(Sometimes, these things just jump of the pages of my Bible at me right out of the blue, and I wonder why didn’t I hear this in at least one good sermon somewhere in the course of my life, or why didn’t I read this stuff in one of those fancy, hifalutin theology books I paid an arm and a leg for? This post highlights one of those times. I will never read Luke 7 the same again, now.)
Go take a few minutes and read Luke 7:36-50, then come back and let’s talk. I think you will want to refresh yourself on this, because what I have to say next is going to vastly expand anything you ever read or heard elsewhere, and you will want to have the text fresh in your mind.
Did you read it yet?
I can wait. Go ahead.
… no really… I can wait…
So, there is this Pharisee who invites Jesus over to the house for dinner; eventually we find out his name is Simon. While Jesus is there reclining at table, a sinful woman bursts in on the party and begins sobbing at Jesus’s feet prompting Simon to have some new thoughts about Jesus and Jesus responding with a parable about forgiveness. Jesus pronounces that the woman’s sins are forgiven her at which point everyone at the table puzzles over who exactly this man is.
That is a bare bones synopsis, leaving out tons of details. But then Luke leaves out so many details that us modern readers might wish for already. However, there are a number of details we can supply to the story with a rich understanding of history and of Israel’s hope for a messiah, and then there are the fresh ideas that jump of the page for me, just today, when I look at this story through a theological lens of HOSPITALITY.
I have surveyed many friends over the years on this now, and when it comes to biblical hospitality, the go-to passage of Scripture on this is Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect HOSPITALITY with strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware by doing that.” I am convinced that the writer of that passage has first, and foremost, in mind Abraham and Sarah as they entertain the Angel of the Lord in the form of Three Strangers in Genesis 18. But we see others too entertaining angels (or God) all through the Bible at various points (Gen. 19:1-14; Jdgs 13:15-20; Matt. 25:35-40) and, perhaps most importantly for our purposes today, we see it in Luke 24:28-30, since that is a major example and is found in the same gospel account as we are already looking.
One of the main things I learn from Prof. Joshua Jipp, author of Saved By Faith And Hospitality, is that passage in Luke 6, just one chapter before our present study, Jesus announces his messianic mission from his hometown synagogue by declaring the “Year of the Lord’s Welcome.” (We usually translate it as “favor,” but Jipp makes a theological and linguistic case for translating it “welcome” instead.) And this sermon appeals to the Old Testament’s prophetic vision of Jubilee, the forgiveness of debts. Jesus, then, characterizes his whole message and mission as one ushering in God’s Jubilee. Jubilee, which is referred to as “the Lord’s Welcome” by Luke’s Jesus.
According to Luke, the writer of our present passage, Jesus’s whole message and mission is about God’s HOSPITALITY. Jesus is welcoming God’s people into God’s kingdom, into the creation of God’s love. Luke’s Jesus is on a mission to spread the invitation to join God in his hospitable forgiveness. And there are so many hallmarks, then, of gracious HOSPITALITY jumping off of page after page of Luke’s account of Jesus’s life’s work.
Consider the Good Samaritan who hosts an injured stranger in his care as he heals from a beating. Consider the party the father throws for his prodigal son returned home from a foreign land. Consider when Jesus invites himself over to the home of Zaccheus where that cheater turns over a new leaf. And consider how Jesus instructs us, in Luke 14, that when we throw parties to make sure and invite the crippled, the blind, and the poor who cannot repay the kindness.
Assuming everything I have said so far is on target (obviously relying heavily on Joshua Jipp too), two things are coming into focus (at least for me here): 1) HOSPITALITY is not just incidental, not just a random bit of any given scene – probably not in the whole Bible, and certainly not in Luke/Acts, and 2) HOSPITALITY is a transformative process bringing salvation and the Kingdom of God to bear on the world – there is power in it that we would not want to miss!
And so it is that as I come to Luke 7:36, and there find a Pharisee inviting Jesus to come for dinner, I am suddenly intrigued to see a story where something important happens in the midst of HOSPITALITY. (I also am just a little jealous that Simon gets to have Jesus over for tea kinda like so many of my friends in the psych unit, but I don’t. What would you give for a chance to host Jesus for dinner at your house tonight?)
But we need to throw a pause on this scene right there a moment.
This Pharisee inviting Jesus over for dinner is not exactly the same thing as that; he is not the messianic welcome committee. No. Simon the Pharisee is providing a service, not so much to Jesus as to the rest of Israel here, and it comes across as something of an obligatory duty he performs. One in which Jesus is almost beneath his contempt.
Here’s the thing: Israel, in the times of Jesus, was filled with people hoping and yearning for God’s messiah to come and save his people, alright, and they knew, largely due to the way King David had been anointed in obscurity and right under the nose of King Saul, that this messiah might very well arise from obscurity again. But, there were literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of men popping up from obscurity making claims to be the Chosen One of God who would save the people, and many of them would then build up a following of “disciples” or warriors and rebels and the like, and then they would go pick a fight with Romans (or other enemies of God’s people) and their rebellion would wind up getting them killed. After a few dozen, or maybe a few hundred, of these messianic wannabes, as we might call them, managed to put together their ragtag rebel armies, recruited from the young men of surrounding villages, and getting a lot of people’s hopes up in desperation and all, only to get them killed, it seemed someone should try to vet these characters.
This was a service Pharisees were particularly good at. They vetted messianic wannabes. And mostly, and rightly so, they found that these messianic wannabes were not in fact the real thing.
Imagine if you had a few sons of about fightin’ age and there was a new rebel leader looking for recruits every Spring. You would want to get the rabbi’s endorsement before you just let your kids run off with this or that “messiah,” even if you wanted desperately to believe in him.
This is why, in various gospel accounts, we see Jesus arguing with Pharisees so often. They are, in a sense, on the same team, but the Pharisees are weeding out the fakes from the real thing. The problem is, though, they don’t recognize the day of their visitation.
And it turns out that this Pharisee, Simon in Luke 7, seems to prefer a method of inviting potential messiahs over to dine. Contrast this against other Pharisees who might hide out in a grain field spying on a “messiah” and catching his “disciples” picking grains and eating them on a Sabbath or attending worship on a Sabbath to see if the “messiah” is going to heal anyone on the Lord’s Day of Rest.
It’s right about here that I am beginning to have a new level of respect for Simon. He actually invites a potential messiah over to the crib to eat. That’s hospitality, y’all!
So, what exactly is so wrong with this then?
Well, for starts, it seems that Simon has reduced his hospitality to this political maneuver. I’m beginning to wonder if Simon’s little game here isn’t expected of Jesus. “Come get Simon’s stamp of approval, or forget your asperations,” it seems to say. Simon’s dinner is a political check list thingy. Coming to eat with Simon has become an obligation, a hoop a “messiah” must jump through, not a genuine grace offered by Simon.
I am guessing, of course, but this is the kind of twist that so often accompanies political games. It’s a real-life way of looking at a real-life story. And anyway, we can plainly see when Jesus confronts Simon about his disingenuous hospitality where he winds up comparing Simon’s hospitable care to that of the woman who barges in on them.
“You did not wash my feet…. You did not greet me with the customary kiss…. You did not anoint my head with oil…. She washed my feet with her tears and hair, kissed my feet with no care about how it looks to others, and she has anointed me with perfume.”
It appears that Simon is very self important on the one hand, and on the other he thinks Jesus is barely worth his time to share a meal with him. Through his actions, Simon has tipped his hand. We already know based on these things that Simon doesn’t regard Jesus as God’s Chosen Messiah at all, but rather is tolerating Jesus’s presence, perhaps as a matter of routine or minimal etiquette. This likewise says two other things about Simon’s hospitality: 1) it is counterfeit, reductionist, and not heartfelt; it’s obligatory and dutiful maybe, but not loving, 2) this feigned hospitality is blind to the truth of who Jesus really is.
You see, you and I both know something Simon doesn’t. We know that Jesus is, in fact, God’s Chosen Messiah. Simon thinks “if this man were a prophet, he would know….” We know that Simon doesn’t know that he does know, and that he knows a lot more as well. We know that Simon entertains Jesus, the Angel of the Lord, unaware, but we see even a new twist in that, for certainly Abraham and Sarah did that, but if you go to Genesis 18 and contrast the no-expense-spared spread that Abe tells Sarah and the servants to prepare, and the way Abe attends to these Strangers who appear as nothing more than passing vagabonds trespassing, you will see the difference is overwhelming even though they both entertain angels unaware.
Also, in contrast to Simon is this sinful woman. I don’t specifically know her sins, but a woman with a reputation as a sinner strongly suggests she is known as a whore. She is a cheap tramp that Simon would never invite to his home under any circumstance. And she barges in uninvited. (I must say that I am a little troubled by the idea that Jesus would deign to jump through Simon’s hoops and come to his political, checklist dinner in the first place, except that being God’s Chosen and possibly knowing all things, as well as being humble enough to submit even to this humiliation, Jesus wants to use this opportunity to provide us with these contrasts for our edification and the conviction of our hearts.) And so, perhaps riding the messianic coattails of Jesus, she shares his ticket to ride even though she has barged in, and she quietly assumes the role of host, blowing Simon’s uppity hospitality away with her humble, heartfelt HOSPITALITY! She loved much!
This pitiful whore’s love comes across as a big social imposition on Simon’s style, but in God’s economy, it’s right and good. This lowly whore’s love is more real than Simon’s tolerance. One of these is forgiven much and the other little.
And then as so often happens in the Bible, a special revelation is shared, a special blessing, an identity disclosed, one of those moments that gives us those spiritual goosebumps that is so hard to explain comes to bear on this story at Simon’s table too. Only, it doesn’t happen. It become anticlimactic here in chapter 7, but will become overwhelmingly climactic in chapter 24.
Do you see it?
In verse 48, (that’s chapter 7, verse 48, to be clear), Jesus forgives the woman’s sins.
Oh, what a blessed moment that is! This woman (he called her a woman as he spoke to Simon in v. 44) who has bore this reputation for her sin, a reputation which would prevent her ever being invited to an important party, is now forgiven, and that burden is no longer hers ever again. She invited Jesus into her love, and she finds the special revelation of her forgiveness there. But to everyone else at Simon’s table, the question becomes, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?”
They should, like the disciples at Emmaus, have their eyes opened just then, but they don’t. And this is doubly ironic when you figure the question actually answers itself!
It helps if you have read a little of the theological research of N.T. Wright, I think (though I am not convinced the point is lost without his work). But the Bible always imagined that the “return from exile” would be a time of “God’s forgiveness of sin.” Those hoping in a messiah to arise from obscurity and save God’s people would almost certainly view his work as completing Israel’s return from exile which would be both a return geographically to the Promised Land, but also freedom from foreign oppression. That last part was still not achieved in the time of Jesus. But a dinner party designed by a Pharisee to determine the real Messiah from all the fakes should be able to welcome this blessing too, yet apparently Simon’s was not.
I probably could say more on this passage if I took the time to think it through and the time to write it all carefully, but this post is getting long enough, and I have other duties in life to which I must attend. But I don’t want to end just there, exactly yet either. I sense there is something in the realm of application yet to provoke some thought.
I think Luke’s Jesus is on a mission to welcome humanity, and all of God’s creation, into God’s will, into God’s kingdom rule. I think that is a transformative process which, when fully explored makes demands of us in vulnerability, humility, allegiance, love, charity, and other generosities, and does so in uncommon ways and at uncommon levels. (I don’t think we are really preaching and teaching this stuff at nearly the depth we should be.) And I think, Jesus is calling us to be both gracious hosts and gracious guests in the lives and homes and churches of others. The HOSPITALITY becomes the stage upon which this transformative process unfolds, and the whole world is yearning in birth pangs for us to be revealed in this transformation. Strangers, enemies, and even poor and needy people become friends, allies, and brothers as so do we, and as we become our brother’s keepers.
I think Simon’s hospitality shows us where and how we might be counterfeiting the process and Who we might be entertaining unaware. It is so easy, especially due to our fears and our prides, to confuse tolerance for love and then not be forgiven much.
I hope your church will welcome prophetic, messianic wannabes with love and charity and find Jesus in them. Some of them my be surprised to find Jesus in them too, and we may as well get used to that as a possibility. And I hope that with them any whores that barge in will also be welcome and forgiven.
I think if your church did just that and nothing more, then your church would make a tremendous impact on our world today.