Linda and Karen were members of a certain church. And they volunteered to visit some homes in the area to see if anyone was interested in joining their congregation. So they were given a map and told to go down to Summit Drive and turn right. Now, the leader of the outreach program made it very clear—and in fact repeated the instructions to them a number of time—that they were to go down to Summit Drive and then specifically turn right.
But Linda and Karen had always been two women who were better at giving directions than receiving them (maybe you know the type). So, as it ended up, they went down to Summit Drive and then turned left, instead of right, which led them into the center of the low-income housing projects.
Later that afternoon, the various outreach teams returned to the church to report on how they did. When Linda and Karen got back, they sadly reported that they had met only one person who was interested, a woman named Marlene, who lived with her two children in a three-room apartment in the projects. Linda and Karen reported that, although Marlene had never been in a church before, she was interested in visiting theirs. As the leader wrote down Linda and Karen’s report, he kept thinking to himself about how he should have never let those two go out together. Because they’d gone out and forgotten what he had said, and had visited people in the wrong neighborhood.
Anyhow, when Sunday morning came, Linda and Karen proudly presented Marlene and her children to those who had gathered for the 11:00 service. Afterwards, Marlene said that she liked the service so well, that she was interested in attending the Women’s Thursday Morning Bible Study that she read about in the bulletin. So Linda and Karen said that they would pick her up and bring her.
On Thursday morning, then, Marlene appeared at the church, holding onto a new Bible that Linda and Karen had just bought for her. That particular day the ladies were studying the fourth chapter in Luke, where Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. So the minister leading the study asked the group, “Have any of you even been faced with temptation, and with Jesus’ help, were able to resist?”
Right away, one woman told about how, just a week before, there had been some confusion in the supermarket checkout line, and she ended up with a loaf of bread being put into her grocery bag that the clerk had not charged her for. The woman said, “At first I thought, `Why should I pay for it? After all, it’s their mistake; and they make enough money as it is.’ But then I thought, `No, I’m a Christian.’ So I went back into the store and paid them for the loaf of bread.” When the woman finished speaking, the minister smiled and made an approving comment.
Then Marlene decided to speak up. She said, “A couple of years ago, I was into cocaine really big. You know what that’s like. You know how that stuff just makes you crazy. Well, anyway, my boyfriend and I knocked over a gas station one night—got two hundred dollars out of it. So my boyfriend, he said to me, `Hey, let’s knock off that Seven-Eleven down the block.’ But something inside of me said, `No. I held up a gas station with you, but I’m not going to rob a convenience store too.’ Well, he beat the heck out of me for that, but I still said `No.’ And you know what? It felt great to say `No’, because that was like the only time in my life when I had ever said `No’ to anything. It made me feel like I was somebody.”
When Marlene finished, the minister wasn’t quite sure how to respond, but he managed to say, “Well…er…that’s resisting temptation all right. And now it’s time for our closing prayer. Let us pray…”
Following the Bible study, one of the older women came up to the minister and said, “You know what? I can’t wait to get home and get on the phone and invite people to come next Thursday, Reverend. Your Bible studies used to be so dull. But I think I can get a good crowd together for this!”[i]
The problem is that, too often, we write off the Marlenes of this world. We go just down the block and figure that the people living on the left side of the neighborhood just wouldn’t fit in with the people living on the right side. So we largely ignore them. Just sort of refuse to see them; to acknowledge their presence.
That’s what Simon did. And Jesus called him on it: “Simon, do you see this woman?” He said. Simon probably thought Jesus was nuts: “Do I see her? She waltzes into my house uninvited, proceeds to throw herself at your feet, and carry on scandalously—pouring perfume all over your feet, letting her hair down for heaven’s sake and fawning all over you—do I see her?! Who could miss her?! Everyone in town knows about her and what she’s like. Everyone apparently, that is, except for you, Jesus!”
But the thing about it was, Jesus knew exactly who and what this woman was—no doubt infinitely better than anyone else. Which was precisely the point. Jesus made it His business to take left turns in the road, and going over to the `wrong side of town’. Jesus knew that her past (recent or otherwise) put her in a position whereby she was no longer welcome by the people who might be able to help her. She was even ostracized by the church. In fact, the church had most likely been the first to shun her. The only place she felt welcome was on the street with people `just like her’. But they couldn’t help her anymore than they could help themselves. So, there was only one place left that she could turn.
In his book What’s So Amazing about Grace? Phil Yancey tells the story of a Chicago social worker who was working with prostitutes. A young woman was talking with the social worker, telling her the reasons she became involved in prostitution—the money, the lifestyle, the near-impossibility of walking away once in, the living with a permanent sense of shame and guilt. She even told the social worker about hiring out her daughter. The case worker wrote:
“I could hardly believe her sordid story…I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought about going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure naïve shock that crossed her face, `Church!’ she cried. `Why would I want to go there?! I already feel terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel even worse!’”
Phil Yancey reflects, “Women much like the prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from Him. In fact, the worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she was to see Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift?” [ii]
The truth was that, not only was Simon the Pharisee not able to truly see this woman—who she was (a precious child of God) or what she was (a forgiven sinner who had found new life in Jesus Christ)—neither was Simon able to truly see who and what he was (also a precious, albeit unrepentant, self-righteous and really hypocritical child of God).
Jesus helped him out, shall we say, with that particular `blind spot’.
Simon had invited Jesus to dine at his home. That was a very big deal back then. Dinner was typically served in an open area, clearly visible from the street, so everyone passing by and curious could see who the host was entertaining. The guests would recline near the table. During those times, it was customary for servants of the host to pour cool water over the feet of the guests as the event began. It was a social ritual that marked common courtesy.
But, you see, Simon had not bothered to do that…at least not for Jesus.
And, then, here this lowly woman, suffering whatever humiliation accompanied her as she made her way to Jesus, came in off the street, unbidden and uninvited into the Pharisee’s house, dropped to her knees before Jesus and washed His feet with the waters of her own love and gratitude; love, it’s important to note, that was—not the cause for—but the result of Jesus’ love toward her.
Then she does something really scandalous; something reserved strictly for a prophet to do at the coronation of a king: she anointed him with oil. And suddenly all roles are reversed as the lowly woman becomes a mighty prophet pointing praiseworthy toward the newly appointed King, Jesus Christ.
“Do you see it now, Simon? That her sins, though, many, are all forgiven. And that’s why she has such great love in her heart. And your sins, though many, go on ignored and unrecognized, which is why you have such little love in your heart.”
Do we have a blind spot, too, church? Like Simon?
Do we get so preoccupied with our own needs and concerns and preferences and with preserving our own self-image that we are no longer able to see those down the block who also need Jesus; who truly have nowhere else to turn? Are we so complacent with our own company and comfortable in our pews that we’re no longer able to recognize our own deep, desperate need of Jesus’ scandalous grace?
“We don’t like hearing that we are saved by grace,” said the great theologian Karl Barth. “We do not appreciate that God does not owe us anything, that we are bound to live by God’s goodness alone.”[iii]
The problem we have, I suppose, is that grace runs contrary to our customary thinking that tells us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; that everything has to be earned and paid in full for. Simon associated himself with Jesus because he thought it would somehow bolster his public image and social standing. But once Simon discovered whom Jesus would really rather hang out with, he started disassociating himself from his guest.
In Martin Luther’s words, “In Jesus Christ we discover that grace is bloodied, despised and rejected, crushed for the iniquities of, and laden with punishment for those who hide their faces from it. Never abstract or cheap, grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying, not only for those who would anoint him with precious perfume, but also for those who would stand by to hypocritically condemn, for those who know what they do and for those who don’t. Grace is God in holy action, bearing the shame of desperate women and proud Pharisees on the killing tree.”
Oh, yes. Jesus knew exactly who was who and what was what.
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, `…for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, `Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, `Surely I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, My brothers and sisters, you did it to Me.’ But to those on the left hand, he said…’” [Matthew 25:34ff].
And you know how the rest goes (if not…you should probably look it up).
As it turns out, by going left Linda and Karen made the right turn after all.
(Grateful acknowledgement to William Willimon, Phil Yancy and Karl Barth for much inspiration and some content.)
[i] Willimon, William, The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized, Eerdmans, 1884.
[ii] Yancy, Philip, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan, 1997.
[iii] Barth, Karl, Deliverance to the Captives, Harper/Collins, 1978.