Monthly Archives: July 2013

What is Right? The View from a Blind Beggar and a Short Tax Collector

What does it mean to be free?  What is a free society?  We hear a lot today about these words.  Freedom, justice, and even coupled with words like tolerance.  A major buzzword is also the concept of human rights.  Just ‘Google’ human rights and see what you come up with.

Can tolerance even exist in a free and just society?  This is a good question.  It needs to be fleshed out.  I fear that in our society we are talking about symptoms of this problem and making political decisions before understanding the philosophical conclusions of this question.  Most definitions of the word tolerance define tolerance in a negative light.  To tolerate someone is to put up with them, even though you a) are repulsed by them, b) disapprove of their lifestyle, or c)  are their enemy.

If you invited me to dinner and I went with you, and then the next day you overheard me talking to someone–and that person asked, “How was dinner last night?”  What if I replied, “It was tolerable..”  What if they said, “How was the company?”  To which I respond, “They were tolerable…”

I know of no one who wants to be tolerated.  People do however want to be respected.  Tolerance has been redefined through intellectual fraud to mean unequivocal affirmation of all views–ALL roads lead to the top.  This is untenable.  If we are going to have freedom, we must be able to disagree.  To live in a “tolerant” society means that freedom isn’t possible.  You cannot tolerate someone and disagree with them.  You can respect someone and disagree.

You will hear that those who feel they ascribe to absolute truth are oppressive over those who merely want to live their lives autonomously.  Now, one of the leading scholars on the subject of freedom was Isaiah Berlin.  He lived in the 20th Century.  He argued that freedom could not flourish in a monistic culture–that it had to be within a pluralistic society.  He said it this way,  “The enemy of pluralism is monism — the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit.”  I am in disagreement with Mr. Berlin here.

If there is more than one path to the top of a mountain, does it not follow that once you reach the top you should be able to see all the paths once you get there?  Well, I have been to the top of a mountain and I can tell you, it is impossible to see where all paths lead.  To know for sure, you would need a birds-eye view.  You would need to be above but also have a panoramic, or wide lens shot.  Now, I notice, that many times when I ask someone, “Does God exist?”  They will say, “Which one?”  So for now–lets say, God exits.  Back to the question:  WHere would you need to be to know if all paths lead to the top?  The question is…up.  Who besides a bird has that position.  God.

By claiming all paths lead to God, isnt someone claiming to be in that position of complete knowledge?  Arent they claiming to be God?  Yet they call the Christian arrogant?

All truth is exclusive.  If I say only Jesus leads to truth–I am excluding those who say all roads lead to truth.  If you say, all roads lead to truth–you are excluding the guy who says, only Jesus leads to truth.

Now–If I asked a group of people what they think Jesus would say about human rights, and about how the oppressed and the oppressor should be treated, I can predict the answer with an unequivocal certainty.  They would say the oppressed should be liberated and the oppressor should be held accountable and punished.

It is true that in our world we all affirm the existence of evil.  When evil happens to us, we all demand justice.  These are univocal concepts.  We all affirm these—even if someone claims they deny them.  You can tell how someone feels about the existence of evil by how they respond to injustice being performed toward them.  Mere philosophical babble such as, “I do not affirm the existence of absolutes” mean nothing.  “What is right for you is ok for you, but what is right is right for me.  Don’t foist your views on me.”  By saying this, they ARE foisting their view on you.  The view that there is no exclusive truth is— This is an exclusive position.  They are asking you not to believe a word they have to say.  Roger Scruton says somewhere that if someone tells you there is no such thing as truth, they are asking you to think they are a liar.

I am deeply bothered by the cry for human rights—especially by modern liberals who claim that injustice is being perpetrated on the weak by the strong—and the only solution is for those who possess the ideology of modern political liberal enlightenment are able to intercede.  What you rarely hear in their vociferous case for human rights, is an equally voluble case for the right to be human.

You can tell the moral barometer of a nation by how it treats its unborn.

I wanted to share a quick thought with you from a book by Chesterton.  G.K. Chesterton says something quite profound in his book, What’s Wrong With the World.  He is talking about how we decide what a good society should look like and he talks about what is called the “Medical Mistake.”  He basically says in his writing that politicians routinely draw upon medical rhetoric when talking about the health of the nation.  They speak of how sick it is, and how electing them into office will make it better.  The problem as proffered by Chesterton, is that this system of using medical rhetoric is flawed.  He says it this way:

“Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health. No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit than an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong. The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health. Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity. We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them. Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public-house. It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil Is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.[1]

I fully agree with Chesterton here.  That is the question:  What is right?  What is the model? Is it God—maybe Jesus?  If it is Jesus…then who exactly is this Jesus?  I think we can glean something from the book of Luke on this very question.

 

LUKE 18:35-19:11

Jesus Heals a Blind Beggar

35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” [2]

ECCLESIASTES 4:1 Provides a background for reflection on the blind man and Zacchaeus. That remarkable verse reads:

“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”

We are going to get an amazing story that sheds light on how Jesus views both the oppressed and the oppressor.

When Jesus arrives in the town of Jericho, two events occur that need to be examined together. In the first Jesus heals a man, oppressed. In the second Jesus extends love to an oppressor. The New Testament’s chapter divisions, following the fourth-century Greek paragraph divisions, break the two Jericho stories apart and place them in different chapters. But when viewed together they form a pair. It is common knowledge that for some decades Christians around the world have increasingly been discovering that the God of the Bible sides with the oppressed. In Scripture the poor, the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the marginalized all receive God’s special attention and compassion. But what can be said about the oppressor? The natural assumption is that he or she must be opposed. The Magnificat states, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones … and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk 1:52-53). All who seek to support the oppressed must surely oppose the oppressor! Is it possible to oppose oppressors and at the same time extend “comfort” to them? The two stories that took place on the edges of Jericho provide an opportunity to reflect on Jesus dealing with the oppressed and then the oppressor.

THE BLIND MAN BESIDE THE ROAD

In the first story (Lk 18:35-43) Jesus “drew near to Jericho” and interacted with a blind beggar in the setting of a crowd.  We are presented with a blind beggar and we are given two identifiers that show him to be blind.  First, we are told he is blind, and second; he hears a multitude going by.  He uses his ears as his way to see.  Now, in the Middle East, hospitality is a crucial aspect of life.  One way to show honor to a guest in a town is to meet him and escort him into the village from a great distance.  By this time, Jesus is a national figure.  Picture the winning Superbowl team arriving in their home city on an airplane.  The fans will meet them at the airport.  It is this type of fanfare that Jesus is receiving.  It is common knowledge that he claims to be the Messiah, and many believe him to be the King of the Jews.  He is expected to reinstitute the Kingdom of David.  Jesus is clearly on his way to Jerusalem—and it conveniently happens that it is Passover.  Now, for the Jews, Passover is a celebratory time in which remembrance is paid to their political emancipation from slavery in Egypt.  The other Jewish remembrance is Yom Kippur.  This is an observance of the Day of Atonement, our sins, and the sacrifice that takes our sins away.  For us as Christians, our Passover is our Yom Kippur.  So, the people see Jesus as a political revolutionary.  They want to know what his next move is going to be.  Is he going to start a revolution?  Is he going to overthrow Rome?  What is going to happen?  This is the feeling of the crowd.

The crowd most definitely wants to speak with Jesus and find out his plan—so without question a banquet has been prepared in his honor.  They hope to speak politics and religion with him late into the night.

Now, a blind man happens to be on the fringe of the crowd, most likely at the gate of the city, and is interested in what is happening.  When he finds out that Jesus Christ is coming into the town, he cries out, Jesus Son of David, Have Mercy On Me!”  Remember, this guy is at the town gate.  He hears the conversations.  Jesus is a popular figure.  This blind, illiterate, beggar has an incredible knowledge of Jesus just from hearing conversations.  He is excited—so, he cries out.  The crowd essentially shuts him up, but this doesn’t stop our blind beggar.  He keeps on:  “Jesus Son of David, Have Mercy On Me!”  At this, Jesus hears him, and summons for the man.  Now this is interesting on two levels.  Keep in mind, the man is blind, and needs help.  Secondly, this is the first instance in the New Testament of Jesus being referred to with this kingly title.  This is a name of royalty that harkens back to the Old Testament.  Jesus is called on as a king and responds as a king.  Jesus commands the people trying to shut the man up (oppressors) to escort the blind man (oppressed) to Him.  This is a rebuke of the crowd and an acknowledgement of his kingly title..  We then see this:  “And when he came near, he (Jesus) asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”[3]

Many people find this to be a stupid question.  Why would Jesus ask such a thing?

In the Middle East, Begging is a recognized profession.  It is both recognized by the beggars and by the culture at large.  This is a very theocratic society in the way they follow laws.  They are expected to give alms to the poor.  A beggar will cry out, “Give to God!”  The person gives alms to the poor and at the same time is giving a sacrifice to God.  If this happens in a public place, the beggar will loudly proclaim in polished phrases a prayer for God’s blessing on the person who just blessed him, lavish them with kind words, and celebrate their goodness.  This is good for standing with God, social reputation, business, and for community standing.  It is an indispensable part of the culture.

Now, I do not in any way want to diminish the plight of beggars or the poor in the Middle East, but many of them are stout.  What I am trying to say is—they manage.  This is a decent living.  The problem is—to keep this lifestyle up; you must have a legitimate handicap.  A bum leg, you might manage in life.  Missing an arm, still not so good—you could still get by.  Ah—but blindness—this is guaranteed lifetime income.

So here is a question:  What will become of the man, who has a decent living as a beggar, IF he is healed?  He has no education, no skills, no training, no work experience.  What will he do next?  I have heard of Missionaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination who have reported that they offered free surgeries to those with some physical problems—in nearly every situation—the person has refused.  Why?  Because, their life would be radically altered, seemingly for the worse!

If the blind man is healed, he loses his income.

Here is the lesson to learn from the beggar:  Grace is free, but it is NOT cheap.  Jesus is testing the man.  He asks him what he wants because he wants to know if the man is willing to take on the responsibility of what it takes to receive the Grace of God.

The blind beggar passes the test and Jesus heals him.  This is a slap on the wrist to the crowd.  Now what happens next?  The crowed showers praise on Jesus and they enter into the banquet hall?  Hardly.

I am reminded of a story I heard once where a University was hosting Jimmy Carter and his wife.  The entire faculty prepared dessert items and a large set of tables was prepared for the former President and First Lady.  There was more food there than could be consumed by the entire population of the room.  When Carter arrived, Mrs. Carter had a bite of a cookie, a sip of tea, and they left for a meeting.  That was all.  All that food and the banquet didn’t happen.  Can you feel the disappointment?

This is what happened here.  We see that “He entered Jericho and was passing through.”  Jesus had no time to socialize with this crowd in the banquet hall.  He had to make a 17-mile hike to Jerusalem.

Here is where the story gets interesting:

There was one guy in Jericho who really wanted to see Jesus.  We know him as a tax collector, but you can also know him as the town collaborator.  His role is basically that of a farmed out tax collector by the Roman government.  They get him to collect people’s monies, and ask NO questions about his methods.  Needless to say, he profits greatly from the transaction.  He is not well liked.

The truth of the matter however; is, that he is a powerful man.  While Jesus is “passing through,” Zacchaeus, our town collaborator decides he wants to see Him.  What should he do?  His is a powerful man, he has the ability to enter the crowd, make them disperse, and get to an elevated position.  Why doesn’t he?  Very simple:  Keep in mind, we are told he is short.  If he were to enter that mob, a quick hand to the mouth by a person from behind, and a knife to the back—and Zacchaeus would fall to the ground and the assailant would never be found.  You can’t just arrest 5,000 people.  No.  Zacchaeus does two strange things.

He Runs down a back alley.  The back alley part is a given—he has to stay out of sight.  He doesn’t want his name called out by the mob.  Remember they think highly of Jesus.  He doesn’t want Jesus’ attention drawn to him and his behavior.  The fact that he runs is a problem.  Men in this culture do not run.  They wear long robes.  In order to run, you have to gird up the fabric and show your legs.  This is uncivilized. Think about the father in Luke 15 running to meet the son.  This is an act of supreme humility.  He takes the chance of disgracing himself in order to run.  Next, he climbs a tree.  Powerful men do not climb trees at parades.  This is an act of a child in our American culture.  Not even children would do this in his culture.  The fact that he climbs a sycamore tree gives us some important information.

Zacchaeus didn’t want to be seen, so he climbed into a tree with dense foliage hoping no one would see him. Why is a sycamore fig mentioned? Sycamore fig trees have large leaves and low branches. One can climb into them easily and just as easily hide among their thickly clustered broad leaves. Both of these features were important to Zacchaeus. Additionally, such trees were only allowed some distance from town. Zacchaeus chose to climb a tree growing outside Jericho, assuming the crowd would have dispersed by the time Jesus reached the tree. Sycamore figs, of the variety that grow in the Jordan valley, are mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Babylonian Talmud. They were cultivated for their value as beams for the roofs of houses. Also important for this subject is the Mishnah reference to sycamore trees that reads, “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty-five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob or a sycamore -tree.”‘ Danby explains that a tree was seen as a kind of tent and if any form of ceremonial uncleanness occurred under the tree, that uncleanness was automatically transferred to anyone under any section of the tree. People who had trees on their property were obliged to cut all branches that overhung a property-line wall. Carob or sycamore trees were a special problem because they are large trees with wide-spreading branches.  What is clear is that this large tree, with its spreading branches, was outside Jericho on the road up to Jerusalem. A cubit being about eighteen inches, a sycamore fig had to be at least seventy-five feet from any town, and naturally it could be a great deal further away. In spite of its brevity, the story tells us Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree, and the word occurs solely in this reference in the New Testament. Zacchaeus did not want to be seen by the crowd!

John Badeau, the American Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt, under John Kennedy, records in his memoirs that he once climbed a tree in the back garden of the ambassador’s walled residence in order to fix some lights for an embassy garden party. This private act became known and caused such a stir that Badeau was soon asked by a very puzzled President Nasser (during an audience) if the story were true. Nasser had heard the unbelievable tale and was so amazed he felt the need to check its veracity with the ambassador himself. In the Middle East, powerful, prominent men do not climb trees, even in the privacy of their own walled gardens. Zacchaeus breaks with his culture both by running and by climbing a tree. He hopes desperately that neither act will be observed and carefully chooses a tree with thick foliage, some distance from town.

Now, keep in mind—Jesus is moving through the town and has therefore refused any local hospitality!  This is going to show up in a minute.  You must consider what is about to happen in the light of this.

Zacchaeus hopes he will not be spotted—he hopes the crowd will dissipate—but it doesn’t—and—he spotted by the crowd.  Now, if the crowd can see him, we know Jesus can see him.  The crowd begins to move toward Zacchaeus.  You can sense that hostility is growing and 4-letter insults are being hurled his direction.  Everything they have wanted to say to him in his office for years, and have been unable to say because of his authority, they are now saying, because they feel Jesus gives them that authority.  There is a whiff of violence in the air.  Jesus at this point is expected to respond with righteous indignation.  Zacchaeus is the oppressor here and they expect to see a similar situation that we saw with the blind man—The oppressed loved and the oppressor rebuked.  The polecat is up the tree, and Jesus is about to say something like this to him:  “Zacchaeus, you are a collaborator! You are an oppressor of these good people. You have drained the economic lifeblood of your people and given it to the imperialists. You have betrayed your country and your God. This community’s hatred of you is fully justified. You must quit your job, repent, journey to Jerusalem for ceremonial purification, return to Jericho and apply yourself to keeping the law. If you are willing to do these things, on my next trip to Jericho I will enter your newly purified house and offer my congratulations.”  Such a speech would have provoked long and enthusiastic applause. Instead, Jesus invites Zacchaeus down, and tells him he is going to stay the night at his house!  He is taking the side of the sinful oppressor! This is both unthinkable and unprecedented.

Keep something in mind here.  Many people say that Jesus was a political guy and that he only played on his popularity.  This I want to posit is a weak political move by Jesus.  He doesnt seem interested in scoring political or social points at all.  Instead, he seems to be interested in changing this collaborator’s life.  Another word about popularity:  Jesus was crucified due to popular demand.  I rest my case.

Jesus didn’t have time for the crowd, but now has changed his plans and is going to stay with the town collaborator?  The anger against Zacchaeus is shifted to Jesus.  Jesus is well aware of this culture.  He knows what it means to be oppressed—he grew up in it.  He feels their pain.  The problem is this—he didn’t come for the oppressed or the oppressor exclusively.  He came for the lost—for All.  Even though he may as a man feel personal anger toward a town collaborator for the oppression he surely saw as a child, he has reprocessed his anger into grace.  For Jesus this always manifests itself in a costly demonstration of unexpected love.  We see it in the parables, but ultimately, we see it on the Cross.

What is Zacchaeus’ response?  He is joyful.  Repentance as Jesus shows us in Luke 15 is the joyful acceptance of being found.  This is what happens with the lost sheep.  The sheep isn’t remorseful for breaking the law, it is joyful for being found.  There IS a place for remorse, but the initial response in repentance is joy of acceptance.

They enter the house of the collaborator.  At this point, Zacchaeus feels an inward pressure to respond to Christ.  He has to respond.  He speaks from his heart.  He is a different man than before he went into that tree.  He is changed and what he wants to do has been changed.  When we come to Christ, we aren’t given a list of “to do’s,” instead, our desire to do things changes based on our love for Christ—motivated by forgiveness.

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ gift out of the deepest level of who he (Zacchaeus) is, and the model of his response is what Jesus has done for him. Zacchaeus receives costly love and is thereby empowered and motivated to offer costly love to others. His engagement in mission has already begun. The reader knows that Zacchaeus entire life will change. Salvation includes a radical transformation and reformation of life as it is lived out day by day in the present. This dynamic is clearly demonstrated in this story. Jesus continues with his second concluding statement.  Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “since he also is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). Abraham went forth not knowing where he was going.

Zacchaeus is, at last, starting to follow in Abraham’s footsteps. His new journey of faith will take Zacchaeus into many unknown places. Furthermore, the community had understandably ostracized Zacchaeus. Jesus is affirming Zacchaeus acceptance in the eyes of God, regardless of how the community reacts. Zacchaeus also “is a son of Abraham,” declares Jesus.  Finally, Jesus says, “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man and reaffirms his ministry as a good shepherd who seeks the lost and brings them home. The righteous who think they “need no repentance” have no need of him (Lk 15:4-7). He will search for and bring home the lost. This story is remarkable in yet another regard. As he began his ministry Jesus promised that his task was proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion (Lk 4:16-30). This story is one of the few places where all three of these aspects of Jesus’ ministry are on display. Here Jesus offers a costly demonstration of unexpected love, which is the heart of the proclamation. Jesus also engages injustice advocacy by indirectly lifting oppressive aspects of the tax system from the town of Jericho. In this story Jesus demonstrates compassion for the beggar, the town and the collaborator.

This is the message that has to be transmitted to our culture.  Why Jesus?  Because, there is no other choice.


[1] Chesterton, Gilbert K. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. (pp. 3–7). New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.

[2]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Lk 18:35–19:10). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Lk 18:40–41). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Advertisements

Humans–Objects to be Consumed or People to be Interacted With? Luke 7

There is a story in the book of Luke that I want to relate to you.  Here is the text:

Luke 7:37–50

37 vAnd behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wwiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If xthis man were ya prophet, he zwould have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred adenarii, and the other fifty. 42 bWhen they could not pay, he ccancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; dyou gave me no water for my feet, but eshe has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 fYou gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to gkiss my feet. 46 hYou did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, iwhich are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, j“Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among8 themselves, k“Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, l“Your faith has saved you; mgo in peace.”

Before we look at the story, let us consider some ideas.

What does it mean to be a human being?  I am reminded of the civil rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee.  This is a famous place for a few reasons.  It is the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfortunate assassination and also the site of this museum.  There is a striking picture in the museum that is quite chilling to see.  It is railway workers who are on strike wearing signs that read, “I am a man.”

i_am_a_man

What a horrific thing to know that within the span of some of our lives people actually protested to be recognized for what they rightly were to begin with—people—human beings.  They were merely fighting to be recognized as men.  They wanted to be recognized a humans with feelings, rights, and to be treated as such.

I have recently read some books written by middle-aged feminist writers who argue a similar sentiment.  They argue the same thing that feminists argued in the 1960’s—for women to be treated as people.   Their main question—most of them atheists—is to question why many women today portray themselves as objects to be consumed rather than subjects or persons to be interacted with.  These neo-feminists have a problem with this.  They wonder why the feminism of the 60’s has been vanquished to what we see today.  The civil rights movement and the feminist movement achieved the goal of affirming personhood for all; yet, today many people have voluntarily moved themselves to a place of being considered an object to be consumed.

Look at the way many use sex.  In the 70’s it is true, many people were engaged in free love; however, this was an attempt to derive a mystical experience from the interaction between two people.  Just listen to the music of the time period.  Now however, the idea of casual relationships isn’t about this at all.  It is instead about consumption.  The idea of human interaction has been replaced with the consumption of an object.  People seem to be fine with this.  Look at the young girls that wear shirts that say, “I am a porn star.”  Look at all the men that are addicted to pornography.  They are not looking at a person.  They are looking at an object to be consumed.  They are not interacting in any way with a human being.  It is purely an idea of consumption.  This is all about a physical desire to be fulfilled through consumption of an object.  This is not what it means to be human.  There is more to life than this.  Keep in mind–love isn’t free.  Love by its own nature seeks to bind itself to another person–not consume an object.  The deplorable pornography industry offers a pleasure that can never be satisfied.  It is a perpetual need for consumption of an object–a picture.  The problem is however; that, the person being photographed is a person and they are being used as an object for the sole purpose of exploitation and financial profit.

You may say–“John, havent you ever gone to a fine art museum, seen a naked sculpture, and even paid money to do so?”  My answer would be yes.  What is the difference between this and the pornographic industry?  Well, simply–the idea that one is exploiting a person as an object and the other is simply a rendering of the imagination onto the canvas or into clay.  I do remember something I read about Michelangelo.  His teacher asked him why he was painting naked figures to which Michelangelo replied, “I want to see man as God sees man.”  The teacher replied rightly, “There is one difference…you arent God.”

This story in the book of Luke has something to say to us regarding this matter.

Now Jesus was doing some miraculous things.  He had raised people from the dead, made blind men to see, and made the lame to walk.  He was doing things was causing heads to turn.  People were actually calling him the Messiah—the King of the Jews.  There was something indeed miraculous about this guy.  The Pharisees saw a problem.  They saw their power slipping away.  They genuinely wanted to disprove this.  Let me first say that there is nothing wrong with earnestly seeking the truth.  A skeptic that is honestly seeking the truth is on the right track—however someone who is only trying to disprove rather than find the truth, wherever it may lead, has a bias and an agenda.  I am reminded of George McDonald who said, “To give truth to him who loves it not, is to give him more information for misinterpretation.”  So it was with the Pharisees.

The Pharisee invited Jesus to his home.  He wanted to question Jesus and find out the answer to one question:  WHO IS JESUS?  It tells us in the text that Jesus entered the house and “reclined at the table.”  Two things:  First, notice the lack of interaction between the host and guest as Jesus enters, and also notice the fact that Jesus reclined.   When we see the word recline—we usually take this to mean the wrong thing.  In our translation of the Bible it says he reclined “at the table.”  The table is NOT present in the Greek.  In this culture, dinner would be served on the ground, and the guests would sit around the food on the floor in an oblong shape.  They would sit on the floor with their legs tucked under themselves and lean on their hand, leaving one hand free to eat with.

It is important to note the way people sit.  They would not allow the sole of their feet to be seen by the others eating.  They would be tucked under their body, and pointed away from the others.  More about this in a few moments.  They would lean on one hand, and eat with the other.  One reason is for balance, and the other, is because in this culture, one hand is typically used for certain—shall we say hygienic purposes—and one would not want to mix food into the process.

We then learn that there was a woman there who was a sinner.  Now, we can surmise exactly what type of sinner she was based on two identifiers.  First, she is called a sinner.  To be called a sinner with such authority denotes that her sin was publically known.  Every woman in town would make it their business to know who she was, and it would be public knowledge of every man.  Secondly, it says she brought an alabaster vial of perfume.  This is not a coincidence.

This is a very warm climate.  It is not expedient to take baths often.  If you are in a line of work of say a prostitute, you need to smell clean or—well—business is going to go sour in a hurry.  So, a tool of the trade is an alabaster jar.  This is a porous stone that is worn around the neck.  Inside the jar is placed a very expensive substance called nard.  It looks like lard, except is smells great.  It is a semi-solid substance, and as the body temperature melts it over time, it seeps out of the porous stone and gets into the pores of the skin deodorizing the body.  This is how a woman can smell fresh even without bathing for intermediate periods of time.  Now—this is a VERY expensive substance.  In fact, when a situation like this happens in another gospel, the disciples inquire about selling it (the nard) and giving the proceeds to the poor.

It says that standing behind Jesus, she is weeping and begins to “wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume.”  This is interesting.   Why would this woman do such a thing?  This is a highly unusual act in this culture!   The very next thing we see is the Pharisee asking to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

Stop.

Do you remember what I said about the civil rights museum?  Are human beings objects to be consumed versus people to be interacted with?  Keep that in mind as we go.

Do you remember how Jesus entered the house?  He was given no introduction from the Pharisee.  If I invited you to my house, I would invite you in, take your coat, shake your hand, offer you a drink, offer you a seat, offer you food, and then we would talk.  That is the minimum.  If we were really good friends, I might even order a pizza!  In this culture, the minimum is to welcome the guest verbally, give a kiss of reconciliation, offer water to wash ones feet and hands (or do it for them), anoint the head of an honored guest with oil, and then offer them a place to sit.  This is the expected minimum.  None of this happened.  Jesus was not greeted in any way, and reclined on his own.  Coincidence?

Let me set the scene for you a bit further:

This is a dusty and hot climate.  Men wear sandals everywhere they go.  The primary mode of transportation is a donkey or camel.  Donkeys have a great upside in that fuel is cheap, but they have a particular problem called solid, smelly emissions.  Put this together.  It is hot, your feet get sweaty—you have on open shoes—The solid waste from your donkey and every other donkey that has walked through the area in the past several days mixes with the dirt and dust from the ground—This gets on your feet.  It is NOT expedient for inland peasant carpenters from Nazareth to bathe regularly. Messy.

Remember what I said about not showing the sole of your feet to the others while eating?  Now you understand.  Also—in this culture, men wear long flowing—white robes.  Picture this:  You come in, the host offered you no water to wash your soiled feet, you sit down with your feet tucked UNDER your bottom.  What happens when you stand up at the end of the meal?  Well, you will have a large brown spot in a socially awkward place that will smell, well—socially repulsive.   Do you get the picture?

This Pharisee has treated Jesus worse than a field-hand would be treated.  At minimum he should have been given water to wash his feet.  He was not.  This is equivalent to me opening the door and saying, “Oh, its you”—and letting you fend for yourself.  How would you feel?  The answer—insulted.

The woman?

The woman is crying and she begins to wet Jesus feet with her tears.  Why is she crying?  This is proof that she was already here.  She was there before Jesus.  She witnessed the whole encounter.   A good question is—why is this woman here in the first place?  Simple.  In this culture, the religious elite had to show compassion to the poor.  They had to do alms giving and other acts of kindness.  One way they could fulfill this obligation was to open their home when they had a dinner like this to the town and allow the uninvited guests to listen to the conversation (free education) and to eat from the leftovers after the invited guests finished (free food).  This served two purposes.  This is expressly why she was there.  She heard that Jesus was going to be there, and she was determined to see Him.

Why was she crying?  She saw her Lord mistreated.  She is making up for the lack of hospitality shown by the Pharisee.  She is broken-hearted and doing what she can to make up for it.  Her tears fall to the ground and she uses them to wet Jesus’ feet.  She then unwinds her hair, which is a very intimate gesture in this culture, and uses it as a towel to scrape his feet clean.  Her last gesture is to break open her alabaster jar, which is perhaps the only material possession she owns, and her tool of her trade, and to perfume his feet.  This is a supreme act of love.  She loves Jesus.  Why does she love him?  We will get there in a minute.

The Pharisee is angered and offended.  She is essentially challenging his lack of hospitality through her actions.  The Pharisee asks himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”   This is an interesting sequence.  The Pharisee is thinking to himself here.  He basically alleges in his mind that Jesus is allowing the woman to make a sexual advance.  The word “haptho” in the Greek, or “touch” in English—literally means to light a fire.  This is where we get this phrase to light a fire of passion.  He is making an incredible allegation here.  He sees the woman as an object.  Not a person.   He sees the woman as a prostitute.  She can be nothing more—no matter what.

I am reminded of a story I once heard about a lady who was once a prostitute but gave her life to Jesus.  Her life was radically changed.  She was invited to a large Baptist church in the United States with a friend.  She asked an incredible question of her friend:  “Will they think of me as a former prostitute, or as a woman?”   An object or a person?

The Pharisee has thought this allegation to himself, but it is interesting that Jesus responds to him!  This is perhaps what many men fear about their wives—that they know what we are thinking!  Jesus hears this man’s thoughts.  And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

Jesus gives us a short parable:

 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. “  Basically one guy owns 50 days wages and the other guy owns 500 days wages.  He cancels both of their debts.   He then asks the guy, “Now which of them will love him more?”  Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Now…one thing we often overlook when reading the Bible is tone of voice.  If I say, “HELLO!”  It means one thing…but if I use a James Bond voice and say to a pretty woman,” hello….”  It means another.  We know in this passage exactly what Jesus’ tone of voice is.  He is not yelling.  He is speaking softly about this woman.  Consider what we are told“Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”  And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Now here is the question:  What comes first—love or forgiveness?  Throughout the Bible it seems that we see evidence repeatedly that would point to forgiveness being the first part of the process, but here—it seems that we get a contradiction…right?

In this account, Jesus tells the self-righteous Pharisee, Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  So which comes first?  Well, we learn that “her sins which are many are forgiven—for she loved much.”  This statement FOR she loved much” seems contradictory based on our theological understanding.  In plain English this seems to read, “The woman is forgiven, because she loved me a lot.”  Many translations of the Bible even say it nearly this way.  This seems to imply that she earned forgiveness because of her love.  What’s going on here?  Did Luke make a mistake??  Doubtful.  Did Jesus have a faulty understanding of His own teaching?  Even more doubtful.  Consider this:  The Greek word that we get in the place of the word “For” is the word “Hoti” which can mean “so ” or “then.”  It would be better to translate this passage by saying, “Her sins which are many are forgiven—SO that, she loved much.”  She loved much because she was forgiven!  How awesome.  Why was she at the dinner before Jesus got there?  She was there because her heart was already changed by the message of Christ.  She was coming to see her savior.

What is first—Love or forgiveness?

Forgiveness comes first.  We cannot love our way into a relationship with God.  God is love.  Man is not love.  Man isn’t capable of real love apart from God.  When His amazing mercy arrives, we are free to love.   This woman was forgiven the moment she decided to attend the dinner.  She brought that alabaster jar with her for a specific purpose.  She had been forgiven by Christ—and she was going to break it at his feet and turn away from her old life.  The fact that she had to use it instead to make up for the insulting lack of hospitality that the Pharisee showed Jesus was a deviation from her plan.  A deviation inspired by love—produced by forgiveness.  A real act of worship.