When I was first married we used to have time for dinner parties at weekends. One of our friends seemed to have it all down to a fine art, children asleep upon arrival, immaculate house, delicious food and carefully chosen guests.
Introductions always bore this out, ‘Blogs the teacher meet Smith who’s just completing her PhD or Jones the architect meet Patel the interior designer.’
Thoughtfully organised events in a private setting where everything felt as if it were under control.
It wasn’t until I started reading up on today’s gospel that I realised how far from such a setting Jesus visit to Simon the Pharisee’s house was. Forget any ideas of a cosy meal in your dining room with carefully chosen guests.
It is far more likely that the meal took place in the open courtyard of Simon’s home. It was common place for doors to remain open allowing friends to join later but also beggars and passers-by would join from time to time.
The woman who seeks forgiveness is an uninvited guest. In a Jewish context, the description of her as a ‘sinner’ would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law, commentators commonly assume that she is a prostitute though this is far from certain.
We should question Simon’s motives for inviting Jesus to his house. Perhaps he was genuinely interested to hear what Jesus was all about. Perhaps he wanted the many people around his table to see that he dined with controversial and topical figures, that he was important enough to mix with such people even if he didn’t share their views.
Possibly this backfired on him as the actions of the uninvited woman not only highlighted Simon’s lack of hospitality as he failed to observe common customs of cool water for hot dusty feet, a welcoming kiss of peace and some sweet smelling oil but also demoted him in terms of importance as her actions made her centre stage. It’s typical of the apparently topsy-turvy way that Jesus has come to teach where those considered lowest are shown to have great value.
Simon is too obsessed with the sins of the woman to consider that he may also need forgiveness, something we can all be guilty of at times. It’s so easy to be outraged by some wrong doing and focus our anger on that person that we fail to consider that we also need to change our ways.
Just to make Simon even angrier Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, at Simon's house in front of many people, invited and uninvited. Those guests that shared Simon’s view asked something like ‘who does he think he is declaring forgiveness of sins.’
There’s a sense in much of what Jesus was doing that he was called to be what the temple should have been to the people. Tom Wright describes ‘his offer of forgiveness, with no prior condition of temple worship or sacrifice, as the equivalent of someone in our world offering, as a private individual, to issue someone else with a passport or driving licence. His actions undermined the established system and offered a new way forward based on incredibly generous standards of love and forgiveness.
The events challenge us in many ways.
Do we dehumanise other individuals by focussing only on the aspect of their lives we disagree with, judging them and lacking compassion rather than caring about the person as a whole? In doing so we could be revealing our own limits on the amount of forgiveness we believe is available from God.
Do we only focus on sin which is public and visible without acknowledging private weaknesses and shortcomings which contradict God’s kingdom? In doing so we fall into the same trap as Simon the Pharisee.
Yet in judging Simon we perpetuate events so we need to remind ourselves that we are all sinners who need God’s forgiveness and that Jesus also wants us to spread compassion and forgiveness among our communities.
In Galatians Paul reminds us that righteousness is not something we are capable of by our own efforts we can only edge close when we put Christ centre stage and make his glory our motivation. Of course we will fail at times but that’s when we need to have faith in the depth of God’s extraordinarily generous forgiveness which frees us to say sorry and start all over again.