“More Than a Prophet”
February 23, 2003
If you remember way back at the beginning of Advent, I explained to you that Advent was in fact only the beginning of a much larger story, a much larger story about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our text for today returns us that larger story and to the persistent theme that has been at the forefront of the story of Jesus so far.
This persistent theme, which began with Jesus birth at Christmas, and continued through Epiphany and Jesus baptism, can be summed up in one word: identification. This ongoing theme of the identification of who Jesus is, not only unites the three events of Christmas, Epiphany, and Baptism together, and carries their messages on into the rest of the church year, but it also moves us forward toward two very important parts of the larger story that we will be celebrating soon, Lent and Easter. In our story for today, it is the identification of who Jesus is that comes under question.
Jesus has been preaching in Galilee for nearly a year now. The common people have received him gladly. Already he has healed a leper, a paralytic and dozens of people. He has cast out demons and raised a widow’s only son from the dead. News about Jesus has begun to spread throughout the country. People would gather in their homes, at the local restaurants, and around the town watering holes saying to one another, “Hey did you hear about that guy named Jesus? I hear he has done some amazing things. He made the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk.” “Oh yeah”, another would say, “I hear he is a prophet.” Crowds of people would seek him out in order to catch just a glimpse of him as he walked by or, if they were lucky enough, to see him perform a miracle. The country was abuzz with news about Jesus, not only about what he did, but also about who he was.
Many people had their own idea about who Jesus was, but one of the most common identification of Jesus was that he was a prophet. Even John the Baptist wondered if this was really so, because there had been many people who had been prophets and many who claimed to be. People began to wonder whether this Jesus was just one of many who had come to tow the religious party line, whether or not he was a prophet of old, or if this Jesus was different, if this Jesus was more than just a prophet.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, had already made up their mind about who Jesus was and they had begun to grow cold toward Jesus. He didn’t pander to their crowd, and occasionally he said things that ruffled their feathers and challenged their rules. They didn’t like him and they were not sure how to handle him. In their close knit circles they probably began to wonder whether or not they should just quietly ignore him, or publicly oppose him, or attempt to discredit him? Well, Simon the Pharisee had an idea.
It is remarkable in a way that a Pharisee would invite Jesus to his house for dinner. After all Jesus was no friend of the Pharisees, the ones who Luke says rejected God’s purpose for themselves. Simon’s true motives aren’t clear in the text, but it would be safe to say that whatever his motives were, they weren’t friendly.
You see, hospitality, the generous and cordial welcome of strangers, was considered to be one of the most important parts of a person’s faith. Nothing was more important than showing hospitality toward people you don’t know, welcoming them into your home, providing a safe environment for them, and even having a meal with them. This was more than just being nice, it was a central part of their core belief that one day God would show them the same hospitality and welcome them to the marriage feast of the Lamb of God.
A part of showing hospitality to strangers was washing the guests feet. It was good manners in that day for the host to have his servant wash the feet of a guest who entered the host’s home. The guest’s feet would be sore and dirty from walking in sandals on dusty, dirt roads. It was also polite to kiss the guest on the check to let the visitor know that he or she was welcome. And it was customary to anoint the guest’s head with oil. But, Simon didn’t do any of these things.
Imagine being invited over to someone’s house for dinner after a hard day’s work and upon entering no one comes to you to greet you. You go in and find the host and extend your hand only to have the host refuse to shake hands. No one offers you something to drink; no one offers you a seat to rest your tired body. This is the way Simon the Pharisee treated Jesus. But why? Why go to all the trouble to invite this person to your home and put on a lavish meal only to insult him? Obviously, Simon had something else in mind for this dinner with Jesus.
I think Simon knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what people had been saying about Jesus. He knew that Jesus had been called a prophet. Simon knew that if he could get under Jesus’ skin, make him mad, and goad him into speaking out or doing something, then Simon could embarrass and discredit Jesus in front of all the people who were there. Jesus had already been accused of eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. Who in their right mind would listen to or even follow a discredited prophet?
It is amazing to me how graciously Jesus acted. How he showed us by his behavior how we are to respond when someone treats us rudely. Jesus just ignored Simon’s petty, childish behavior. He refused to give Simon the satisfaction of even commenting about this treatment.
But, then something happens. A woman enters the room. She’s not the kind of woman you’d ordinarily invite to nice party. She was a woman of the city, a scandalous woman, a sinner. And here she was at Simon’s home – unescorted, uninvited, unwanted. Some people say that she had learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house and she came just to see Jesus, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, hoping to catch his attention and give him the jar of ointment she had as a gift.
But I don’t think this is the case. I believe she came to Jesus because they had met before. She came to Jesus already weeping, she came in loving gratitude for what Jesus had already done for her in forgiving her sins.
Whatever the case may be, she approaches Jesus from behind as he is reclined at the table, tears rolling down her face, they literally fall on Jesus’ unwashed feet and leave streaks in the dirt and grime Simon had refused to wash away. In her embarrassment she falls to her knees and begins to wipe his feet with her hair. Then she begins kissing his feet and pours the jar of ointment onto his feet.
Now Simon has been watching this little drama unfold. He doesn’t say anything to the woman. He is watching to see what Jesus is going to do. But Jesus does nothing, and the corner of Simon’s mouth begins to curl up in a little, sly smile, as he says to himself, “Gotcha… I’ve gotcha Jesus! Wait till the others hear about this. This Jesus claims to be a prophet, well if this man were a prophet, then he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”
Our text says that Jesus literally turns his back on Simon and faces the woman. He turns away from the judgmental, self-righteousness of the Pharisee to the simple repentance of this woman, and he asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” This is not just a casual question, but a profound question, a question, which strikes at the very core of our attitude toward others. The woman was exactly what Simon did not see.
In the end, it is the Pharisee who does not know. It is he who is really ignorant about who Jesus is and about this woman. It is Simon who does not know that every human being is one of God’s creatures and the object of God’s care; that even the most shameless sinner can be forgiven; that all are in need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness; that our love for Jesus and our love for others is not to gain forgiveness but is what we do because we have already been forgiven.
Simon had people arranged in classes; this woman wasn’t even a woman, she was only a sinner. But Jesus saw only a woman. He did not classify people; he did not concern himself with what sort they were; he was always interested in who they were, in the person themselves.
Jesus didn’t let social or economic or racial or sexual or any other societal arrangement be a barrier between himself and another, to limit his contacts with others, or to determine his relationships with others.
In the closing verses of this story, the focus is on the reaction of those who were eating at the table with him. They marveled that Jesus dared to pronounce that the woman’s sins had been forgiven. Only God could forgive sins. No priest, prophet, or rabbi would dare to claim this prerogative.
The irony of Luke’s story and of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus’ readiness to forgive the humble and the sinful was one of the clearest evidences that Jesus was more than a prophet. More than any of his miracles or mighty works, Jesus’ ability to forgive revealed that he was not only much more than a prophet, but that he had the true heart and character of God.
My friends, not only does this text make a claim about who Jesus is, but it also makes a claim about who we are. In our daily lives, our actions and words define for others what we believe about who Jesus is. When we show hospitality to others, when we welcome them, when we see them for who they are, and not for what they are, and when we treat them with love, kindness, and respect, we not only demonstrate to others our faith, but we also show others that Jesus is more than just a prophet to us, that who he is and what he did defines how we live our lives. By living a Christ-like faith, we not only witness to others who Jesus is, but like Jesus, we too reveal the true heart and character of God.
In the powerful name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.