(Luke 7: 36-50)
For the past two weeks, we’ve taken a look at this little story in the 7th chapter of Luke from a couple of different viewpoints – because, as we’ve been fond of saying, there are at least two sides to every story, and oftentimes more. The first week we looked through the eyes of the Pharisee – the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for dinner; the Pharisee who found his meal interrupted by a most unexpected guest who did a most unexpected thing. Last week we saw it as that unexpected guest – the woman who came barging in, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. And as we heard each of their stories, we heard stories of guilt and transformation, sin and separation and grace. We heard the stories of two people whose lives had forever been changed.
But there’s another story woven into pages and print that begs to be told. And no, it’s not Jesus. Well, let me clarify that: I’m sure Jesus has a story to tell, and I’m sure it’s a wonderful one; but this minister set a rule long ago in these first-person sermons to never be presumptuous enough to assume the voice of Jesus! Still, there was someone else present in that Pharisee’s home when this amazing thing happened. Or, more accurately, someones. It takes a while to see them there; their presence isn’t acknowledged until the very end, even though they had been there all along.
They’re referred to by the somewhat nondescript designation as “those at the table.” Those who’d been invited to Simon’s little soirée; because, after all, this never was a one-on-one meet and greet. We assume these other guests were, like Simon, Pharisees. Almost certainly all men. Men who had a place and a purpose at the party; who possessed status and power and assurances in the hierarchy of the day – both in the community and political world, all captured around that table in Simon’s home. That’s the third story begging to be heard.
But here’s the thing I feel I need to warn you about – the story of those around the table does not have the nice ending, the resolution that the first two do: Simon transformed; the woman forgiven. As you’ll hear in a minute, the scripture from Luke ends with “those at the table” asking Jesus a question for which there’s not a nice, cut-and-dry answer: Who is this man, that he even forgives sins? They don’t get the answer they seek. And you know what? Sometimes life is like that. Sometimes life leaves us hanging a bit, leaving us with no other choice than searching for the answers rather than them being handed to us. Sometimes questions don’t come with easy answers, because they take us into the grey, into the nebulous, into the difficult places, where in the end God’s does some of God’s greatest work.
So please understand that the voice you’re going to hear today is not the voice of transformation. It is not the voice of the truth of the gospel, but rather, someone who is offended by that truth. It is the voice of someone stuck; someone who asked the question and did not get the answer they wanted. And with that disclaimer, I invite you now to hear for a third and final time our scripture today, and the missing story that is begging to be heard: (read Luke 7:36-50)
The table in Simon’s home is round, made out of the finest wood. It is large and it is heavy. It is entirely possible that they had to build this wonderful house around the table, rather than building the house first and bringing the table in. It is that big. It is that important. The table is always important.
Spread out in the center of the table is a delicious cornucopia of the finest meal: chicken and meat, dates and fruits, bread, wine. More than could possibly be consumed in one evening. More than many in this city have in a month. It’s quantity and its quality, a social currency of sorts, revealing the importance and significance of this gathering. Food that is not only a sign of the rank and status of the one hosting this meal, but a sign of the rank and status of us.
We are “those around the table,” as Luke calls us. He does not mention our names – but it is not because we are unimportant. Quite the contrary. It is precisely because of our importance that names are unnecessary. Unless you are one of us, or one like us, you would never call us by name. Our position and our status in society is all that matters to you.
And it is important that we have a place at the table. Every seat, put there specifically for one of us. For just us. And we know exactly where we belong. We know our place in the scheme of things. From the moment we walk in the door of Simon’s home, we know where to sit. All we have to do is look around the room; look at who else is there. Look at who they are in our community, how important they are; what their status is, how big their home is, how many servants they have. We take all of this in, and we intuitively know where each one of us falls in the chain of command. Our value and importance determined by everyone else. And so we know who belongs at the head of the table, in the seat of greatest honor; and who comes next, and who comes after that, and so on. And we sit accordingly around the table. A mental calculus we’ve grown skilled at over the years. It’s not that hard, really. We know our place at the table. Everyone does.
And that’s the way it should be – not just for us at the table, but for everyone else in that house, and even everyone outside its walls. Since we know where we belong, since we know our place, everyone else knows theirs. And not everyone can come to the table; not everyone has a place. The bedrock of our civilization has hinged on this iron-clad truth, as solid as the huge table in Simon’s dining room: there is a pecking order in the world; there is an order to things. This is how the human race has survived all these years. It has survived because people like us have a place at the table.
And because we have that place, we must do everything to preserve it. Surely you understand that the well-being of society depends on this! And so we go to great lengths to maintain the order, resisting any efforts to change it. This is why we eat behind closed doors where no one else can interfere. And if someone new comes to the table, it is only because they have been invited by the host. As was the case on that night, when Simon asked Jesus of Nazareth to dine with us.
Now, we admit to being skeptical at first. It is rare for someone from such humble beginnings to eat among us. And it is nothing personal, it is all about the ease or dis-ease of fellowship. We know nothing of this man’s circle of colleagues; we know little of his work in carpentry. What would we talk about? What would we have in common? Frankly, the only reason we consented to his presence at the table that evening was because Simon had invited him there. And it is always the host’s table.
Nevertheless, we found Jesus to be remarkably adept at engaging us. Confident, yet humble. Knowledgeable, yet approachable. He fit right in and never tried to be someone he was not. His ease among us put us at ease with him. And we realized that Jesus had his place at the table too.
At least for a little while. Before she came in. Before everything changed at the table.
And you may think to yourself that the thing that upset us most was the presence of that woman. The way she blindsided all of us by running through the door and daring to approach the table – approach us! You may surmise that we were horrified as we watched her wash and dry his feet – and you would be right.
But that is not what upset those of us at the table the most.
What upset us the most, and what led us to break table decorum and leave in the middle of the meal, was not her but him. Jesus. Because he did not call for Simon’s servants to send this woman away. He did not act the least bit horrified or upset; he did nothing to discourage her. He just sat there. He sat there and let that woman wash his feet and dry them! He let her rub ointment over them! And in a final breach of etiquette, he actually spoke to her! He engaged this woman in conversation, as if she were an equal, as if all of this were a normal thing – which it was not. He listened to her long, sad story; and he actually seemed to care about her. And then he told her – he actually told her – that her sins were forgiven.
And it was at that point that we all got up from the table and left. For the meal was no more. There was still food on the table; there was still bread and wine. But the meal itself was over. And while we feel sorry for Simon, he had no one to blame but himself. It was his fault that his servants manning the door failed to keep this unwelcome guest from barging in. And it was certainly Simon’s fault that he invited Jesus in the first place – because, despite our first impression, it was obvious now that he was not who we thought he was. Jesus had a place at the table, and then he dared to open it up to others who had no business being there.
Such a dangerous, reckless thing! After all – what is a table if one keeps adding extra seats? What is a table if everyone is suddenly welcome to it? It makes us shudder just thinking about the ramifications! Can you imagine something as scandalous as the person of greatest honor sitting at the lowest place? Or even worse, the lowest person taking a seat at the head of the table? Do you know what that sort of thing leads to? It leads to everyone being equal in the eyes of the host. It leads to the grace of the meal being extended to all – and not just to those around the table, not just to those in the room or in the house. But outside the house, and down the street, and in the back alleys, and in the fields…
A place at the table for the poor in spirit and mourning. A place at the table for the meek and merciful. A place at the table for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who hunger and thirst. A place at the table for the pure in heart and the peacemakers. A place at the table for the persecuted. When that happens, you are not left with a table – at least the table we’ve created.
And this Jesus – well, he likes to talk about God’s love for everyone, and it sounds wonderful, and people need to feel good about themselves. People need a pick-me-up every now and then. But daring to actually living out that love – well, that’s what gets you into trouble. It leads to outrageous things like forgiving people of their sins and creating a place for them at the table, where all people are treasured and valued as children of God. Can you imagine! All hierarchy and order – gone! All sense of status and prestige – no more! And in it’s place, only grace – a beautiful but scandalous proposition where one’s identity and worth are not determined by others, but determined by the fact that you are a child of God, and nothing more.
So the choice is yours, my friend: take your place at our table, with our hierarchy and our rules, where you will be comfortable and content. Or dare to enter into the scandal of grace and make room at the table for everyone, even the ones you don’t think belong there.
Is that what you want? Is that the kind of table you desire to be part of? The choice, my friends, is always yours. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God, and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.