Do you like scandals? I ask only because people are scandalised all over the place in our New Testament readings today.
The unnamed woman in Luke’s story has scandalised the pharisee Simon at his dinner party—and in front of all his guests. This so-called ‘prophet’ Jesus had allowed her to behave outrageously, crying all over his feet and kissing them while anointing them with amazingly expensive perfume. Simon had never seen such a disgrace—and in his own house!
But first, let’s look at the Apostle Paul. I hope you didn’t ’tune out’ in our reading from Galatians. It’s not just dry theology—it’s a scandal! Paul speaks of ’tearing down the law’, and ’dying to the law’. He speaks of being ’crucified with Christ’. But let’s think—only law-breakers were crucified! If Paul is crucified with Christ, he has become a law-breaker in the eyes of those who were the guardians of the Law. He has become an out-law for Christ, and even an out-law with Christ.
Respectable, law-abiding people like Simon the Pharisee would have been scandalised by Paul! Simon would rather lose his right arm than ’tear down the law’ as Paul had done. We’re law-abiding people, too. What sense can we make of this scandalous talk? Let’s try.
Paul grew up to believe that the Law of Moses was the highest and best expression of God’s will that existed. Those who knew the Law and obeyed it were right with God. The Jewish people were especially blest, because they had been given the Law. It showed them how to live and who they were to be different from the people around them.
Paul was so convinced that the Law was God’s perfect revelation that he persecuted those Jews who followed Jesus as the new Messiah. It was impossible for Jesus to be the Messiah, as he was a law-breaker. He had been condemned by the ruling council of the Jews, and executed by the Romans on a cross. There was no doubt at all of his guilt.
Paul followed the Law of Moses, which was the Law of God. Anyone who followed the Law could not follow a criminal. Stories that Jesus had risen from the dead were just tales to convince the foolish and gullible.
Then, on the way to Damascus, Paul met the risen Lord Jesus. He could no longer deny it. He found that Jesus is the Messiah of God, because only God could raise him from the grave. Jesus is the true expression of God, not the Law. Obeying the Law had led Paul to persecute Jesus—but God required Paul to follow Jesus rather than obey the Law.
Paul was one to take things to their logical—even scandalous—conclusions. Jesus had died, so he was dead to the Law. Paul was now dead to the Law, so Paul had died with Jesus.
He was ’crucified with Christ’. The Greek original is even stronger than that: Paul is ’co-crucified with Christ’. He was with Christ on the cross. Paul’s relationship with Jesus meant death to everything else.
So if he is dead to the Law, is Paul free to do what he likes? No, that’s not what it means. Being dead to the Law means Paul is free to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow the way of Jesus. Jesus lived and taught the love of God for the friendless and the marginalised. And that scandalises the people who base their lives rules and laws, dos and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts, musts and mustn’ts. It scandalises them today just as much as it did 2000 years ago.
That’s what we see in today’s Gospel story.
Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to a dinner party at his place. Why did he do that? Perhaps Simon was interested in this young man who had made such a splash. Everyone was talking about him, so what better than to have a few friends around and let them see him for themselves?
There were rules about where to sit at these formal dinner parties. You may recall that Jesus tells a parable about taking the lower seat, so that you may be asked to ’Come up higher’, rather than plonking yourself in the best seat and then being shown the seat nearest the loo.
It was also customary for the host to show some courtesies to a guest, signs of hospitality. Maybe these courtesies weren’t rules, though, because Simon wasn’t hospitable to Jesus. It looks more like Simon thought he was doing this travelling teacher a favour by asking him along. It looks like Simon was treating Jesus in an off-hand way. What’s more, it really looks like Simon thought he was superior to Jesus.
Perhaps Simon really was following the rules to the letter; perhaps he was deliberately being rude to Jesus. Whatever, he felt justified.
It was an unnamed woman who showed hospitality to Jesus. Jesus’ feet were unwashed, his hair unanointed, his cheeks unkissed by Simon. She supplied the deficit. Let’s listen again to Luke’s Gospel (7.38):
She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
It was certainly an unorthodox way to welcome the Lord. Unorthodox, scandalous, but effective.
Throughout history, most biblical scholars have been male. These men have often decided, without any evidence from the text, that this woman was a prostitute. All we know about her is that Simon considered her to be a sinner.
Jesus saw her as a woman with love in her heart. A woman whose many sins were forgiven. And he saw into Simon’s hard, unyielding heart, which could neither forgive or be forgiven.
The real scandal in this story is Simon, the inhospitable, unloving, unforgiving, rule-bound pharisee.
Paul the Apostle had been scandalised by Jesus. When he found himself co-crucified with Christ, he scandalised his own people. But the real scandal here is in the background to Paul’s words.
The real scandal was than other Christian leaders—especially his fellow-Apostles, Peter and Barnabas—had stopped sharing meals with their Gentile sisters and brothers. The leaders of the Church in Jerusalem had been especially scandalised by Peter’s behaviour, and had sent people to sort Peter out.
No doubt Peter and Barnabas had thought that stopping eating with Gentiles was a pragmatic thing to do. Maybe they did it so as not to upset the conservative leaders in Jerusalem.
For Paul, it was a scandal because the were betraying the Gospel. If Gentiles are accepted by faith in Christ, then going back to the Law which said Jews shouldn’t eat with them is simply wrong. Peter was acting as though he was no longer dead to the Law, he was acting as though he was not co-crucified with Christ. He was again denying the Lord who received the ministry of the unnamed woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house.
I began today by asking if you like scandals. I really don’t think that you do, not least in the Church. But we can’t avoid scandalising someone if we have faith in Jesus Christ. He scandalised everyone who excluded other people on the basis of rules and laws, however cherished and hallowed those laws were. His behaviour took him to the cross. To have faith in him is to put compassion and love and grace and mercy before every law. To have faith in Jesus means to be co-crucified with him.
When I look at the readings for today, I feel that I stand in great need of God’s grace. I’m more like Peter than Paul, I’d rather not cause an upset. I’d have gone away and eaten with Peter and Barnabas. I’m more like Simon than Jesus, I look down on those who are ‘obvious’ sinners. I need to examine myself, to see what it means for me to be co-crucified with Christ. I invite you to join me.