This is the message that I presented on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2004, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Kings 21: 1 – 21, Galatians 2: 15 – 21, and Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3.
Believe it or not, the commentary this past week that accompanied the ceremonies and trappings of President Regan’s funeral suggested that there is a word found in most dictionaries yet absent from use in today’s society. That word is civility.
Whether we disagreed with President Regan’s political philosophy or not, it seemed that most politicians back then agreed to disagree but not hate each other while he was president. Today, in politics and just plain society, it seems that is no longer the case. We may disagree with someone but the disagreement has gone beyond simple disagreement and is fast becoming hatred for those opposed to contrary views.
Even in our own daily lives, we disagree to the point of utter contempt for the other person. If you do not move fast enough when the light changes from red to green, the person behind you is apt to honk their horn. If you are waiting to make a left-hand turn on a busy two-lane road, the person behind you is apt to pass on the right (a maneuver that I was taught in drivers’ education to be illegal). Despite efforts to the contrary, people use their cell phones inappropriately and in the wrong places. It has gotten to the point where ministers have to remind the congregation to turn off the ringers during funerals and weddings.
Manners and etiquette, the very essence of civility, have disappeared from the fabric of our society. We have forgotten what we were taught as children about manners and respect. But we should also remember that manners, etiquette, respect, and civility is not just items to be learned; they are a part of one’s life. Things learned but not used are often forgotten.
Jesus comes to the house of Simon the Pharisee. Simon has invited him there, perhaps in hopes of gaining some insight into the new theology that Jesus is teaching. Now, in typical fashion for the day, Jesus and his disciples were walking and the roads of Galilee were very dusty.
The basic rule of hospitality then was that the host offers water and a towel to any visitors so that they may wash the dust off their feet. For whatever reason, Simon ignores this very basic tenet of hospitality. But an uninvited guest, a woman no less, shows Jesus the hospitality that the real host does not.
Now this particular story is told in all four of the Gospels. This story is the source of the legend that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Luke does not name the woman, though at the conclusion of the reading he does introduce Mary Magdalene to us. It is noted that the woman in this story is described as a woman of the city. This implies that she was a prostitute. But there is no way that you should connect the unnamed woman in this story with the character of Mary Magdalene later introduced. To say otherwise is to engage in unwarranted and unnecessary gossip, an act not reflective of one’s manners.
The issues of good hospitality, manners, etiquette, and perhaps just common sense are the essence of this story, but not in the way one might expect. By implication, Simon, a Pharisee, should be honest and good and a respectable image of religiosity. He should, by training and social position, be the one to show the good social graces. The unnamed woman in the story is first and foremost a woman. That means that she should not even be there. In this society, women and children were excluded from the social gatherings of the day. Any women present would have been maids, shuttling quickly in and out with the various courses for the dinner. And because this particular woman is identified as a woman of the city, the implication is that her character is not the best in the world. If, by either implication or fact, she was in fact a prostitute, then she may very well have known many of the men who were present at that dinner. But this is first of all random speculation on my part; but if it were true, she may have known one or two of the men present and they certainly would not have wanted her there.
This woman is forward, uninvited, outrageous in her behavior and breaking every known rule of social behavior for men and women in that time and place. But it is also clear that everyone there, including Jesus and even her, recognize that she is a sinner.
But against that backdrop, the person who shows the appropriate hospitality to Jesus is this woman. Simon apparently did not welcome Jesus into his home the way a true host would have. And one has to wonder why not? Could it be that Simon saw Jesus, not as the Messiah but rather as just an interesting person?
Because Simon is identified as a Pharisee, we know that he is bright, curious, and interested in religious ideas. He has invited this itinerant and untrained rabbi to dinner, perhaps to hear Jesus’ views on any number of topics and to exchange ideas.
But Simon does not need Jesus; he has no need for a Savior or a Messiah. Secure in his own beliefs and his station in life, he sees Jesus only as a means of adding to his own life, his own spiritual and secular interests. He can now brag to his friends that Jesus has been a guest in his home. It is interesting to note that even today there are those in our society, our churches and seminaries who see Jesus as an interesting person to know. For these people, Jesus is someone to brag about but not someone who is truly a part of their daily life.
But the woman in this story is not one of those people. She needs Jesus not to round out her personal spirituality as Simon did but rather so she can be a whole person, so that she can be the human being that she is. So she focuses everything on Jesus and nothing on herself. Her act of washing Jesus’ feet becomes an act of cleansing her soul. ("Living the Word" by Michael Lindvall, The Christian Century, 1 June 2004.)
We have to ask ourselves this morning where Jesus is in our lives. Is He part of our life or is He just there where we can bring Him out when we need Him? Consider the reading from the Old Testament for today.
Ahab is king but he is still obligated to follow the law. He cannot simply take Naboth’s land. But his wife, Jezebel, conspires through malicious gossip, to have Naboth killed. And with Naboth dead, Ahab can take the land that he wanted in the first place.
But even if Ahab was not unconcerned or unaware of how it took place, the crimes that took place were part of his conscience. We are told that Ahab has lost all sense of God’s law, the basic teaching of which is love for God and for one’s neighbor. Ahab’s worship of idolatry (mentioned earlier in 1 Kings 18: 18) shows that he has no love for God; the story today shows that he has no love for his neighbor. Because he never was in a genuine relationship with God, he ultimately loses all that he sought and gained.
It is not a matter of manners that should dictate how we treat others. For how we treat others is a reflection of how we treat God. Paul writes that the only thing that will save us is our faith, not our works or adherence to the law.
Ahab gave up the law and paid the price. Those who despise God’s mercies, who only see God in a peripheral manner, will do likewise. Those whose obedience to the law blinds them to the plight of others will find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to salvation. Paul points out that those who know the law know that no person can be declared righteous or be justified in their actions simply by obedience to the Law of Moses. What knowledge of the Law does or rather should do is convince individuals of their own personal spiritual deadness in sin outside faith in Christ.
We celebrate communion today because it is that one symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us that shows we are no longer dead to sin in this world. Through communion, Christ lives on in us. And it is that presence which should be reflected in our lives today.
We need to be reminded that we are not the hosts at this table today; we are the ones who have been invited. And the invitation is through God’s grace, not through our social stature, or our attainment of social graces. We are reminded that by our sins, we are not even worthy of eating the crumbs that fall to the ground.
Yet we live in a society and at a time when those invited to Christ’s table try to say who should come to the table. Today’s Pharisees say that because someone is a sinner, they cannot come to this table.
The room where Jesus had dinner with Simon was closed to the woman in the story. But because she was so moved by her love for Christ and her desire for repentance, she found a way to enter the room and express her thoughts. Jesus responded in kind, with love and compassion, saying, "Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you, go in peace."
In a world where manners are a lost part of society, we have to ask ourselves who we are today? Shall we be like Simon, more interested in Christ as an ornament in our live but not willing to put Him in our life. Shall we treat others with contempt simply because of something they said or did? Or shall we come to this table, with an open heart and mind, professing our sins and asking for God’s grace and forgiveness?
We are reminded that we come to this table at the invitation of Christ, not by our own volition. We have no right to come to this table except that Christ has invited us. We come as sinners but we leave as forgiven people, with Christ in our hearts. We leave as new persons, showing the presence of Christ in our lives and how we treat others.