H.L. Mencken described a Puritan as a “person with a haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy.”1 Unfortunately that description could apply to many Christian communities. Churches are often places of discord, abuse, and fountains of hate, even though this stands in contrast to Jesus’s message of grace, love and forgiveness. This attitude is often enabled by a legalism that is contrary to Jesus’ message of freedom, healing, and acceptance.
Unfortunately, this reality has led large numbers of people to conclude that the church of Jesus Christ is the last place to go if you’re looking for a word of hope or happiness. The word on the street is that churches are places of ostracism, exclusion, and condemnation, where no one dares to laugh, lest they offend God and their neighbor. I hope that’s not true here, but that’s the reputation we must deal with!
1. AN INVITATION TO DINNER
This reputation of legalism and exclusiveness isn’t new. You see it on display in the attitudes of Simon the Pharisee and his friends, who are sharing a meal with Jesus, as they responded to a woman who enters their meeting without an invitation. But, not only wasn’t she on the guest list, but she was a known sinner; a woman who lived across the tracks and down the back alley. It’s possible that some of the people in that room knew her by more than reputation, but they would never admit to it. Yes, whatever it was that she had done in life, she now lived as an outcast. She was a persona non grata – a person without grace.
When she entered the room, she went over to where Jesus lay at table and knelt before him. As she knelt down, she began to weep uncontrollably, bathing his feet with her tears. Then, perhaps unconsciously, she unloosened her hair, something no woman did in polite company, and began to dry his feet with her hair. Finally she began to kiss his feet and anoint them with the costly perfume she had brought with her in an alabaster jar. These actions, not just those of the woman, but those of Jesus as well, scandalized Simon. How could Jesus, he wondered out loud, let this sinner, this unclean person, touch him like that? It was unseemly, even obscene. Here, he was supposedly a prophet of God, allowing himself to be touched by an unclean woman. Surely no self-respecting prophet would let such a thing happen.
2. THE STORY
Simon’s outburst, led to a brief story. Jesus responded to Simon by telling him a parable about two debtors. One man had been five-hundred denarii, which was a lot of money, and the other had received fifty denarii. Now, fifty is quite a bit of money – maybe two months’ salary, but it’s nothing in comparison to the 500, which might be equal to a couple of year’s salary. When it came time to repay the debt, neither of these borrowers could repay, and so the lender forgave the debts rather than casting the men into debtors’ prison. Then, Jesus asked Simon: “Which of them will love him more?” With reluctance Simon admitted that it was the one who owed the most who loved the most.
Yes the woman was a sinner, but so was Simon. The only difference was that she recognized this fact, perhaps because her sins might have been more obvious. So, it would seem that since she had been forgiven more, she loved more. Simon, believing he was sin-free and pious, had little use for the woman or forgiveness. And therefore, unlike her, he had no need to show gratitude to God or anyone else.
The woman’s actions seemed scandalous, but not only were they acts of gratitude, they contrasted strongly with the actions or lack thereof of Simon. You see, Simon had invited Jesus to dinner, but he failed to act as a proper host. That’s because a proper host greets the guest with a kiss and anoints with oil. The host also makes sure that the guest’s feet are washed. Simon didn’t do any of this for Jesus, but this “sinful” woman did what Simon refused to do.
You see, Simon’s problem was that, like us, he had different categories of sin. So, he concluded that whatever sins he might have committed, they were nothing compared to the sins of this woman. She was impure, perhaps even a woman of ill repute. But Jesus responded to his unspoken sentiment by saying: “those who are forgiven little, love little” (vs. 47).
3. THE TABLE OF GRACE
Well, I’ve been in the church all my life, and I’ve seen the “good, the bad, and the ugly” in the church. I’ve seen families disown their children in the name of God, and I’ve heard Christian leaders utter racial slurs and speak hatefully of others. I’ve seen churches split over such little things as the color of the carpet or the doors. I wish I could say that I wasn’t part of the problem, but I know I’m as guilty as anyone else. Certainly, God is weeping at seeing us fight, gossip, and defaming others. Perhaps we’ve not yet understood the message of grace. Perhaps we’ve not understood the depths of our own sinfulness, and the promise of forgiveness. And, so because we think we have little to be forgiven of, we show very little love to others, especially those who are different from us.
As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning, it’s appropriate to confess to God that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and grace. It’s also important to remember that the table isn’t just for the saints. It’s also for sinners. If this isn’t true, then none of us would have the right to come to the table.
The good news is that the Table of the Lord is truly a place where sinners gather to receive a word of grace and comfort. Bread and Cup are signs of Jesus’ body and blood, which beckon us forward so we can find peace, hope, and joy. This is a table of grace that’s open to anyone who recognizes the need for that grace. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or how you look or even how much money you make. In welcoming both the woman and Simon, Jesus welcomes all of us into his family.
It may sometimes seem like we’ve heard this message of forgiveness one too many times. Shouldn’t we have already gotten the message, so that we can move onto bigger and better things? Simon’s response to this woman, who entered his home without an invitation, reminds us that we can never hear this message too often. Indeed, it is this message of forgiveness and grace that will allow us to live out our core value of acceptance. As a church we’re able to accept others, because we’ve already been accepted by God.
This is a message that requires more from us than mere assent. It is, as William Willimon writes:
For Jesus, forgiveness is not some doctrine to be believed; rather, it is a feast to be received, a party to which the outcasts are invited, a gift to be received with empty hands. So Jesus not only tells a parable at the table, he becomes a parable, a sign to us of what God is up to in the world. In Jesus, God is busy inviting the whole world to the table.2
The invitation has been given to everyone who will hear and receive it: Come to the table and enjoy the bounteous grace of God, for your sins are forgiven, and you have been saved. Go in peace.
- Quoted in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Zondervan, 1997), 29
- William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 29 (April, May, June 2001): 53.