The story of a sinner, an insult and Jesus
By Mark Baker
Imagine receiving an invitation to a dinner party from a highly respected person. What an honor! Inclusion in this elite circle surprises you. The day comes; you approach the house with anticipation and ring the doorbell. The host opens the door, but that is all. He does not greet you nor shake your hand; he just holds the door open. So you enter.
The host does not offer to take your coat or offer a drink like the others milling around. They are invited individually to their seats at the table; you are left standing. You see there is a seat left and assume it is yours. What would you feel if this happened to you?
Jesus experiences just this sort of thing at the house of Simon the Pharisee. We read in Luke 7:36-50 that Jesus is invited to a meal at an important person’s home; he is not shown the proper regard expected from a host and a woman of ill repute seeks to perform the missing acts of hospitality and honor. Let us reflect on the story’s three main figures: the woman, Simon the Pharisee and Jesus.
The woman who was forgiven
We know a few things about the woman from the biblical text. She is publically known as a sinner (7:37, 39, 47). She apparently comes to Simon’s house with the intention of anointing Jesus with ointment. She does not come prepared to wash his feet.
We can deduce other things. She probably is a prostitute who has been marginalized and shamed in her village—especially by the highly religious like the Pharisees. Jesus speaks of her sins being forgiven before this event (7:41-43, 47), implying she has already had a significant encounter with Jesus. We can imagine that Jesus showered her with love and acceptance and that she soaked it up like a thirsty plant.
Apparently in the midst of that encounter they spoke of her sins and Jesus pronounced forgiveness. Jesus’ forgiveness and acceptance so moves the woman that she desires to express her gratitude to Jesus. Hearing that Simon the Pharisee is hosting a dinner and Jesus is an invited guest, she goes to the house, prepared to honor Jesus with ointment. She arrives either before or simultaneously with Jesus (7:45).
What does she see? Simon insulting and disrespecting the person she has come to honor by not offering Jesus customary gestures of hospitality. Shocked and probably with a mix of anger and sadness, the woman takes steps to show Jesus the honor and hospitality that Simon has not offered.
Jesus explains 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” (7:44-46).
The woman met Jesus and felt loved. In response she recognized her sin, and Jesus pronounced forgiveness. Having experienced this love and forgiveness, she responds with actions of love and gratitude to honor Jesus after Simon has dishonored him.
Simon, the host
We do not know why Simon invited Jesus to this meal. Was it in order to insult Jesus for Simon’s own social gain in the community? Or was the invitation sincere but Simon had a change of perspective when Jesus actually arrived?
As a Pharisee, Simon not only carefully complies with the Law and the traditions of the Jews but also works to motivate others to do the same. As we observe in his actions toward both Jesus and the woman, Simon seeks to honor those who comply and shame those who do not. He threatens exclusion to pressure people to live according to the Pharisees’ definition of piety.
In that time and culture it was acceptable for people who were not invited guests to gather around the edges of the room and observe the event. Hosts desired this. More people meant more honor. So it was not unusual that an uninvited guest would enter the house.
But for a woman known as a sinner to enter Simon’s house is certainly unusual. Her presence itself will likely be cause for gossiping the next day, but it is her actions that especially catch people’s attention. She makes a scene not only by weeping and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears but in particular by loosening her hair to dry Jesus feet—an intimate act only done in the presence of a woman’s husband. Everyone present, not just Simon, is surprised that Jesus lets this sinful woman continue these scandalous actions.
Simon demonstrates an attitude of superiority and uses threats of shame and exclusion as tools for motivating behavioral conformity and religious compliance. Jesus practices the opposite—a strategy of inclusion, love and forgiveness. This is obvious in the case of the woman but also apparent in relation to Simon too.
Rather than dishonoring Simon by refusing the invitation, Jesus goes to his house. And when Simon dishonors him, Jesus does not immediately move into a competitive stance, such as exiting the house or exposing Simon’s mistreatment of him.
Jesus challenges Simon out of love for the woman but also love for Simon. Until Simon steps away from his life of exclusionary line-drawing, he will not truly be living in authentic communion with God or others in his community. The entire incident challenges the distorted honor system of the day.
Jesus’ unexpected response
When the woman begins her surprising and then scandalous actions, Jesus has various options. If he is most concerned about his own reputation and honor, he could reject her actions—kicking her away and insulting her.
Or, as Kenneth Bailey suggests in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, to save face Jesus could say something like this: “Gentlemen, I am embarrassed by all of this. Yes, on occasion I do eat with sinners, but we always keep the numbers down and we try to clean them up a bit before our meals, which are always in private. This is not at all the kind of scene with which I am comfortable, and so do not be upset. I grant that no easy acceptance of such types is possible. Standards must be maintained!”
These actions would protect Jesus’ honor but at the expense of the woman. Such insincerity from Jesus will confirm her shame and disgrace. But Jesus does not act to save his own honor. At cost to his own reputation he accepts and defends her. He counters the shame she had experienced by honoring her and giving her a new identity. With his final words he honors her publically: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” This peace, or shalom, is not just the internal serenity of a guiltless conscience, but public restoration to community and wholeness. She is free to live in harmony with others.
Before Jesus speaks up in her defense, all the eyes in the room would have been glued on the woman—shaming eyes of accusation. When Jesus begins to speak he becomes the scandal, and the eyes of accusation shift to him. He takes on the shame in her place. Because of Jesus’ surprising defense, the woman leaves feeling even more loved, more accepted and more graced than before. Jesus loves her so much he is willing to suffer shame to save her from being shamed. Like the cross to come, this is a startling display of costly love.
Do you, like the woman, feel guilt and shame for things you have done? Express that to Jesus as she did, with the confidence that Jesus will respond with forgiveness.
Have you felt dishonored and inappropriately shamed by others? Do you carry a burden of shame from an experience of exclusion and rejection in the past? I invite you to imagine Jesus embracing you with love and acceptance, honoring you, like he honors this woman, in front of those who have shamed you.
Who are people you know who are excluded and shamed by our society’s distorted concept of status and honor? How can you, like this woman, shower respect, love and honor on someone insulted and shamed by others?
Mark D. Baker is professor of mission and theology at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, the Mennonite Brethren seminary in Fresno, Calif. He is a member of College Community Church Mennonite Brethren in Clovis, Calif. This article is taken from Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures by Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker. Copyright (c) 2016 by Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=5146