how Jesus accepts her and Simon doesn’t. Simon sees a sinner, Jesus sees a potential saint! Pharisees condemned people who failed to live up to their high standards; Jesus recognised that people couldn’t live up to such standards and so accepted them as they were and let his love and acceptance transform them into saints.

So where do we fit in this three-sided incident? Do we come with a sense of failure, feeling we have to earn Jesus approval or pay for it in some act? Don’t try to earn it or pay for it. He gives it freely. Do we come with a sense of self-righteousness that condemns the sinners of the world? We need to see that Jesus comes to save sinners not condemn them. Or can we come like Jesus with loving acceptance that willingly sits with Pharisees and prostitutes alike? May it be so!

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