The Host Who Forgot His Manners: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Spiritual Pride
March 25, 2001
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This text is one of the great short stories of the Bible. A Hollywood writer could turn it into a terrific one-hour drama on TV. You might call it “The Preacher and the Prostitute,” or you could call it “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” It helps to have a sense of humor when you read this story.
It also helps to have two bits of background information: The first is that this story takes place at a formal dinner party in ancient Israel. That’s important to know because in those days formal dinner parties often took place in an open courtyard. They were public events in that the neighbors felt free to stand around the sides of the courtyard to observe the dinner party as it took place. They weren’t considered guests, but they weren’t intruders either. They were self-invited observers.
The second bit of information is that it was customary for the host to greet his invited guests with three things: 1) a kiss of welcome, 2) water for their feet, and 3) oil to anoint their head. The kiss was a mark of affection, the water allowed the guest to wash the dust from their feet, and the oil was rubbed on the forehead as a kind of aromatic perfume. The parallel in our day would be shaking hands (or offering a hug), taking someone’s coat, offering them food and drink, and finding them a place to sit. These are common courtesies that we normally offer to anyone who is our guest. The same was true of the kiss, the water, and the oil. To omit them was a breach of etiquette and an act of unkindness.
This story is really a drama in five acts. I invite you to go with me to the El Shaddai Dinner Theater in ancient Hebron for the premier performance of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Just as we find our seats the curtain rises on …
Act 1: Playing it Safe
As we gaze at the stage we see a low table set in the middle of the courtyard. It is U-shaped with couches arranged so that the guests will recline with their legs facing outward.
Immediately we are introduced to the man who will be the central character … Simon the Pharisee. What a surprise! This man has invited Jesus to come to his house for dinner. It’s a surprise because most of the time Jesus didn’t get along too well with the Pharisees.
But Simon was different. He was a Pharisee but evidently not a very good one. He wasn’t deeply involved in anything. He was broadminded enough to invite this upstart young rabbi from Nazareth to dinner. Perhaps he reasoned that it wouldn’t do him any harm. After all, it takes all kinds to make a world. Simon liked to be around influential people, it made him feel good to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers.
Not that he was committed to Jesus or his mission. Oh no, not at all. This was a social invitation, that’s all. He didn’t necessarily agree with all that harsh talk about the robbing of widow’s houses and whitened tombs. That was a little extreme for his tastes.
This was just a casual meal, the kind where you keep the good china locked up. Low-key, no big deal. That way he wouldn’t risk offending his more orthodox friends.
Simon was urbane … polished … smooth … adaptable. He is a curious bystander in the game of life. He is diplomatic to a fault and likes to play it close to the vest. Above all, Simon is no fanatic. He is a man of the world. He thinks of himself as a man who never gets backed into a corner. He fits well into the office … or the halls of Congress … or the church. He would do well in Rome or New York or Chicago. He’s a classic middle-of-the-road man.
So it happens that Jesus has come this day to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. All is going well as the curtain falls on Act 1.
Act 2: The Gatecrasher
As the curtain rises, from stage left an unidentified woman enters. She walks around the table and stops at the sofa where Jesus is reclining.
The Bible is very discreet in calling her “a woman who had lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37). This is a delicate way of saying she had been a prostitute. She made her living by selling her body to men. She was a professional and I have no reason to doubt that she was good at what she did. The shock is that she would come to the house of a Pharisee. In ordinary times Simon and this woman would never meet. He would not go near a woman like her; she would not go near a man like him. They are from opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet strangely, they are thrown together for the same purpose. They both want to meet Jesus.
It is significant that she is called a woman who “had lived” a sinful life. Two verses later Simon says she “is” a sinner. It’s obvious she knew something about Jesus before this story begins. I believe she had heard his message and had responded to him in faith and experienced his love and mercy. That is, she comes to the party because her life has already been changed and she wants to express her newfound love for Jesus. But Simon isn’t aware of this. He assumes she is the same woman she has always been. Since verse 37 says she had lived a sinful life “in that town,” we may be sure that when she entered the courtyard heads turned and everyone knew who she was and how she made her living. No doubt there were whispers and quick flashes of disapproval. Why is she here?
The center of attention now becomes this woman of the street. I do not know much about prostitutes, but of this much I am sure. A woman like that is a good judge of men. She sees them as they are. She has heard every promise, every come-on, every cover-up. She’s seen it all. She knew Jesus was not like all those other men. He was not going to use her and throw her away. She heard in his words the promise of a way out of her ugly, empty life.
Simon watches, unbelieving, as this woman does something strange.
1. She intends to anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume.
2. But she begins to cry and can’t stop.
3. As she cries, her tears fall on Jesus’ feet.
4. She dries his feet with her hair.
5. Then she smothers his feet with kisses.
6. Finally, she anoints his feet with the perfume.
If this seems odd, may I ask you to remember her background? She is used to touching men. She is not ashamed to show her emotions. She reacts to Jesus exactly as a woman with her background would react. It’s the only way she knows. She is generous … affectionate … impulsive … demonstrative … emotional … passionate … uninhibited.
Why is she weeping? She loves Jesus and she isn’t afraid to show it.
She stands … to honor his greatness.
She weeps … overwhelmed with sorrow over her past.
She wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair … a sign of deep humility.
She kisses his feet … a gesture of affection and respect.
She anoints his feet … in gratitude for what he has done for her.
As Act 2 comes to a close, the scene shifts back to Simon who silently watches this shocking, sensual scene. He’s never seen anything like it! It goes against all his conservative instincts. He is deeply offended by what this woman has done.
A fallen woman caresses Jesus and it bothered him. He would never let a woman like that touch him. The whole thing was disgusting … revolting … dirty.
As the curtain falls, Simon ponders what he has just seen.
Act 3: An After-Dinner Tale
Jesus knew exactly what Simon was thinking so he told him a little story. It went like this. Once there were two men who owed money to a moneylender. One owed the man $50,000 and the other owed him $5,000. Neither one had any money so the lender, out of the goodness of his heart, canceled the debts. Nice simple story.
Then Jesus asked Simon the $64,000 question: Which of those two men will love the lender more? Simon smells a trap so he’s a little cautious in his answer. “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “That’s right,” Jesus said.
What does it mean? In Simon’s eyes, the prostitute was like the man who owed $50,000. Her debt to God was enormous because in Simon’s eyes she was an enormous sinner. Compared to her, Simon’s debt seemed to him like maybe $5. But that’s not the point. If you can’t pay a debt, it doesn’t matter how much you owe. If you’re broke, you’re broke. In that sense, there is no difference between owing a little and owing a lot, especially if you don’t have any money.
The truth slowly begins to seep in. “Simon, we’re all in debt to God. Some owe more, some less. But none of us can pay even a penny of what we owe. Here is the gospel message: God is willing to forgive all debtors equally, the people who owe a lot and the people who owe a little!”
Simon is now at center stage and he is beginning to sweat. What Jesus means is painfully clear: “Simon, there is fundamentally no difference between you and the prostitute.”
As the message sinks in, the curtain falls on Act 3.
Act 4: Risky Business
As the curtain rises, Jesus turns to the woman for the first time. But he does not speak to her. “Simon, do you see this woman?” What he means is, “Simon, do you know why she is doing these things?” Simon thought he did … but he didn’t.
Then Jesus systematically exposes the shabby treatment he had received. “You gave me no water, but she wet my feet with her tears. You gave me no kiss but she can’t stop smothering my feet with kisses. You didn’t even offer me cheap olive oil but she anointed my feet with expensive oil.”
“You kept me at arms length, but she was not ashamed of me. You didn’t even bother to show me minimal courtesy, but she lavished her love on me. You know religion, the Temple, the sacrifices and the Law. She knows none of that. You missed the whole point. She got it.”
Simon’s problem is easy to see: He thought he was better than the prostitute. Simon said, “She is a sinner.” Jesus said, “No, she was a sinner.” God changed the tenses in her life.
“Simon, your problem is that you see her as she was and not as she is. You think you see her but you don’t. For years, you knew her one way … but now she’s clean … and you can’t handle it.”
That leads me to this statement: A man who is never deeply committed to anything cannot understand somebody who is transformed by Jesus Christ. Simon simply had no category for a former prostitute whose life has been radically changed by Jesus Christ.
Just before the curtain falls, Jesus speaks again. “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). That doesn’t mean what you might think. Jesus is not saying, “The worse you are, the more you are forgiven.” He is saying, “The greater you sense your own need for forgiveness, the greater will be your love when you are forgiven.”
You will have gratitude and love in exact proportion with your sense of your own sinfulness.
—If you think you have been greatly forgiven, you will greatly love God.
—If you think you have only been forgiven a little, you will only love God a little.
Jesus is boring in on Simon. He’s starting to fidget. He doesn’t like to get backed into a corner like this. Simon was right about one thing and wrong about one thing. He thought there was a sinner at his party. He was right about that. But he was wrong about the woman. She wasn’t the “sinner” that night. He was.
Our little drama is almost over. One act remains.
Act 5: The End of the Affair
As the curtain rises, Jesus speaks to the woman for the first time. He says three things to her:
1. “Your sins are forgiven.” That takes care of her past.
2. “Your faith has saved you.” That takes care of her present.
3. “Go in peace.” That takes care of her future.
That’s all. He never says, “Don’t sell your body.” He doesn’t have to. She’s been set free.
What about Simon? He got more in this dinner party than he bargained for. More than he wanted. He planned a casual affair and it blew up in his face.
As the curtain falls for the final time, we see Simon staring at Jesus, a look of fear and amazement on his face.
Epilogue: You and Me and Simon
As you walk out of the El Shaddai Dinner Theater, you wonder, “Just who is this little story all about?” Simon? The Prostitute? Jesus? Simon, the man who would not commit himself to anything. The woman, who risked everything. Jesus, who welcomed her and would have welcomed him.
Simon’s problem was not that he couldn’t see the woman. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see Jesus. Simon’s problem was that he couldn’t see himself. Simon said, “I owe him nothing.” So he risked nothing. The woman said, “I owe him everything.” So she risked everything.
It’s strange, isn’t it, that the worst sinners often make the best saints. Why? Because flagrant sinners are more likely to discover that they are sinners. Here is the abiding truth from this story: Your love for the Lord is directly related to your estimate of how greatly you have sinned and how much he has forgiven you. It’s not how much you sin, but how deeply you feel it that matters. If you figure that you are a “little sinner,” then all you need is a “little Savior.” If you are a “moderate sinner,” then what you need is a “moderate Savior.” But if you are “big sinner,” you need a “big Savior.” And those who have a “little Savior,” will love him very little. But those who have a “big Savior” will love him greatly. Many of us who were raised in the church struggle precisely at this point. We don’t love Christ very much because we have forgotten what we were and what we would have been if Christ had not found us. When our sin seems small, our love cannot be very great.
In truth, we’re all like that woman—so guilty we could never pay the debt we owe. Now we’ve been forgiven more than our minds can comprehend. And there’s a little Simon in all of us. We secretly think we’re better than we really are. So we hold back, play it safe, and never get radical in our commitment to Jesus Christ. Frankly, that’s why we have a hard time understanding those who do get radical. Somewhere I ran across this statement that could have been written about our story: “I feel that God would sooner we did wrong in loving than never love for fear we should do wrong.”
As strange as it might seem, this story presents us with a clear choice. We can be like Simon or we can be like the prostitute. Think about that. By long years of religious training, most of us feel much more comfortable being like Simon. Luke included this story so that we would be challenged to become more like the repentant prostitute. The fact that we feel uncomfortable with that says a lot more about us than it does about the Bible. People raised in the church tend to struggle more with spiritual pride than those raised outside the church. And the flip side of that is true as well. The worst sinners often make the best saints because they never forget where they came from and what Christ has done for them. That’s why, when God wanted a man to bring the gospel to Europe, he found a terrorist named Saul and stopped him in his tracks on the road to Damascus. When Christ saved him, the terrorist became a flaming evangelist and perhaps the single greatest Christian the world has ever known (see Acts 9 for the story of his conversion).
Since we are all sinners and we all stand in need of the grace of God, there is no room for spiritual pride in the body of Christ. There’s no need to talk about who’s “better” and who’s “worse” because apart from the grace of God, we’d all be going to hell. We can choose to be with Simon and play it safe. In the end we will be sorry. Or we can be like that woman who smothered Jesus’ feet with kisses. It’s risky … and daring … and the people who see us may not understand. But at least they’ll know we really love Him.
Good News for All Sorts of Sinners
If you are like the prostitute, keenly aware of your own sin and desiring a new life and forgiveness of your past, then I have good news for you. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. It doesn’t matter how “bad” or “unpopular” your sin may be. It doesn’t matter how far down in the pit you find yourself at this moment. If you will come to Christ, he will not turn you away. He was and is the “friend of sinners.” If you qualify as a sinner, he’ll be your friend, too.
If you are like Simon, there is good news for you as well. But you first must understand that your religion and your self-righteousness will not save you. In fact, you’ve got to give up your trust in yourself in order to be saved. In football terms, Simon thought he had gone 90 yards by himself and he only needed Jesus to go the final ten yards on his behalf. Wrong! He was just as far from heaven as the prostitute had been. It’s either all by grace or it’s not by grace at all. It’s not Jesus plus you, it’s all by Jesus or it’s not by Jesus at all. But if and when you are ready to humble yourself, you will discover that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Even self-righteous religious people can be saved if they will come to Christ by faith.
Here are two questions to ponder. What do you see when you look at others? Simon looked at this woman and saw a “sinner.” So what do you see when you look at others around you? Before you answer that, ponder the second question. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Your answer to the second question determines how you answer the first question. Only those who understand the depth of their own sinfulness can look with compassion and mercy on the men and women they meet every day.
This week I ran across a little poem that seems to speak a great truth:
I dreamed death came to me one night
And Heaven’s Gates flew open wide.
With kindly grace, St. Peter came and ushered me inside.
There to my astonishment were friends I had known on earth,
Some I had labeled as unfit and some of little worth.
Indignant words flew to my lips: Words I could not set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise—No one expected me!
Someone has said there will be three surprises when we get to heaven. First, we will be surprised that some people are there that we did not expect to see in heaven. Second, we will be surprised that some people are not there that we were sure were going to be there. Third, the greatest surprise of all will be that we ourselves are there. When we stand before our Lord and as we survey the glories of heaven, all pride will vanish and we will begin to sing with full understanding the words of a familiar hymn: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Amen.