A doctor in the UK shared a story about his interaction with an 82-year-old hospital patient named Doris. Two days before Christmas, Doris seemed healthy and ready for discharge. But for some reason she kept complaining about inexplicable health issues, and the doctor wrote: “Yesterday it was her arm that was hurting, before that her hip. Truth is, Doris is an incredibly healthy 82-year-old, and we can’t find anything. I have no doubt that it will be the same today.” When the X-rays came back normal, he told Doris that he would have to stick to the plan of sending her home. Doris looked down at the floor and quietly said, “I don’t want to go home …. It’s just that I’m all alone and there are so many hours in the day.” Then after a long pause, she sighed and asked, “Doctor, can you give me a cure for loneliness?”
Then he wrote this: I wish I could say yes. I wish I could prescribe her some antidepressants and be satisfied that I had done my best, but the truth is she’s not clinically depressed. It’s just that she has been left behind by a world that no longer revolves around her, not even the littlest bit. There are thousands like her, men and women … for whom time stands empty as they wait in homes full of silence …. They are no longer coveted by a society addicted to youth …. [Doris] is alone, and it brings home the truth of this epidemic that we have on our hands – an epidemic of loneliness …. The most difficult part is that I don’t know how to solve this, although I wish I could. For now, I simply retract my diagnoses. Sheepishly, I insist that Doris spends her Christmas this year on the ward, and I can see her mood lift. But as I steel myself for the inevitable influx of unwanted grandparents whom I know will arrive, I cannot help but wonder how it is that things could have gone so badly wrong.[i]
Sad, don’t you think, that two days before the celebration of the birth of Christ … two days before the celebration of the coming of the one whom the Gospel writer Matthew said, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, (which means, God with us)” … two days before celebrating of the coming of the one who was, and is, God with us, this woman, and countless others just like her around the world are lonely. Sad that as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Christ, God with us, thousands of people around the world somehow feel alone longing for connection.
And it strikes me as I think about this epidemic of loneliness that maybe, just maybe, as the body of Christ, we’ve missed it. That maybe we’ve misunderstood the fullness of what the coming of Christ means. That as we prepare to gather in a few short weeks with family and friends and exchange gifts in remembrance of the gift of God to us, we’ve somehow missed the full significance of what it means that “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …” (John 1:14).
Today we’re going to look not at shepherds and angel messengers and the holy family, not at the babe in the manger, but at Jesus the man, who is still Emmanuel. So if you have your Bible with you, turn with me to Luke 7:36-50.
Let me set the stage for you. The story starts with a man name Simon, a Pharisee; a man dedicated to understanding and living out in real everyday life every letter of the law of God. In the culture of that day, Simon was one considered a really good guy. He was the kind of guy you’d want for your neighbor. He wasn’t one of “those” people. And he invited Jesus over for a formal dinner as was the custom of the time, feeling out, getting to know the popular, powerful new rabbi. The meal would have been held in the courtyard around which Simon’s house was built, and the doors or gates to the courtyard would have been open so that people on the streets could come in to hear the host and invited dignitary speak. And the people actually participating in the meal sat not in chairs with their feet under a tall table like we do, but reclining on their left elbow at a low table, feet extending at an angle to their right and away from the food. And it was customary at formal meals like this one for the host to place his hand on the shoulder of the visiting dignitary and offer him the kiss of peace, and then one of Simon’s servants would remove the sandals of Jesus and wash his feet as he reclined at the table to remove the dust of his travel through the town on dirty streets, and then anoint him with a little olive oil, all to refresh him.
But either Simon was unfamiliar with social conventions common enough to be obvious to cultural anthropologists and archeologists studying his culture almost two thousand years later, which given his status of Pharisee is highly unlikely, or he intentionally slighted Jesus. Look down at Vv. 44-46. He denied to Jesus the common courtesies hosts were expected to show to special invited guests. So we can expect that Simon didn’t really respect Jesus. Regardless, as Jesus reclined with his host and his hosts friends and some of his own disciples, something unexpected happened. Look at V. 37.
Now, it doesn’t matter what culture you come from. We all know that’s not normal. It wouldn’t be normal today, and it certainly wasn’t normal in Jesus’ day either. And Luke makes sure we understand that. He introduces this weird event by saying, “And behold.” When we read this in church these days, we read it in a monotone like we read everything else out loud. But that isn’t the way Luke wants us to read this. We should read it like this: (shouting and jumping) “AND BEHOLD!” In the original Greek manuscript, it literally reads “And look! A woman!” We’re being drawn right into the scene, and something totally out of the ordinary is happening.
In a room full of Pharisees and Jesus, a “woman who was a sinner” crept up toward the table, fell at the feet of Jesus as he reclined to eat, and drenched his feet with her tears, let down and dried his feet with her hair, and then poured out an incredibly expensive container of high-end perfume on his feet, doing everything that the supposed host of the meal had denied Jesus. Now we have to understand something. This woman did not belong here in the company of these “holy” people. This was not her place. And she was called a sinner three times: once by Luke as the narrator of the story in V. 37, once by Simon the Pharisee, and then by Jesus himself in V. 47. To answer Simon’s silent question, Jesus knew EXACTLY what kind of woman this was. She was a prostitute. And given the extravagance of her act of worship, Mark and John tell us that the ointment was pure Nard, very rare and very expensive, she was probably pretty good at what she did. Her sinfulness, her uncleanness, permeated the room like a dreaded, contagious disease, for in the eyes of the Pharisees, her presence among them would make them unclean as well. Simon says as much when he says to himself that if Jesus really were a prophet, he would have known that a prostitute were touching him and stopped her, demanding that she leave his presence and the presence of these good people.
And her behavior is such that she’s likely used to doing things that other people find shameful. I mean in her day normal women were viewed as temptresses and sex objects whenever they left the home, and on top of that she was known as a sinful woman, a prostitute. These actions would have been seen by the people in the room as erotic. It would have looked to them like she was fondling the feet of Jesus like a prostitute used to and good at providing sexual favors. And letting her hair down? A woman’s hair was viewed as her dignity. In that day, a woman letting her hair down in the presence of a man who was not her husband was grounds for divorce, and rabbis of the day put a woman letting down here hair and uncovering her breasts in the same category of offenses. This woman wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair which she had let down, while odd to us, would have had the same shock value to the people at that meal as if a woman walked into this room topless today. Her actions didn’t belong. She didn’t belong.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to mind her behavior at all. In fact he lets her worship him, which should have been scandal enough for these supposedly righteous people. Simon noticed, but managed somehow to keep his mouth shut. Unfortunately for him, he was in the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, and Jesus knew what he was thinking. And Jesus began to teach Simon and his friends, teaching as he always did, with a story. It was a story about two people who owed a moneylender sums of money, one about a month and a half’s wages, the other a little over a year and a half’s wages. The penalty for not being able to pay was to be thrown into debtor’s prison until the family of the one who owed the money could pay it back in full, a difficult challenge even for the one who owed so much less, but clearly impossible for the one who owed so great a sum, for a day’s wages was barely enough for a family to get by, let alone set money aside to pay off the debt. And in Jesus’ story, neither person could pay. But instead of throwing them both in debtor’s prison, the moneylender canceled the debt of both, setting them free.
And then Jesus asked Simon a question. “Which one of them will love him more?” Simon rightly answered, “I guess the one who owed the bigger debt.” Do you see Jesus playing his game? Inviting Simon to see not just the prostitute but himself in the story. Jesus is funny that way. We keep wanting to see others in his stories, and he keeps showing us ourselves. “Yep,” Jesus said. “You got it right.” Then things get personal between Jesus and Simon. Look at Vv. 44-47.
Luke has already made it clear that Simon was the host, and thus should have acted like a host. In fact, he pointed it out three times. In V. 36: “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him…” That would be the host. And in V. 39: “Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this…” Again, that would be Simon, the inviter, the host. And lastly in V. 44, when Jesus says, “I entered your house…,” and we already know it was at Simon’s invitation. Now Jesus makes explicit what has been visible but not pointed out … that this sinful woman has followed the rules regarding proper hosting better than Simon, a Pharisee. Might not seem like a big deal to us. Being a bad host might be viewed as being low class, but certainly not sinful in and of itself, but being a proper, hospitable host was a BIG deal to ancient Jews as a result of their being treated so poorly by the Egyptians way back in Moses’ time and being hosted by other peoples as they wandered in the wilderness. “This prostitute is a better host than YOU Simon, and YOU’RE a Pharisee!” Jesus is saying, “Simon, you’re no prostitute. I understand that. But you’re still a sinner, in need of the same grace she needs, and has received.
Social researcher Brené Brown’s TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability” has garnered over 37 million views. And for good reason: we are hungry for the freedom to admit our vulnerability. She pushes us to embrace our own brokenness, with the reality that we are not alone in it, that we are—or easily could be—just one step away from the broken people all around us. Brown says: We are “those people.” The truth is … we are the “others.” Most of us are one paycheck, one divorce, one drug- addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one sexual assault, one drinking binge, one night of unprotected sex, or one affair away from being “those people” – the ones we don’t trust, the ones we pity, the ones we don’t let our children play with, the ones bad things happen to, the ones we don’t want living next door.
It’s really likely that this woman had a recent encounter with Jesus in which she received grace and forgiveness. The human act of washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, wiping them dry with her hair, and anointing him with very expensive oils was not what saved her. But Jesus declares to Simon that her sins are forgiven, and then he turns to her and says the same, and when he did that, he was saying to her and to the gathered crowd, “She belongs here.” The unwritten conclusion to that statement is, “Unless you do the same, and recognize your sinfulness, even though you’re not a prostitute, and come seeking forgiveness and healing, you don’t. But you can.” This episode really isn’t about the woman at all. It’s about Simon. It’s about his own sinful heart, made evident by his unwillingness, in spite of his Pharisaical desire to keep every letter of the law of God, to be a good host to Jesus. His heart was revealed, as were the hearts of his friends. He was one who needed to know that he, didn’t belong any more than she did. But he could.
Most of those of us who call ourselves Christians, we go right from the cradle to the cross, from the miracle of Emmanuel, “God with us,” to the miracle of the cross, Emanuel God with us dying for us on the cross, and then we stop. We have salvation in Christ, and we know that we will spend eternity with Christ, and as good as that is, we stop there. We forget about the coming kingdom of God established in our hearts now. We forget about the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, born in us, and we forget what it means to live as citizens in THAT kingdom now. As dearly loved children of God, as apprentices of Emmanuel, who is God with us, and together as the body of Christ, we are to be his living welcoming embrace, proclaim the GOOD NEWS that you belong, and offer that embrace wherever we go becoming known as a people who take after their savior and their mentor and are known as “friends of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34).” That verse comes just before the passage we read today, and is the verse our passage illustrates. That Jesus was known as Emmanuel, God with us, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. That through our faith in him, we belong. And through our apprenticeship to his way of living, we proclaim to others that in Christ, they can belong too.
Emmanuel. God with us. He who resided in Heaven, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, willingly descended into our world. He breathed our air, felt our pain, knew our sorrows, and died for our sins. He didn’t come to frighten us, but to show us the way to warmth and safety.[ii]
[i] Dr. Ishani Kar-Purkayastha, “An Epidemic of Loneliness,” The Lancelet (12-18-10)
[ii] Charles Swindoll in The Finishing Touch. Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.