Dinner Guests

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

I can see it from Simon’s point of view. Organising a banquet, which almost everyone in the village will attend in some shape or form: what could possibly go wrong? You know whom you need to see here. You know who needs to be seen here. You draw up the formal guest list, making sure that no-one of any significance is left off. And you have to estimate how many other hangers-on will also fetch up. Such banquets are the most interesting form of entertainment and free food you get in a small Galilean village; so that will be almost everybody, then. But alongside those he has invited, and those whom he expects to see, there are some in the village whom he definitely does not want to see at his party, if he wants it to be a success. And I can see it from Simon’s point of view.
I wonder if it’s a career choice? The profession to which this woman belongs is said to be the oldest in the world, and we employ all manner of euphemisms to refer to the way she makes her living, if we refer to it at all. Though normally we don’t, especially not in church. We would not, but for Jesus’ unfortunate habit of being seen in the company of people like her.
But is this what she dreamed of when she was seven? Is this the future her parents imagined for her, as they cradled their new-born daughter in their arms, and showed her off to friends and neighbours? You’d have to guess that, without possibility of career or employment, she hoped rather for marriage, to a kind and loving husband; for children and a home to care for. So how did it come to this, I wonder? How did she fall into this state of degradation? The death of her husband, or the continuing lack of one? Did she refugee to this village, hoping for a better life?
How does it ever come to this? Across the world and across the centuries, through poverty or prejudice, drug abuse or exploitation; lured with false promises or trafficked by the wicked, millions of women and girls are trapped into being her sisters, and abused the way she is. We only notice when they are murdered, and not much even then.
But perhaps earlier on this day, she has hovered near the edge of the crowd, trying to avoid recognition, and worse; yet curious to hear what the young rabbi is preaching. And perhaps something that he says catches her ear, and softens the shell of self-loathing in which she lives. Something he says holds out to her a hope beyond the humiliation of her present existence. Something he says prompts her to respond to him.
So as the day draws on into evening, this night will be different. She hesitates at first, chews her knuckle, starts for the door and then returns a couple of times. But finally she stands and stills herself, breathes deeply, picks up the jar of perfume, picks up the jar of her courage, and sets off to join the throng attending the banquet of Simon the Pharisee.
She knows what she risks in coming here. Everyone knows everyone in a village like this. There will be some at this banquet that she knows too well, who won’t want her to catch their eye while they have their wives at their sides. So she can anticipate the broken lips and the bruises on her cheek, or worse, that she will suffer whenever retribution is meted out again. With no-one to protect her, she knows the risks she faces.
But the much greater risk is that, despite what she thought she heard, Jesus also will look at her the way all the others do; despise her, the way everyone else despises her. The much greater risk is that she has been seduced once again, and that the hope he seems to offer will melt away like always.
Look at the room, now, with its assembled guests, reclining on their couches around the low and loaded tables. Look at the servants, waiting on those who are important. Look at the others: the poorer people from the village, spectating from the sidelines. She will see them all as she steps from the shadows. They will all see her, as conversation falters and the room falls silent. Look at Simon: as he sees her brazen hair and makeup and exotic dress, you can see his lip curl with disgust and fury, that this woman should disgrace his banquet with her presence.
He sees only a harlot, a sinner of the worst kind, gatecrashing his party and embarrassing him in front of his guests. For surely, Jesus will be appalled when he sees her? Surely Jesus will hold him responsible for allowing her in here? Simon can find no compassion for her, no understanding of her, nothing in common with her; but I can see her from Simon’s point of view.
All she sees is condemnation or lust or loathing in the eyes of every person in the room. Except perhaps one. And so she does what she has come to do. She takes her precious jar of perfume, and pours its contents onto Jesus’ feet. And as she does so, she sobs so that her tears flood down upon these feet. And she dries them, with her own hair. With every eye in the house upon her, and not a movement, not sound to be heard, she washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair. And the room is filled with the sweet, sweet scent of the perfume from her jar.
Jesus sees, not a harlot, not a woman of the night. He sees the pain and degradation that she has suffered. He sees the secrets that cut like glass. He sees the courage that it took to come here tonight and put her faith in him like this. He sees the fear in her eyes that she might be wrong about him; but he also sees that she hopes, longs that her life could be different. He sees, looking up at him from the darkest, blackest depths of human existence, a child of God. And turning to Simon, he says, ‘Do you see this woman, Simon? Do you see her? Do you?’
Everyone else will leave tonight still deep in discussion, heady with all that has happened, arguing over the story Jesus told, and how Simon behaved, and who was right or wrong. She will leave with her head held a little higher, knowing that in Jesus’ eyes at least, she is somebody. Knowing at last that she is loved by God and not abandoned by him.
I wonder if she returns to her old ways after this extraordinary night? She has few other choices in this community, unlikely to see her any differently. Yet she will begin to look at herself in a new way, with renewed hope, with renewed joy. Because – something she’s not met through all these torrid years – someone has seen her as a person, not an object. Jesus has valued her for who she is and who she might become, rather than despising her for what she has to do.
But Luke does give us just a hint that she might join the group who support Jesus’ ministry: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the others. Just the glimmer of a hope that her way of life might change as well as the way she sees herself, now that her sins have been forgiven; now that she has learned there is still love in the world.

I can see it from Simon’s point of view. His banquet has been a disaster. Embarrassed by this woman, publicly rebuked by his guest, he will have a job to rebuild his reputation in the village. But if there is to be any hope for Simon, he must learn to look, with different eyes, at those he meets. And if there is to be any hope for me, I must learn to look more closely, more humbly, more lovingly than Simon. Thanks be to God: Jesus offers me his point of view, his eyes with which to look at those I meet.

© Jon Russell 2019