Monday, November 30, 2015

The one who is forgiven much loves much... Simon the pharisee, the woman at Jesus feet and responding to God's revolution of grace(Luke 7:36-50): Close Encounters with God's Grace Revolution in Luke 7( Part 4)

 Over the month of November we’ve been working our way through a series of close encounters with God’s revolution of Grace. Four encounters with Jesus in Luke chapter 7 four encounters that push back the scope and dimensions of God’s grace. Four encounters that Looked at how Jesus ministered to different people. We’ve looked at three of those encounters so far…

The Gentile Centurion with the sick servant, who surprisedJesus with his faith, by affirming Jesus authority: authority to bring healing and wholeness even at a distance, simply by his word. 

The widow at Nain, were we saw Jesus authority in raising her dead son but the focus of the story was on the compassion of Jesus for the Widow. The compassion and love that Jesus has for people, and how it leads him to bring them to wholeness. John the Baptist and we saw Jesus minister to him and encourage him in the midst of his questioning and doubt. Revealing to John through his healing ministry that he Jesus was indeed the one John was expecting, but that Jesus understanding of that was different than John’s… we saw how Jesus was able to use healthy doubt to open us up to new fresh understandings and insights into the person and mission of God.

Today’s reading is the fourth of these encounters. In which two very different people encounter God’s grace in two very different ways as they encounter Jesus. Simon the Pharisee and the women who anoints Jesus feet… Coming at the end of this string of encounters  the narrative revolves around the on-going question of how do we respond to Jesus and in the way this episode finishes in such an open ended manner it invites us as well to respond to God’s revolution of grace. 

There is a bit of irony in the way this passage links to what has gone before. Jesus had just finished speaking about being criticised for being a friend of sinners, eating and drinking with them and right after that he accepts the invitation of a Pharisee to dinner.  The Pharisee may think himself righteous but as the story unfolds we see it is he that has acted in an unrighteous manner towards Jesus. He is the one in need of forgiveness and grace. The story also links back to the narrative of the widow at Nain that finishes with the crowd affirming that Jesus is a great prophet. The Pharisee may have invited Jesus to dinner to check out whether this is true and when he sees Jesus happy to be touched by the women he sees as a sinner he is convinced that Jesus is not… But at that very moment Jesus proves him wrong, by knowing what is in his host’s heart and in the heart of the women at his feet.  It also links back to the story of the gentile centurion because once again Jesus affirms the faith of someone who conventional wisdom would see as an outsider, it is the women and not Simon who is affirmed for her faith a faith that enables her to go in peace. It ties it all together.

The setting is a banquet at Simon’s house and for us to understand the action we need to understand a bit about hospitality in the Ancient near east. They were often meals in two part, food for the body and then food for the mind and soul as the guests and host would discuss important issues and topics of the day after the meal. People reclined at the table, they lay on couches with their feet away from the table to eat, this is how the women is able to be at Jesus feet, rather than under the table.  They were usually open events, doors to the houses would be open and people would be allowed to come in and stand round the wall to hear the conversation, but dared not intervene. And of course there were many rituals and expectations of a host in Jewish society which Jesus uses to show the different way that Simon and the women respond to Jesus.

I recently watched the marvel series ‘Jessica Jones’ and was interested how as the series unfolded we were introduced to the main characters back story, which explained her actions and behaviour. This episode at Simon’s house is like that, the woman appears with a back story. She has the reputation in the town of being a sinner. We are not told what that means; she could have been a prostitute or have had regular involvement with gentiles.  She wears this stigma of outsider and wrongdoer amongst the religious people. While as she has an alabaster jar of perfume we know that she is wealthy, she fits into Luke’s definition of the poor as she has no status or standing in her society. Prostitution was a last resort for women alone and without support, or she may have been sold into slavery as a child. We also know that she has had an encounter with Jesus beforehand. She has experienced God’s grace and mercy and it has changed her life.  Her faith in Jesus moves her to risk further social disgrace to literally gate crash the party and express her love and gratitude to Jesus.  

Simon is curious of Jesus; he invites him to come to a meal, probably to see what he is like. We are introduced to him as a Pharisee, and in Luke’s gospel the Pharisees and experts in the law have acted as Jesus main opponents. As a group their concern is in keeping the ritual law and separating themselves so they can remain pure. He knows the women’s reputation and the fact that Jesus lets her touch his feet in what could be interpreted in a provocative and almost sensual way, convinces him that Jesus is not a prophet. After the meal when it is time for discussion, Jesus uses the Pharisees name. He does not simply see him as part of the opposition party but as an individual and in the form of a parable and a rebuke graciously offers a chance for Simon to change.

Jesus invites Simon to judge the outcome of a parable. About two people who owe large amounts of money, the equivalent of several month wages and a year and half’s respectively. A debt neither is able to pay. The amazing thing in the parable is that the creditor does not resort to harsh measures to recoup it, baycorp is not called in, It’s not a classic gangster movie there is no threat of knee capping or even the first century equivalent, selling into slavery or tossing into debtors prison…rather the creditor forgives the debt. And Jesus asks Simon to judge who would love the creditor the most. The answer that simon gives of course is the one who was forgiven the greater amount. Jesus uses the metaphor of debt to talk about sin. It is a debt we cannot pay, and we must all rely on the benevolence of the creator to forgive us. Here is  God’s revolution of grace.  

In light of that answer Jesus now turns towards the women and invites Simon to see her for who she really is and what she has been doing… not as Simon suspected was this a continuation of her sinful past but an act of love and devotion to Jesus out of gratitude.  He contrasts her lavish display of love and devotion to Simon’s own lack of even the basics of social decencies. Simon hadn’t provided water to wash Jesus feet but the women hadn’t stopped wetting them with her tears. He hadn’t provided a towel to wipe them clean, yet she had let down her hair, a social no,no in Jewish society and wiped them clean. He had not provided a drop of common household olive oil to anoint Jesus head, but the women had anointed his feet with precious perfume, from an expensive alabaster jar. 

Then Jesus does something that astounds those present he proclaims the women’s sins forgiven. In the other three stories we’ve looked at there are miracles that point us to Jesus identity and what the crowd is picking up on is that in announcing her sins forgiven, Jesus is using a prerogative that the people would have known was reserved for God. Jesus then affirms her faith and sends her away in peace. 

It’s almost as if the curtain drops too soon on this story as we are left wondering about how Simon and the other guests will respond now to Jesus. Will they welcome the women back? Give her the peace that Jesus dismisses her with, will they accept her into her society again and give her a chance to live her new redeemed life. How now will Simon change his understanding of and   relationship to Jesus? The door of God’s revolution of grace has been opened for him… and us.

How do we experience God’s grace revolution in this story in our own lives today?
This encounter shows us two different ways people respond and react to those outside the faith. There is the Pharisee who sees only a sinner, who seeks to keep their purity by separating themselves from them. And Jesus revolution of grace that willingly is a friend of sinners and through their interaction brings grace and change and transformation. Jesus invites us in this passage to see people as individuals, not as representatives of a certain group or stereotypes and be willing to interact with them in a way that opens the door for grace. Just like in Jesus day many of the poor and those caught up in a life style we may think wrong really remain unseen. It was white ribbon day on Wednesday and one of the focuses of the day was to encourage people to look and to see, and not to turn a blind eye.

In his interaction with people Jesus never compromises his message or his behaviour he is always full of generosity and compassion and righteous, rather his loving presence opens the door of grace. I read a parable a while ago about Christians in a certain city who simply stopped interacting with non-Christians. They only dealt with Christian businesses and went to Christian schools. Eventually they walled themselves off from everyone. Ironically they were not missed and after several years people tore down the wall to see what was inside and found no life. Equally recently in the prayer course Pete Grieg told of going to Hong Kong to meet Jacqui Pullenger a women who lived in the most deprived and depraved slum in the city, full of drugs and sex and gang violence and crime, and Pete Grieg whose faith had grown cold said in seeing the love and compassion and life and transformation that was going on that his faith came alive.

Secondly, the woman at Jesus feet is used by Jesus as a kind of object lesson for Simon, and Luke presents her as an object lesson for us…as a great example of how to respond to Jesus. She has encountered God’s revolution of grace in Jesus Christ, she has had her sins forgiven and it is transforming her life. Her response to Jesus is love and worship. One of the words for worship in the Old Testament literally means to lean forwards and to kiss, if it were a royal figure it would be to humbly kiss their feet, her faith leads her to such devotion and Jesus invites her to go in peace because of that faith. Peace shalom again in Hebrew means wholeness a right set of relationships and in telling her to go in peace Jesus is saying her faith will lead her to live in that wholeness. In affirming her sins forgiven jesus is paving the way for her to be reconciled with the people of God. To a certain extend we are captive to how we cut up sections of the bible and it would be easy not to see the first three verses of chapter eight following on from this story. In that passage Luke tells us of three women who had come to faith in Jesus., one at least who came from a harsh background like the women in this passage. Unlike in this passage they are named. We see they to have responded to Jesus forgiveness with lavish love and they are actively involved in the ministry and mission of Jesus, they are the ones who show that leadership and love in service and financially supporting Jesus and the disciples.  These are exeples for us of how we are to respond extravagantly to the extravagant love we have received from Jesus.

Lastly there is the challenge of Simon the Pharisee in this passage… Simon represents the religious person in this parable. Simon may have thought himself a righteous person or at least just a little sinner, nothing too bad or evil… But Jesus shows him to have not even kept the requirement of a host in his own culture…How will he and how will we respond?  The challenge is for all of us to see ourselves as Jesus sees us with love and the open door of grace… and know it is only by his grace that our sins are forgiven and in respond to that in worship and praise in lavish love and in service and ministry and as in returning and showing God’s revolution of grace to those around us. 

So this morning hear afresh those wonderful grace filled love inspiring words from Jesus… your sins are forgiven… your faith has saved you go and live in peace. 

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