It's lovely to come together over a meal, isn't it? Breakfast is one of my favourite meals of the day. I love to enjoy good company over breakfast. But the truth is, I don't mind what meal I'm eating, so long as I can share it with wonderful company. Mealtimes were very important in my family. We would often have dinner parties for overseas guests - usually a visiting pastor or missionary. We would invite many people to enjoy good food and good company. In our culture, the best way to honour someone is by having a dinner party in their honour. There were many rituals that would be performed, too. In Middle Eastern culture, men always greet each other with a kiss. My Dad would take the visitor into his arms, and greet with him a big hug and a kiss on each cheek. The guest of honour would be seated first, at the head of the table. He would be served first, and always the largest portion. The guest of honour would be invited to reflect on current events. He would share his thoughts on the Bible. The men would sit and listen, enjoying his insights.
All of these rituals exist to honour the guest. As the hosts, if my parents did not follow these rituals, it would suggest they did not respect their guest. The guest would be humiliated and offended. The guest, also, must behave appropriately. He must be charming, and engage in good conversation. He must be sure to praise the host, the good food and the warm hospitality. Doing anything less would suggest the guest did not respect the host. Bad behaviour would suggest the guest did not appreciate the host's efforts to hold the dinner party. The host would be humiliated. And the women? Well we were quiet, ready to serve, and busy cleaning up after the meal. The men would recline in the lounge room to continue their conversations, while we would gather in another room, discussing "women's business". We would not draw any attention to ourselves. To do so would suggest we had no manners, no propriety. The women would be humiliated if they behaved inappropriately.
A successful dinner party requires everybody to behave appropriately. Well, in this regard, Middle Eastern culture hasn't changed much in the last 2000 years. In Jesus' time, hosting a dinner party was an important cultural ritual. Especially inviting a religious teacher, or "rabbi" as they called them. It was not just an opportunity to enjoy good company. It was a chance for the host to display his wealth to others. Unfortunately, when Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to his home, the dinner party was a disaster. The emotional behaviour of "the sinful" woman; Simon's behaviour, and Jesus' reception were all culturally inappropriate interactions. Each one of them was humiliated. On the surface, Simon did everything right. The food was prepared perfectly, and all the religious food laws were strictly obeyed. He invited Jesus, a well-known religious teacher, or rabbi, to his home. He even allowed the beggars and poor people to come and eat the banquet leftovers.
But Simon made one big mistake. Well, it wasn't exactly a mistake. It was a calculated, intended, attack. Simon failed to honour Jesus with the appropriate cultural rituals. In fact, Simon invited Jesus into his home to examine Him. Have you ever spent time with someone and felt like they didn't want to get to know you, they just wanted to find out about you? A few years ago, I visited my relatives in Egypt. I stayed with my Uncle in Cairo, and while I was there, one of his friends visited us regularly. There was always a reason for her visit - she needed to talk to my Aunty, or drop something off before church - but she always paid a bit too much attention to me. At times it felt as though everything I did was being examined. The way I poured tea, the way I sat, the way I engaged... She would ask me questions about my education, my interests, and ask to try my cooking... I soon realised that my uncle's friend didn't want to get to know me better. She just wanted to see if I would be a good wife. You see, her son was single. Well, in a similar way, Simon was examining Jesus. Simon wanted to see if Jesus was really a prophet.
You see, Jesus was a bit of a revolutionary. He taught about the kingdom of God, and a change of heart. He performed many miracles: healing the sick and casting out demons. He made friends with the poor, the outcast, the sinful and the broken. People were drawn to Him, and curious to see if the stories they heard were true. But Jesus didn't always go around making friends. He offended a lot of people - Pharisees like Simon, in particular. The Pharisees were super religious. They thought they were close to God, because they knew everything about their religion and obeyed the law. Jesus wanted them to care less about their rules and rituals, and love God more. Jesus wanted them to see that they were not right with God. So when the sinful woman washed Jesus' feet, Simon was angry. Instead of being angry at the woman for her inappropriate behaviour, Simon was angry at Jesus. It almost seems as though Simon was hoping to see a confrontation. Perhaps he was hoping for Jesus to scold the woman and condemn her for her sinful life.
With an air of self-righteous arrogance, Simon makes his decision. "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is - that she is a sinner". Jesus responded to Simon's private thoughts by making them public. He recounts a story about two men who borrowed money from the bank. We heard the story earlier, so I won't repeat it in detail, but Jesus' story essentially exposes just how blind Simon is. You see, Simon did not recognise the depth of his sin. He did not appreciate that his debt had been cancelled. He could not love Jesus, because he didn't think he needed forgiveness. Jesus then went on to list all the ways that Simon had failed to honour him that day. Simon probably had an array of servants, but he did not ask any to wash Jesus' feet. He didn't greet His guest with a kiss. He didn't extend hospitality by pouring oil on Jesus' head. Oh, Simon would have been so embarrassed. He intended to humiliate Jesus, and instead he was humiliated in front of his family and friends. Simon didn't show basic hospitality to his guest of honour. And even worse than that failure, Simon was compared to a sinful woman, and he came across as the bad guy!
We don't hear how Simon responds to Jesus, but I can just imagine the awkward silence that followed. The down cast stares, the side-glances, the embarrassment. Simon was humiliated. The woman with the alabaster jar was known as a "sinful woman". She was probably the town prostitute, shunned by the religious community, cast out by her family, and ignored by her old friends. You know, prostitutes in the Middle East aren't treated with the same polite contempt they are in Sydney. I remember walking through the market place in Cairo and seeing some kids rip at a woman's clothes, pull her hair, and push her along the street. Some women swore at her, and spat in her direction. I was in shock at the harassment she suffered. But my Aunty told me that this woman was a known prostitute. She couldn't even buy her fruit and veggies without being attacked and insulted on the streets. This is probably very similar to the experience of the lady with the alabaster jar. Everywhere she went, she would have been attacked, condemned and humiliated. The story, as Luke tells it, suggests that this lonely, ashamed woman, had already met Jesus. She came face to face with a man who loved her. Instead of judging her, Jesus offered her forgiveness. She knew only God could offer forgiveness. She was ashamed of her life. Oh, she knew she was a sinner - everyone knew that! She knew that she was disconnected from God. She knew just how much she had sinned. And the moment forgiveness was extended to her, she accepted. She loved Jesus because he forgave her sins. So she sought Jesus out. She found out he was staying at the house of Simon, and she went there to bless him. She wanted to express her thanks with her most precious possession - a perfume that cost over 3 years wages. The lady with the alabaster jar knew Jesus was more than a prophet. She came to anoint him as the Messiah who was able to forgive sins. It is very important to understand, here, that the woman was not forgiven because she loved Jesus. Jesus explains, very clearly, in verse 47, that because she was forgiven, she loved Jesus. Do you see the difference here? The forgiveness came first. Her love was a result of His forgiveness.
Entering the house of Simon the Pharisee would have been humiliating. He let her enter - it was a good show of his wealth and generosity that he would feed the poor - but he detested her. But she was not concerned with how Simon treated her. She was concerned with how Simon treated Jesus. She felt Jesus' humiliation. She was shocked that He could be so despised, so insulted. She could not believe that Jesus would not receive the honour He deserved. Because Simon didn't honour him, she did. She kissed his feet, because Simon did not kiss his cheek. She washed them with her tears, because she could not find any water. She dried them with her hair because they did not give her a towel. And she poured expensive perfume over them, because Simon did not anoint his head. And as she expressed this love to Jesus, she heaped humiliation on herself. She behaved in a way that was shameful in that culture. She showed an outpouring of emotion - unheard of for women. She unravelled her hair, and exposed it to a roomful of men. She touched, and kissed a man she did not know. And she sacrificed the most precious thing she owned, an expensive, rare jar of perfume, for a stranger. She broke every social custom, and in doing so, joined Jesus in his humiliation. Jesus humiliation was also great. As a rabbi, he should have enjoyed a certain level of hospitality from Simon. Even more, as the son of God, who was able to forgive sins, He should have been respected, loved and honoured. But instead, in the house of Simon, he was attacked. Humiliated. Insulted.
Last year, when Queen Elizabeth visited Australia, there was a fury of argument because Julia Gillard, our Prime Minister, did not curtsy before the queen. People were outraged that such a basic level of respect was not shown to such an important woman. Many journalists spoke as though Julia Gillard had, in fact, offended them! I even heard one journalist insist that she should be fired as Prime Minister! And Jesus is greater than the Queen of England. He is the Son of God, the King of Kings - and he was treated so poorly when He visited Simon. Jesus was humiliated. But His humiliation did not end there. You see, when the woman wept over Jesus' feet, and kissed them, and touched him - she marked Jesus as a sinner, like her. It would have been culturally appropriate for Jesus to tell her to stop, to push her away - but He didn't. He accepted her expression of love. Jesus took on her humiliation. He allowed himself to be called a sinner, like her. Even though He was perfect, even though He did nothing wrong. He took on her shame, and the judgment of Simon and his guests.
And then Jesus did something amazing. He forgave the sinful woman. He honoured her. He told Simon that her behaviour was exemplary. He lifted her up to a place of honour, over Simon. That was not the last time Jesus took on someone's humiliation. He did it for you and me. You see, shortly after this incident, Jesus experienced an even greater humiliation. Abandoned by His closest friends, Jesus was put on trial. He was accused of many things - things He didn't do - in court. His enemies tried to rubbish His name, give Him a bad reputation. And then they stripped Him naked. They beat Him with whips. And then He had to carry a cross - an instrument of punishment and torture - through the streets. Everyone who saw Him thought the worst of Him. Naked, He hung on a cross. Rejected by His friends. Rejected by God. That was not His humiliation. That was your humiliation, that was my humiliation. That was the punishment that we deserve for our sins.
And because we have refused to walk God's way, we should be rejected by God... But instead, Jesus, who was perfect, and had always obeyed God, He took that rejection. But he didn't just die in our place. Three days later He came back to life. And He was elevated to a position of glory and honour with Godin heaven. And then He did something amazing. He forgave us for our sins. He honoured us. He presented us to God as righteous. Forgiven, and able to enter into a relationship with Him.
Ladies, I wonder who in this story you identify with. Simon the Pharisee, or the Sinful Woman? You know, sometimes I think I'm a bit like Simon. I haven't done very many bad things. I'm a good Christian girl. I'm nice to my neighbours. I don't swear, or steal. Sometimes we get so comfortable living our good Christian lives that we forget to really look at ourselves. And then when I really look... Oh, I'm so ashamed of all the sin. I am so, so jealous of my sister. She is much prettier than me I am. I know we all laugh about things like that, but when I see her, I think, "I wish I was that pretty". She buys nice things for herself. I look at her nice clothes and handbags, and I think "I want that. She doesn't deserve it!". It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it. But this is such an ugly part of me. It's sin. It's not God's standard. I could keep going. I could tell you about my selfishness, about my anger and thoughtlessness. . When I pause, and look within I see all this sin, and I just want to cry out for forgiveness! You see, it's not just the obvious sinners who need forgiveness. Simon, the religious Pharisee needed forgiveness. I need forgiveness. You need forgiveness.
And then, as I think of how much I have been forgiven, I fall more and more in love with Jesus. I can't believe that I have been forgiven for my black, putrid heart. I can't believe I can enter heaven, and spend eternity with God, even though I have sinned. I can't believe he took my punishment. I am overwhelmed with love for Him. And I wonder if I can be like the sinful woman. I wonder if I can give my most treasured possessions to Him, like she did. I wonder if I can take humiliation for His name. I wonder if you can. I wonder what you are willing to sacrifice for Jesus. I wonder if you are willing to endure humiliation for His name. I wonder if you've spent the last few moments really looking at yourself, and have realised for the first time, that you're a sinner. I wonder if this is the first you've heard that Jesus has offered you forgiveness. Can I encourage you to take this seriously? Don't leave here without talking to someone about it. You can talk to me, or the friend who brought you here today. Are you going to walk away today, like Simon the Pharisee? Or will you begin your life as the woman with the alabaster jar?