Guests at Jesus’ Table

“Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

The Gospels are stories about Jesus.

They’re not quite biographies. If they were, they surely would contain a lot more information. Instead, the four Gospel accounts we have in the beginning of our New Testaments are documents that tell stories about Jesus with a particular goal in mind: the faith-formation of the church. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t just written to record portions of Jesus’ life, they were written so that we might come to know Jesus as Savior; and, by his example, live our lives as a church community in reflection of his.  

All four Gospel accounts contain several meal-time narratives that are ripe with learning opportunities for the church today. I’ve written about meal dynamics, and the juxtaposition of common first century Jewish meals with the kind that Jesus partook in elsewhere: click here to see previous post. Within that post, we looked closely at Jesus’ interaction with the man Zacchaeus. In this one, I’d like to consider another scandalous occasion around the dinner table.

An Unexpected Dinner Guest: Luke 7:36-50

The story of Luke 7:36-50 is one that’s found in the other three Gospels as well. But while Matthew, Mark, and John’s accounts tell this story in order to make a point about those who properly recognize Jesus for who he is (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8), Luke’s account does something slightly different.  

This narrative in Luke 7 starts with a Pharisee named Simon inviting Jesus to dinner.

When we are invited to dinner at a friend or co-workers house today, there might be some form of tension we feel to perform our duties as a guest adequately. It was once customary to bring gifts, like wine or dessert, to a host’s home and many still do so. And as hosts, we may feel obligated to provide not only a well-cooked meal, but also dessert and entertainment of some sort. But in the first century, table fellowship and hospitality worked a bit differently.

According to the tradition of the elders, dinner guests would enter a home but would sit upon benches outside of the dining area until all other guests arrive. Once all guests had gathered, either a servant or a designated person from the guest’s household would provide the group with water for washing hands and feet. If the host was wealthy, they may offer oil mixed with perfumes for their guests to sooth themselves with as well. Then, after a cup of wine and an appetizer, guests would go and recline around the host’s table. Another glass of wine would be offered along with another course of food. Benedictions and recitations would then be spoken before a third course of food was consumed. However, if a guest was late to the dinner party, they would no longer be permitted to enter after this third course was served.[1]

Simon, as a Pharisee, would have known this tradition well. Yet, for some unknown reason, it seems like Simon didn’t completely adhere it when hosting Jesus. He skipped some of the ritual washing components and he did not offer oil for Jesus’ head (Luke 7:44-46). Despite this, it should be noted that Simon was willing to sit down and eat with Jesus, something that a number of his peers might have been hesitant to do.

But suddenly, while Jesus and Simon were reclined at the table, an unexpected guest barges in: a “sinful woman.”

Because Jesus and Simon were at the point of reclining, Luke might be signaling to his readers that this woman had entered after the third course of food was served. She was putting Simon in a tough spot as a host. But her actions that followed broke even more social taboos. This woman, a known sinner within the town (Luke 7:37), walks up to Jesus and begins to openly weep. With her tears, she cleans the dirt off of Jesus’ feet and dries them with her own hair. She then produces an alabaster jar full of perfume oil, anoints Jesus’ feet, and kisses them. This startles Simon. And he grumbles to himself, saying: “This man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what kind of women this is who is touching him – she’s a sinner.”

This uninvited guest had broken the rules of hospitality. She had broken the rules about ceremonial cleansing and separation. But more so, she was a sinner! She didn’t belong.

But Jesus points out that Simon had not offered him hospitality like this woman had. She washed his feet. She offered him oil. She gave him a kiss, but Simon had not. More than this, too, the woman rightly recognized that she had much to be thankful for as her sins were many. Her response was an appropriate one. It reflected her appreciation about the depth of forgiveness that had been offered to her.

There also seems to be an implied warning from Jesus at the end of Luke’s narrative as well. Was Simon’s disdain for this woman a sign that his love was lacking? Was he, as a Pharisee, one who prided himself on his strict observation of the scriptures, not as tuned-in to God’s will as he assumed he was?

And more so, if Luke’s Gospel was written for the instruction of church communities, what, here, might Luke be trying to teach us?

Religious figures in this Gospel always seem to be the first to condemn, to judge, and to point out those who don’t belong. It is as if they see themselves as the standard, the protectors of truth and righteousness to which all others must conform to be welcomed.

But Jesus critiques Simon in Luke 7 and calls him to transformation.

Why? Maybe it is because Luke is reminding his audience that the church is the people who are being transformed. They have not been called to be the agents of transformation, per se; but, through the Holy Spirit, are themselves being molded in God’s truth.

Instead of pointing out the woman’s sin, this Pharisee should have focused on being a better welcomer, as those who welcome experience Jesus’ love and grace. Instead of keeping this woman at a distance, Simon should have embraced her in as a gift. Instead of acting as a barrier to entry, Simon should have invited her in as a co-learner, an equal under Christ.

Simon shouldn’t have put the cart before the horse.[2] He shouldn’t have assumed that this woman needed to get her life in order before turning to God. And likewise, neither should the church require sinners to act righteously, or conform to a set of agreed upon cultural expectations, before being welcomed into their fellowship.  

Guests at Jesus’ Table

That previous sentence is one that I think most Christians would wholeheartedly agree with.  

It’s also one that is very hard to actually put into practice.

If we have accepted Christ as Lord, we too have been forgiven. And the sin that we’ve been forgiven of was also of great magnitude. Our sin was so bad that God himself had to come to earth and die in order to atone for it. Like the woman from Luke 7, we all have received a great gift and have been forgiven of much.

But of the two characters in this story, many of us act more like Simon than the uninvited guest. Instead of rightly recognizing ourselves as forgiven sinners currently being transformed through the Spirit into the image of Jesus, we are often tempted to view ourselves as ones who’ve already arrived.

That is, rather than seeing ourselves as recipients of grace and mercy, we sometimes mistakenly understand our role as conduits of grace and mercy.

We have been called to reflect God’s love to others. We are to point to God’s goodness and proclaim God’s salvation. However, we aren’t the ones who actually offer it. Only Jesus saves. We as guests around Jesus’ cosmic table have no say about who gets to join in or not. Only the host (Jesus) makes that call. But we do have responsibility. We should strive to be good guests and learn to cultivate good table manners.

Again, this is great to say but can often be tough to genuinely practice. As an example, consider your gut-reaction to someone identifying as gay or transgender joining your worship service. Would they be welcomed? Would they be viewed suspiciously or as an enemy? Would your first thoughts about them be of critique or of love?

Simon spoke nothing but critique for the uninvited guest in Luke 7:36-50 and Jesus rebuked him for this.

If we have nothing but critique for outsiders to our faith communities, but especially towards those who may be genuinely seeking after Jesus, it might be best that we just keep our mouths shut too.

Jesus’ table is scandalous. The previous post in this series explored this idea even more. But Jesus’ table is also a place where we can rightly recognize our position before God the Father. We are all sinners. We have all been redeemed by Jesus’ blood. We as guests stand as equals in that we all deserved nothing but judgement and condemnation. None of us have earned our place at the table but have been invited because the unconditional grace of God. And what a wonderful thing!

With this has also come the invitation to display God’s grace through our love for other guests around Jesus’ table. But when we stand as a barrier to entry or express our dissapointment about someone joining in the meal, we aren’t practicing very good table manners.

[1] See Mishnah Berakhot 6-8. See also Jordan D. Rosenblum, “Jewish Meals in Antiquity,” A Companion to Food in the Ancient World, ed. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2015), 350-351.

[2] Darrell L. Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1996) 221.

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