Shannon and I are sitting at a table in our relatively quiet school library during homeroom. I am trying to get a few math problems done, and Shannon is filling me in on whatever social issue is most important to her at this moment. As she talks, her voice gets louder and louder, her language, harsher. As she talks, I slide down in my chair, knowing that EVERYONE is looking at us. When she looks at me pointedly and asks, “Don’t you agree?” I seriously contemplate diving under the table and crawling away, partially because I really have no idea if I agree with her or not, partially because I have worked hard to cultivate an image of invisibility in high school, which her rant is in serious danger of undoing. I make a habit of not having opinions, at least not any that might have even the slightest chance of offending someone, and do not want to be deemed guilty by association. But Shannon is funny and shares my sarcastic sense of humor, and she has been for me when I have most needed it, so I settle on a compromise. Instead of slinking away, I just mumble, “I’m not sure,” and pray she will leave me alone as I pretend to struggle mightily with the math problem before me.
Simon, a Pharisee, has invited this new preacher Jesus to dine at his house. He wants to see what all the fuss is about. The Pharisees are well-respected teachers of the Jewish faith who help the Jewish people learn how to live the laws of Judaism. This is tricky work, since eating the wrong food or associating with the wrong person could lead someone to be considered unclean or a sinner and thus not worthy in the eyes of God. Simon has a passion for helping people be right before God.
As Simon, Jesus, and some of Jesus’ followers (who seem a bit rag-tag to Simon) recline at the table, a woman comes in carrying a jar of expensive ointment. Simon recognizes this woman; she is a well-known prostitute, a sinner through and through. To Simon’s utter dismay, this nameless and “unclean” woman starts weeping, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears. She then dries his feet with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with the ointment she has brought. Simon is uncomfortable with this sensuous show of love and service by this unseemly woman.
Simon had been certain that Jesus was a prophet, but now he knows this cannot be true. A prophet would have known that this woman was unholy and not allowed her to touch him, lest he, too become unclean and unworthy in the eyes of God. Simon is shocked that Jesus has let this woman taint him this way.
In Jesus’ response to Simon in this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus teaches us some important things about human identity, as well as what it means to be hospitable and to show love. First, Jesus shows us that who we are is not dependent on the actions of the other people in our lives. Just as I was afraid that people would think negatively of me because of my friendship with Shannon, Simon is worried that Jesus will be made guilty by association with this woman, who Simon can only see as a prostitute. While Jesus never says so in so many words, the fact that Jesus does allow the woman to wash, dry, and anoint his feet demonstrates that he is not worried about what his association with her means. Who other people are does not change who he is: a man of compassion who reaches out to all those in need of love and forgiveness. My self-consciousness in the library made it hard for me to see that who Shannon was did not mean I could not be who I was meant to be. While human beings are certainly made to be in relation to others, we also each have our own individual dignity as children of God.
But even more importantly than that, Jesus also helps us to see that all people are more than just one thing and calls us to see other human beings (and ourselves) in their entirety. In response to Simon’s concern, Jesus asks him, “Do you see this woman?” Whereas Simon had not provided water for Jesus to wash his feet when he entered his home (a sign of hospitality in Jesus’ culture), this woman had made this gesture of welcome to Jesus. Beyond this, she shows affection for him. When he asks Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Jesus is asking Simon to see beyond her identity as a sinner in order to see her as more than this, as someone who is capable of being a host and a friend. In Jesus’ eyes, this woman is not defined by her past sins but rather by her status of a beloved child of God who is able to give love in return.
When have you been worried about how your reputation or identity would be affected by those with whom you spend time?
When have you been guilty of judging people based on just part of who they are?
Have you ever been afraid that you were defined by the things you least like about yourself? What strengths do you have as a person? What gifts do you have to offer the world?
What does it mean to show hospitality in our time and place? How can you show hospitality to the people you encounter?