Who do you see?
Inviting people around for a meal has always been a way expressing friendship. You are at your first week on your new job. You wonder if you will be liked here, how you will get on with your new work mates. Then someone says, "Some of us go out for lunch on Fridays. Do you want to join us?" This is the break through you needed to make new friends.
The family meal eaten together at the end of the day is a time of sharing not only food but also sharing the days joys and upsets. It is a symbol of the unity and love that the family shares. When we come to church to eat together the body and blood of Jesus as the family of God, we are reminded of his love for us, his forgiveness, and his promise to stick by us through thick and thin.
In Luke 7:36-39, 44a, 47-48 we hear of two religious leaders sitting down to dinner. One a Pharisee, a lay religious leader called Simon who spent much of his day studying God’s Word, the other a wandering rabbi named Jesus. They get together at the invitation of the Pharisee. We aren’t told why Simon the Pharisee gave Jesus this invitation and we wonder about his motives since the gospels record the Pharisees as one group who were extremely critical of Jesus.
We also learn that the welcome that Jesus got when he arrived at Simon’s place was an extremely cool one. There was no customary welcoming kiss when Jesus arrived; no washing of Jesus’ feet as he entered the house; and no anointing with olive oil as was done when an honoured guest came to dinner. From this we might conclude on the one hand that Simon the Pharisee was afraid of showing too much affection when he invited Jesus home to dinner because of his colleagues’ opposition to Jesus. Or we might say that Simon had invited Jesus to relax at his place, have a glass of wine and something to eat with the purpose of catching Jesus saying something that would further condemn him. Maybe it was both.
No doubt, the two men were talking about religion when "a woman who lived a sinful life" entered the room. (By the way, for some reason Luke doesn’t give us her name). Since we are all sinners, it seems that Luke draws our attention to the fact that she led an extraordinarily sinful life – perhaps she was a prostitute. She says nothing but falls at Jesus’ feet weeping, drying the tears that fell on his feet with her hair, kissing his feet and pouring expensive oil on his tired feet.
I think you can see the contrasting image that we have here of the way Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” welcomed Jesus that day. The welcome this sinful woman gave was emotional, affectionate, and loving. Simon, on the other hand, was not only cool toward Jesus when he didn’t embrace Jesus on entering his house, he was aloof, he may have even had an ulterior motive for inviting Jesus to his place. In contrast to the woman, his heart was icy cold.
That brings me to the second contrasting way the two men viewed this woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet. Simon the Pharisee could only see this dirty disgusting woman touching Jesus. He could only think of what others will say when they hear that this sinful woman had been at his house. He can’t understand why Jesus is allowing this to happen. And deliberately says out loud, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives!”
Jesus’ attitude to the sinful woman is so different. "What do you see?" Jesus asked Simon. "Do you see before you a woman; a person with fears, loves, hopes, dreams and feelings? Or do you see someone who is disgusting, and dirty; someone who offends you? Do you see a person who needs to be loved? Or only a problem that needs to be tossed out of your house. Do you see a person who needs to be helped, to be welcomed and embraced? Or do you only see her sin? We may think very poorly of Simon for his attitude and prejudice. And rightly so! His attitude stinks!
But Simon is only doing what we do so easily and without thinking. It’s so easy to prejudge people, to show prejudice. What do you see when you look at a homeless person, a street kid, a drunk, an immigrant, an aboriginal? What do you see when a person asks you for some money for a sandwich, or a mother who is unable to buy food or adequate clothes for her children?
If anyone had the right to brush away the repulsive, it was Jesus, the sinless, perfect, pure Son of God. But he didn’t. Simon the Pharisee would have avoided having anything to do with her as if she had the bubonic plague. He could only see her disgusting sin. Jesus on the other hand, looked past the dirt and filth and saw a woman who needed his help. And she got it! "Your sins are forgiven", he says. Jesus loved this woman even though she had no right to expect anything from him. Jesus forgave her many and terrible sins. This is God’s grace at work. Grace sees more than our sin; it sees a child in need of his love and forgiveness.
In a scene from the movie "Ironweed" the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. Not too sober themselves, the two debate what they should do about her. "Is she drunk or a bum?" asks Nicholson. "Just a bum. Been one all her life." "And before that?" "She was a whore in Alaska." "She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?" "I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess." "Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in."
The two vagrants were seeing the Eskimo woman through the lens of grace. Where society saw only a bum and a whore, grace saw "a little kid," a person made in the image of God no matter how defaced that image had become.
In the Old Testament we read that "God does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam 16:7). Where Simon the Pharisee saw only a disgusting prostitute and terrible sinner, Jesus could see a child weeping at his feet, needing his help and love. He had the ability to see beyond the sin and degradation of her life. He had the ability to see the marvellous potential that lay within her.
William Booth used to stroll through the slums of London's East End as his wife taught a Bible class. He noticed that every fifth building was a pub, where men would loiter all day, drinking away their families' livelihood. Many pubs even provided steps at the counter so that small children could climb up and order gin. Appalled at these conditions, William Booth opened the "Christian Mission" in 1865, serving the "down and outers" ignored by others, and out of that vision grew the Salvation Army. Church people frowned on the clientele Booth was attracting, they could only see disgusting sinners. William Booth could see people who needed help and guidance.
The challenge that confronts us is: how well are we doing at seeing beyond the sinner and loving the person. We might say, "Well it’s easy for Jesus to do this, after all he is God. We know from the Bible that our behaviour repulses him on the one hand, but on the other, he loves us. Even though our sinfulness upsets him, he will not give upon us. If it weren’t for God’s grace, none of us would have any hope of eternal life.
At our baptism, God came to us and through the water and his Word claimed us as his own people, promised to love us and forgive always, to guide us on our journey through this life. He continues to do this every day of our lives. Even though we are sinners, because of his grace he can still see us as his dear children.
That’s all right for God, but darn hard for us." And you’re right. Too often we are more like Simon the Pharisee, we condemn, and prejudge people too easily. There seems to be something in our sinful nature that wants to wipe people off as hopeless and irresponsible and to have nothing more to do with them.
We see someone living and sleeping in the streets and we say, "That’s their own fault" and walk away. That may be true, but Jesus challenges us to see them as he sees them.
Someone tells us a hard luck story and we judge them as hopeless and useless. That may be true; Jesus challenges us to see them as he sees them.
Someone aggravates you, gets on your nerves, and when you see that person coming you duck out of sight. That person may be aggravating but Jesus wants us to see a person like that as he sees them.
He sees that person as his child, needing help and love. He sees you as just the right person to share with them some of the grace and love and understanding and tolerance that Jesus has shown toward us.
The unique aspect that we find in the Christian Gospel is whole idea of grace – it is the core and centre of everything the Bible has to say about God. He doesn’t love us because we are especially loveable, because we aren’t. He loves us and wants all of us to be in his family, to have eternal life. Not everyone accepts this gracious offer from God; some ignore him all their life, some never come near the church between their baptism and their funeral, but God still makes the offer. Even when we put on airs, judge others, turn our backs on those in need, or whatever, he still sees us as his children. He patiently and lovingly keeps on offering his love and forgiveness.
May our prayer be today, Lord, help us not to look down on "those evil people" or "those hopeless people" but to see them as you see us – people who are loved by you. Amen.
Uncommon Ground - John Inazu
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Who I Am in Christ - Neil T Anderson
Everything You Need - Dr David Jeremiah
Radical - David Platt
Encounters with Jesus – Timothy Keller
The Life You've Always - John Ortberg