Living the High Life: Being Forgiven

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Casting the movie

When I was a teenager, I began reading a lot of the same books that my father read. Authors like James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz became commonly sought out in the library. In fact, to this day my father continues the practice of weekly trips to the library for the latest from the stacks. Back then, we would go into the library and the librarian knew my father so well by his choices that she began to set aside new books by his favorite authors or let him know when the books would be released and purchased by the library system.

When we got our hands on the books, we would each read them and then the casting began. We tried to imagine the books as films, easy enough considering some of them were made into films within a reasonable time after their release. As we did, we would cast the roles of each character in the book based on the actors that were available and popular at the time. Sometimes the films would be made and the actors would be close enough to the book that we could live with their choices (like we had any choice in the matter) but sometimes the choices were just off.

One of our more interesting discussions was around the character of Alex Cross from James Patterson’s best-selling series of detective novels. The Alex Cross character is an African American former Washington, D.C. detective, FBI agent and psychologist who typically works on high profile cases involving hyper-intelligent criminals and serial killers. The character is a calmly analytical yet approachable man who shows a great deal of empathy for the people around him. My father and I had a few actors in mind, notably James Earl Jones as Alex Cross and Michael Clark Duncan as John Sampson, Cross’ giant of a partner. The choice made perfect sense to us given the calm, dignified demeanor of Jones and massive physical presence of Duncan.

But Hollywood, as usual, disappointed us.

The parts went to Morgan Freeman as Cross and Bill Nunn as Sampson. Both respected actors but neither really looking the part as we saw the story in our minds. Because that was really the key, the impetus behind our little casting exercise. We could see the story that we were reading in our mind’s eyes and the story we saw didn’t look like the story on the screen. There was something missing from their version, something that simply did not add up to what was in the pages.

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Casting the Gospel

This story in Luke is one of those that I find easy to see in my imagination. I can see the action as though it were a movie in my mind as I read the words. It’s not just the main players I see, but the entire scene as though it were happening in front of me.

Capernaum was a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee, two centuries old by the time Jesus sits down to the meal with Simon the Pharisee. As they sat in what was most likely a single-story house, Jesus and Simon might have enjoyed the breeze off the lake, a breeze of course, that came with the smell of fish but also other industries that were a part of the village. It was probably around sunset since it would be proper to invite a guest to the evening meal rather than one of the others. The disciples are not present in this story though I imagine they may have been nearby, talking with others about Jesus or perhaps seeking accommodations for the night. The room they gathered in was most likely the largest room of the house, one for cooking and entertaining. Although it doesn’t explicitly say it, the meal itself would have been tended to by Simon’s wife or daughters, perhaps a slave or servant if the Pharisee had one.

Meals as they were practiced were considered a holy act; to offer a meal to someone was a sign of friendship and trust, a sign that showed your acceptance of the guest. Consider the uproar of the Pharisees and scribes as Jesus accepts the invitation of the tax collecting traitor Levi also known as Matthew. The meal itself would have been served on a low table, laid out before those gathered on the best the house had to offer. Those eating would have been reclining, most likely on their left elbows to be able to eat with their right hands since most people were (and still are) right handed. Normally, the people would have washed their hands in a small bowl and often the host would offer to wash not only the hands of a guest but also the feet, since people wore sandals and people would have lie down on their dirty feet otherwise.

As the meal was brought out, the guest and his host were treated to the smells of a meat stew or if Simon were a wealthy man perhaps a roasted lamb which would have been customary for an honored guest. There would have been bread and lentils, possibly fruit of some variety, maybe figs. They would have drunk what we call a table wine since water was most often contaminated and unable to be purified.

The meal itself would have been a festive occasion as it was rare to have a guest of that magnitude. For us this would have been like throwing a dinner party for the most prominent citizen in town or even our region. It would be a sign of importance to have a prophet, certainly a prophet with Jesus’ reputation dining your home, something like having a head of state or celebrity dine with you. Everything would have been perfect and from the account in Luke it was. But that lasts only a short time before the party gets crashed.

The Party Crasher

My father is a stickler for locks. Every night of my childhood I remember my father walking through the house and checking every window and every door to be certain that the locks, chains, and all the other security paraphernalia was engaged as it should be. Apparently, Simon was not quite so careful. According to Luke’s account, someone found out that Jesus was at his house that evening. The townspeople labelled this woman as ‘a sinner’ and what that meant could be a range of things but speaking generally, she was someone deemed irreligious or outside the practicing faith.

This woman, in an act of will and audacity, barges into Simon’s home with an alabaster jar, an expensive accessory for the time that would have been used to keep perfumes and oils cool due to the nature of the stone. As she does she takes a place at Jesus feet, kneeling behind him but still close enough to him to touch his feet. And she begins to cry. I want you to think about that for a moment because I think too often this gets glossed over in the grander tale. She cries. There is a depth of emotion that this woman has been holding within herself that in this moment, being before Jesus, overflows in her tears that fall on his feet. In her embarrassment or perhaps as an act of conscious humility, she uses her hair as a towel to wipe Jesus tear soaked, mud encrusted feet. In much the same way he treated her, she is taking the dirt of the road, the path Jesus has walked, off his feet and onto herself. She then pours what is assumed to be an expensive oil, as I believe, both an act of cleansing and anointing. Some commentators have tried to make more of this and read more into this moment than I think necessary. I believe the truth in the story is that she has been forgiven by Jesus of something not mentioned in the story and is showing her love, her appreciation, pouring out her heart in thanks before someone who refused to see her as only a sinner. The fourth century church father Asterius of Amasea wrote,

Showing her unworthiness and utmost timidity through her manner and assuming a place to the rear, she did not simply stand but took a position behind his feet, loosed her hair, and made her grieving soul a matter of public business by her actions. Shedding tears on the feet of Jesus with great feeling she begged for mercy. And she poured forth such tears that she wet his feet. And wiping her tears with her hair she again displayed her perfectly circumspect humility. (Horn. 13.10.2-3)[2]

I think this was her primary motivation here, humility before the face of one who had shown her mercy, shown her grace in a society that had written her off as one who had missed the mark and would never hit it. It was humility born from a deep, intense need to show some semblance of gratitude for Jesus’ seeing her as a human being rather than a broken animal.

Simon of course can’t see this. He has prepared a meal for an honored guest, a great prophet with the intent of perhaps discussing Jesus’ teaching and ministry, matters of the Torah and religious observance. He may have spent a good deal of extra money to provide the food for the meal and maybe paid for extra servants; perhaps offering to help find food and lodging for Jesus’ disciples if he himself were not able to feed and care for them in his own home.

Into this great festal moment walks a piece of street trash, a sinner, and a woman no less. Does she not realize who he, Simon is, a teacher of the law? Does she have no sense of decorum or understanding of how polite society should respond and act in these situations. This was his home and she, an uninvited guest barges in and starts harassing his guest. She is out of place, completely hysterical, and has no reason to even be in his home. And worst of all, Jesus is letting her. Jesus, the great prophet is letting this filthy, unacceptable, unclean sinner touch him, making Jesus himself unclean.

And Jesus does what he has done to this point through his ministry; he turns it into a teaching moment. He sees the sneering, incensed expression on Simon’s face and hears the frustrated breathing and makes the obvious conclusion, “Simon assumes I don’t know what kind of woman she is. He assumes I may not be the prophet people say I am.” And as usual, Jesus makes his point in story. He tells of two people who are indebted to the same man, one owing a small debt and the other a much larger debt. When it becomes apparent that neither man can pay, the two debts are cancelled and both men are freed from their obligation. Jesus asks Simon, “Which of the debtors will love the lender more?” Simon gives the obvious answer and walks into the snare saying, “I guess the person that had the largest debt cancelled.”

Jesus then points out that it is Simon, not the woman, who is out of order. It is Simon with his focus on the meal and the discussion and the preoccupations with himself who has forgotten the simple courtesies of honoring the guest. Simon should have offered to clean Jesus feet or at the very least have a servant do it. Yet it is the woman, a sinner written off by polite society who provides this most basic act of civility and does so with the extravagance of providing tears to wash with and her hair to dry with. Not only that, she anoints his feet with oil, providing healing for Jesus’ feet from the road and leaving them without the smell of the road as they sit around a low table close to the food.

Why does she do what Simon has failed to do? Because like the story, she recognizes that she has been forgiven of a great weight and has felt that weight removed from her. Simon, he seems to feel nothing but the desire to be an equal to the great prophet, to show off his skills as an interpreter of the law. That of course is not in the story but it was common among great teachers and prophets of the time, a sort of invitation to a verbal sparring match to teach or be schooled depending on how the discussion went.

In the end, what is Jesus response? To Simon, a lesson on self-importance and egoistic thinking, a reminder that being great is not a matter of taking your place as head of the table but being willing to serve despite it. It is the lesson in humility that Simon has apparently missed and needed to be reminded of.

To the woman, Jesus simply makes three statements, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” You are no longer bound to the mistakes of your past. You have shown by your heart and actions that you truly believe the message of grace and peace that I have preached and lived before you. Your conscience can now be clear, you soul at ease.

Living Forgiveness

For us as followers of Jesus, what does this story teach as a way of being? I can see several things that we can take away from this, most notably the idea that seeking forgiveness is an act of humility and only in humility can we find true forgiveness. If we cannot admit that we have made a mistake, how can ever hope to have be forgiven or correct it? It is in being humble or as Jesus teaches in three different stories elsewhere, “…those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”[3]

I think we can also learn from this story that forgiveness is an extravagant experience worthy of an extravagant response. We who need it should realize the great gift we are being given in the offer of forgiveness, the offer of having our relationship restored either with God or with one another. We who are being asked for it should realize the great gift we have to offer in granting restoration and peace to another who is seeking to make amends for mistakes we all have made ourselves at one time or another, whether the exact mistake or different ones. Again, the words of Jesus ring true from the Sermon on the Mount, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

Let us be a forgiving people, both of ourselves and others, that we may know and share the grace and mercy that God has offered us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] Anthropological and archaeological information taken from Life in Biblical Israel, by Philip King and Lawrence Stager (see bibliography for more information)

[2] (Cosgrove 2005), p.677-678

[3] Matthew 20:16

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