In honour of Church for Misfits going life, this is one I’ve been working on for months now but for one reason or another never got around to publishing. I pray there’s something here for you!
I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Luke lately, going slowly, maybe a chapter or two at a time (which is an amazing free form approach to studying Scripture), and what I’ve observed is that, within the space of six chapters or so, Jesus has three separate dinner invites from the Pharisees. When one considers that the Gospel writer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, had a say not in just what was recorded but also in how it was put together, that’s not a coincidence, and it’s worth taking a deeper look at. Knowing that the Pharisees hate Jesus, and are eventually directly responsible for His death, why does Jesus sit down to a meal with them on three different occasions?
The first part of this little mystery is in the story of the first dinner invite in Luke 7, and as we look into this, keep in mind two “why?” moments. Starting off, in verse 36, we’re told, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.” Now for what prompts this invite, we have to look in the verses that come right before this passage. Starting in verse 24, Jesus talks about John the Baptist, and in a roundabout sort of way, compares the Old Covenant with the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God. When He says in verse 28, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” He’s indicating that in the Kingdom of God, anyone who accepts His sacrifice by faith gets in. The Pharisees, in contrast, were the ones in control of first-century Judaism. They were the ones, so to speak, who decided who was in and who was not, and as Luke tells us in verse 29, they were not happy with what Jesus was saying. Seven verses later, after a few more pointed remarks from Jesus, one of them invites Him to dinner.
Now think about this for a second. Put yourself in the Pharisee’s shoes here. You’re one of the religious elite of your day. One of the powerful. A man of authority. And along comes this man who starts to gain support with the people and who directly challenges that authority. In this situation, the very first thing you do is invite Him to dinner. Why? (This is the first “why?” moment.)
Scripture doesn’t give us any direct insight into the motivations of the Pharisee in question here (we’re told in verse 40 that his name is Simon), but human nature being what it is, it’s not too hard to speculate a little. Simon, and the Pharisees in general, likely wanted to explain the facts of life to Jesus. “We’re in charge here. You’re not. The sooner you recognize that, the happier we’ll all be.” With that background in mind, let’s have a look at what we’re told about this dinner meeting.
We’re not actually told much about what happens during the meal. In fact, the only thing we’re told, starting in verse 37, is that “a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.” Some translations have “woman of the city” translated as “prostitute,” which gives you an idea of this woman’s reputation. As the story unfolds, we’re told that Simon is aware of her reputation and although he doesn’t say anything directly, he mentally criticizes Jesus for the respect He shows this woman. Jesus calls him out on this and defends the woman’s actions. The end result has Simon looking like the world’s worst dinner host and probably feeling pretty foolish, while the woman’s actions are praised.
The second “why?” moment has to do with the woman herself. Namely, why on earth is she present at this meeting? Her and Simon are about as far apart on the social scale of the day as the Earth is from Pluto. Luke 7:36 indicates that this whole dinner invite for Jesus was Simon’s idea, meaning his house is the likely venue for it, and given that extreme social disparity, the only way this woman is staying there, let alone getting in the door, is if Simon is OK with the idea. All we’re told in this passage is that she “learned [Jesus] was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house,” but not how exactly she learned that information. This is the second “why?” moment, and answering this one helps us to answer the first.
Regardless of whether or not she learned of the dinner directly from the Pharisees, she’s there because Simon wants her to be. And that means that she’s bait. If they can’t explain the facts of life to Jesus, maybe they can embarrass him through her and discredit him enough that He’s no longer a threat. Pick it up again in verse 39. Watching Jesus, Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” The gist here is that if Jesus is a legitimate prophet, He’ll respond to this woman in a certain way. Failure to do so means He’s not actually a prophet.
This, then, is the situation as we get to the end of this dinner story. The unnamed woman is weeping at Jesus’ feet, Simon is waiting to see what Jesus will do, and Jesus is once again the centre of attention. What will He do? While we’re pondering that one, what would you do? I don’t know about you, but I hate awkward moments. Whether it be a prank, or a joke, or just a set up, my first thought is always to get out of there as fast as I can. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable, and I’m gone. Is that what Jesus does?
We see in verses 40-43 that Jesus does nothing of the sort. Through a pointed illustration, He calls Simon’s behaviour out. Simon is from the upper end of the social scale, as we’ve noticed, yet as Jesus goes on to point out in verses 44-47, Simon hasn’t even observed the social niceties of the day. Forget loving. Simon’s the host who won’t make small talk, who won’t offer appetisers before dinner, hell, who won’t even shake your hand as you come into his house. The woman, in contrast, has done all of that in her own small way. The story ends with Him praising her actions (she’s the prostitute, remember? This can’t have exactly endeared Him to those looking on), and ultimately concludes with Him telling her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
So what, then, is the point of all this? (My apologies for the length; sometimes it’s worth going into detail for nuggets like this.) The point to all of this is that Jesus is the same way with you and with me. No matter what rung on the social ladder we occupy (this includes the church social ladder as well), Jesus never condemns. He takes us as we are when we come to Him. He never condemns. Never criticises. Never marginalises. He has more concern for this woman than He does for His own reputation, remember? As Paul tells us in Romans 5:8, Christ died for us while we were still sinners. Not when we had it all together. Not when we were perfect. But while we were still broken. While we were still lost.
I can promise you one thing. If you come to Him, He will never condemn you. Never.