SCRIPTURE – Luke 7:36-50 – 36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus[j] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.”41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[k]and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus[l] said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Do Not Be Afraid sermon series
#3 – Fear of What Others Think
Feb. 28, 2016
Our former house sat on a corner lot, and every spring we tended to get a lot of dandelions in our yard, way more than our neighbors. It’s like we were running dandelion interference for the rest of the neighborhood. And I noticed that a neighbor across the street who also had a corner lot never had as many dandelions as us. I saw him outside one time and was tempted to go over and ask him what he did to his yard to keep the weeds out, but I didn’t, because doing so would reveal that I didn’t know how to take care of my own lawn, which is a seriously violation of the Man Code, as stated in the book of First Testosterone 12:14. I didn’t want my neighbor or anyone else to know that I didn’t know something, even though they could figure that out just by looking at the dandelion convention in my front yard.
Now, I know I don’t know everything. And I’m sure my neighbor knew I don’t know everything. And I know that you all know I don’t know everything. Even my daughters are finding that out. But there’s something in us that is hesitant to admit the undeniable fact that we are all human. So we mow our lawns and wash our cars and put on nice clothes to cover up the imperfection and hurt and pain of what’s on the inside, because if we’re really honest with ourselves, we care what other people think about us.
For our Lenten sermon series, we’re looking at the fears that keep us from God, things like fear of failure and fear of the future. We’re also learning about people in the Bible who overcame their fears to be closer to Jesus. Today’s story is a great example of someone who overcame a serious fear in order literally to be closer to Jesus. Her fear is the fear of what others think, and if we’re willing to admit it, it’s our fear, too.
So let’s set the scene. Jesus is invited to dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Right away, we know something is up. Jesus didn’t usually hob-nob with Pharisees, so the fact that he’s been invited to dinner smells suspiciously like a trap. Sure enough, when Jesus arrives, Simon neglects to offer him the basic hospitality customary of the times: a kiss of greeting; water to wash his dusty feet; and perfume to Febreeze away the raunchy body odor that was typical in the time of no showers or deodorant. Simon’s lack of hospitality is the modern-day equivalent of making Jesus wash his own dishes. From the very moment Jesus arrives, Simon lets Jesus know exactly what he thinks of him.
Why the snub from Simon? He was probably testing Jesus to see if Jesus would get riled up and make a scene, discrediting himself in front of the crowd. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he moves to the table for dinner. In those days, it was customary for guests to recline at the table with one arm propped underneath them and their feet pointed away from the table. If you’re wondering why, see my previous comment about body odor. While they are eating, we have the strange appearance of this woman. Houses back then often had courtyards that were accessible to the public. Because Simon had such a famous guest for dinner, it’s probable that people would have congregated on the outskirts of the courtyard to get a glimpse of Jesus. So when Luke tells us the woman approaches Jesus, she didn’t break in through a bathroom window; she was part of the crowd that was there.
We don’t know a whole lot about the woman, but we do know that she is seriously out of place in a Pharisee’s house. Luke tells us she is a sinner, but other translations are more blunt, calling her a harlot or a prostitute. She most likely had a reputation, so those who had gathered would know exactly who she was. Because of her profession, she would be considered unclean, just like the woman in last week’s story. Her line of work would have made her an outcast, and everyone she met could see the dandelions in her yard, and she knew it.
Which makes her actions all the more courageous. A female sinner approaching a male rabbi would have been the height of disrespect and an egregious social taboo. But she does it anyway, offering the hospitality that Simon intentionally neglected, kissing Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears, pouring expensive oil on them. She’s used to other people looking down on her, thinking less of her, but in this moment, none of that matters. All that matters for her is being closer to Jesus.
While this is going on, Luke gives us a glimpse into Simon’s thinking, telling us that Simon thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” You hear the judgment in that statement? You can almost hear the hiss in his voice. “A sinner.”
You get the irony here, right? Simon, who just minutes ago broke the social law by not offering hospitality to his esteemed guest, is now chastising Jesus for spending time with this woman, who broke the law. Simon is devaluing Jesus for being in the presence of a sinner, meaning this woman, when Simon has actively sinned while Jesus was right there! But rather than owning that, he uses the presence of this woman as a prop to keep up his own appearances.
That’s a temptation we all face, because in our world today, no one wants to be seen as vulnerable, as not having it all together. We easily fall into the trap of envy, like I did with my neighbor’s dandelion-free lawn. Now, I didn’t know this guy. He might secretly chew with his mouth open or forward chain letter emails. I’m sure if I went digging through is garbage I’d find at least one or two recyclables that he had thrown in the trash. But all I saw, when looking at his lawn, was the stark reminder than I’m not perfect enough. Nobody wants to be thought of as weak. Frail. Feeble. Flawed. Imperfect. I mean, if people really knew the truth about us, what would they think? Rather than owning who we are, dandelions and all, we often work hard to appear whole.
I believe Simon is caught on that hamster wheel, and it causes him to be distanced from Jesus. Rather than admit his need for grace and forgiveness, he withholds hospitality from Jesus and receives a rebuke. This woman, on the other hand, comes to Jesus just as she is, offers him her worship, and receives grace, forgiveness, and peace. And that happens because she doesn’t let what other people think stand in her way. If she did, she would never have shown up at Simon’s house in the first place. But she does, and her courage leads to a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Why do we give so much power to what other people think? Because we all want to be liked. We all want to be accepted, to feel like we belong. If someone thinks badly of us, then we are more likely to think badly of ourselves. One of the greatest powers we possess as human beings is the power to assign value. We do it all the time to each other. With just a glance or an eye roll, we can tell someone what we think they are worth.
I’m sure this woman received plenty of eye rolls, but it doesn’t stop her on her mission. I think we need to reconsider the power people have over us to assign value to us, because it keeps us from being real, from being willing to admit that we have places in our lives that are broken. I’m not saying we should go around the room and start naming our sins, but I do believe that our fear of what other people think about us keeps us from being authentic with each other, and subsequently authentic with God. Our culture finds no value in broken things, but God finds redemptive value in them, if we are willing to approach Jesus in our brokenness.
Simon made the mistake of trying to be so pious that he didn’t need Jesus. But I believe we are better served, not by trying to be someone better than we are, but by being authentic in who we really are with God and with others. We work so hard to craft a stainless steel Teflon persona, when all God asks is that we be ourselves, opening ourselves up to relationships with others at a deep, human level, and being willing to share our doubt, our discouragement, and our dandelions.
Too often, we try to put roadblocks for ourselves or others in front of Jesus. We believe we have to achieve certain prerequisites – be clean enough or respectable enough or religious enough – before we can come to God. Some people believe it is possible to sin too much, wander too far, or mess up too big to come to God, that our lives have to be free of dandelions before we can approach God. But I believe the opposite is true. God loves us not in spite of who we are, but because of it. Jesus wasn’t born in a sterile hospital room or a lavish palace, but in the brokenness of poverty, in a manger. God is drawn to people who invite God into their brokenness.
Perfect lawns don’t mean perfect people. Clean houses don’t mean clean lives. Big homes don’t mean close family relationships. Cross necklaces and Christian bumper stickers don’t mean a faithful, Christ-like life. Simon was no less of a sinner than the woman. The Bible doesn’t distinguish between big and little sins. It simply says in Romans that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all of us need to approach Jesus, so that he can speak a word of forgiveness and grace and peace.
There will always be people who don’t like you. And there will always be parts of yourself you don’t like. But there will also always be a place for you at the table next to Jesus. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Doesn’t matter who you’ve hurt. Doesn’t matter how far you’ve run away. If we are willing to come as we are, Jesus will meet us there. It’s hard to be vulnerable, to show God the dandelions that have taken root in our hearts, to admit to the brokenness we feel inside. But when we let go of the power people have over us and live into the fact that we are a beloved child of God, we can truly hear and claim the words Jesus speaks: “Your faith has made you whole. Go in peace.”