When Welcome is a Problem

Sermon preached at Burke UMC Lifesign contemporary service 9/24/2011
Text: Luke 7:36-50

Simon had a hospitality problem. He had invited a group of rabbis to an intimate gathering to hear this fascinating street prophet from Galilee. They had been waiting all week to pick his brain about the theological issues of their day. Some were skeptical. This Jesus character hung out with tax collectors and illiterate fishermen. But his connection with the masses was so electrifying. Simon had heard him speak before. And he really did feel like Jesus was a true prophet. Attendance had been sagging in Simon’s synagogue. He was burned out. He wanted to study the new prophet and find out his secret. He needed inspiration.

It was a very normal thing for the poor to be allowed into Simon’s banquets to beg for food. Simon took some pride in this fact. He knew there were other rabbis who drove off the poor when they crashed their dinner parties. But Simon wanted to set an example of generosity. The poor knew their place; they didn’t interrupt; they didn’t try to take a seat at the table. They waited humbly on the floor for the extra portions that were available. So at first, when the prostitute sat beside Jesus weeping, it was a touching scene, and Simon was moved with pity for her.

But then she let her hair down, which decent women never did outside of their family home. And she started touching Jesus. This was more than a problem; it was a hospitality crisis. Even a man’s wife was not supposed to touch her husband in public. But this woman was rubbing and kissing Jesus’ feet while he chatted with the guests as though nothing were wrong. What else might she do? How far would she go? The rabbis turned to glare at Simon, but what could he do? He was trapped, because Jesus was the guest of honor; it would destroy any semblance of hospitality to confront Jesus about what was going on. Simon was being humiliated for having had the mercy to let this prostitute in. Instead of being a night of stimulating conversation about the law and the prophets, this dinner would go down in infamy as the story of what Simon allowed to happen in his house. There would be a plummet in attendance at Simon’s synagogue.

“Simon, I have something to tell you,” said Jesus. I imagine it would have been pretty well impossible for Simon to hear the lesson with which Jesus completed Simon’s public humiliation. It’s easy for us to be pile-on haters and say, “Yeah, Simon, why didn’t you give Jesus a water bowl for his feet? Why didn’t you kiss him when he came in the door?” It’s easy for us to dismiss the legitimacy of Simon’s point of view because he was a Pharisee and Pharisees were the “bad guys.” But it was the ultimate insult for Jesus to say that this woman, who by all the social conventions of that day had plainly exploited Simon’s hospitality, was herself more hospitable than Simon, who had allowed her into his home. How many of you would feel uncomfortable if a pastor were eating dinner at your house and some woman you didn’t know came in and started kissing his feet while he was talking to you? And how would you feel if this same pastor read your mind and called you out publicly, naming your private discomfort as a lack of hospitality after you had worked so hard to make your guest feel welcome?

But what if we tell this story from the perspective of the woman instead? She hadn’t come that night to debate theology. She didn’t belong to the circle of people who mattered. She was ignorant of the subtleties of polite society: the manners, the hors d’oeuvres, the self-deprecating banter, the exhausting attention to detail and feigned effortlessness in doing so which all together are what we think the word hospitality means. All this woman had were her tears and her hair and her alabaster jar of ointment. And so she proceeded in a completely socially inappropriate way to try to make Jesus feel welcome the best that she knew how. And the only way that Jesus could accept her welcome was to repudiate every scornful glance that had been cast her away.

You can never make everyone comfortable. People who mind their manners are not going to be comfortable eating with others who belch and chew with their mouths open. Either you have a party that’s comfortable for people with refined social sensibilities by shutting out everything that would cause them anxiety or you sacrifice their comfort for the sake of those who do things that make other people wince. My aunt and uncle used to go to a megachurch in Ohio which had signs on every door telling parents of small children to leave them in the nursery for the comfort of other worshippers. This past Easter, the Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina removed a 12 year old special needs boy from worship for making a sound that was incompatible with Elevation’s “goal… to offer a distraction-free environment for all our guests.” A dinner party where the keynote speaker is having his feet kissed by a prostitute is hardly distraction-free.

The way that Jesus responds to Simon makes it clear that he would rather have a dinner party that makes unwelcome people feel at home even if they do things that scandalize everybody else. But Jesus makes an even more radical claim in his response to Simon. We are not simply to tolerate people who create hospitality problems at our parties. We are to learn from them how to be good hosts. What?! This is the strange claim that Jesus makes by calling the prostitute’s hospitality superior. In receiving her kisses without flinching or criticizing her, Jesus models for us how to grant others dignity by letting them welcome us.

God grants us a deeper experience of His welcome when we validate and treasure raw and socially awkward gestures of love from people who don’t know the rules. It’s not that our rules are inherently bad. Most sensibilities of social etiquette have their origin in a genuine concern for hospitality. I bathe and put on deodorant so that my odor will not get in the way of others receiving God’s love from me. I try not to tell jokes that are unbecoming of a pastor, at least not from the pulpit, because I don’t want to harm anyone’s discipleship. But what happens if people come to our church who smell funny or say weird things? Do we let them into our circle?

We must if we want to meet Christ. He told us we would find him in the company of those whom society has rejected. In every social interaction we have as Christians, there are two basic tasks: to see Christ in others and to be Christ to others. We are not just called to share God’s love with other people but to receive it from them also. If we are only willing to give but not to receive, then we are not really giving out of love for anything but our own power and there is no Christ in that. Jesus’ perfect hospitality allowed Him to receive love even from a prostitute in a completely socially inappropriate way which became part of the scandalous chain of incidents that would result in His crucifixion. Jesus’ willingness to cause scandal after scandal is what opens up His circle to us. Every single one of us is a hospitality problem whether it’s because we look down our noses at others or because we behave like barbarians. But God loves all of us anyway and He has given each of us a unique gift to bring to the table of our fellowship together. Let us welcome and receive each other’s welcome so that we might become the body of Christ together.

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