More on Labels

As Soren Kierkegaard said “Once you label me, you negate me”.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 

Luke depicts in a wonderfully artistic way how Jesus challenges all of our labels and categories we like to place other people, and ourselves, into.  This scene is very dramatic.  The scene, as set, probably about has ten to twenty people reclining around the table, but it focuses on three principal characters – Jesus, a Pharisee, and a prostitute.

The drama begins when a member of the Jewish pressure group,  the Pharisees,  invites Jesus to attend a banquet at his home.  It appears that it’s a kind of symposium, a meal followed by reflective discourse.  The idea being that all would enjoy a nice meal followed by serious conversation.  Maybe of a very serious philosophical or theological kind.  It looks like this is what Simon has in mind.  It appears he’s trying to figure Jesus out.  He hasn’t got him classified yet.  He knows he’s a controversial figure, and some say he’s a prophet.   But is he a prophet or is he not?   For this Pharisee, the jury is still out.

It appears as though this Pharisee is at least suspicious of Jesus of Nazareth, because we find out later he forgoes even customary, basic hospitality.  There were set procedures of hospitality.  When you invited a rabbi to your house, it was expected that you would provide a basin and a towel for his feet to be washed.  Perhaps a servant would do the washing for him, but at the least a basin and a towel would be provided to clean your feet.  But the Pharisee did not do this.

There was to be the customary greeting of the kiss upon the cheek, this the Pharisee did not do either.   Because you were coming into the home for a meal together, you would be offered olive oil to anoint your head with.  This also Jesus did not receive.  All three of these customary acts of hospitality were withheld by this Pharisee, as if he’s a bit suspicious of Jesus and he doesn’t want his own pressure group, the Pharisees, to get the wrong idea that he’s already endorsing Jesus when this dinner is arranged.  He really just wants to check him out, to do his own background check and due diligence, to see what this Jesus was really about.

The drama at this dinner is heightened when an uninvited guest shows up.  She is a prostitute,  a woman of the city, who was a sinner.  She has certainly not been invited by the Pharisee for dinner, but she comes anyway.   She is very emotional, weeping, sobbing.   She is at the feet of Jesus, washing his feet with her tears.  She is not under a table.  Jesus is reclining at table, but this was a very low table, symposium style, Jesus would have been leaning on a cushion with his feet slightly behind.  This woman comes in, very emotional, she positions herself at the feet of Jesus, drying his feet with her hair, which means she is letting her hair down, which was very inappropriate.   This woman, a prostitute, with her hair down, kissing the feet of Jesus repeatedly…

Think about it.  This is a prostitute, who’s come uninvited into the home of the Pharisee, letting her hair down, kissing the feet of the rabbi.  Finally, she brings out some expensive perfume which she has, and she anoints the feet she has been kissing with this very expensive perfume.

The Pharisee has noticed this (!!!!).  The Pharisee has arrived at a judgement.  He apparently wished to discern whether or not Jesus was a prophet, as some had claimed.  Now he has reached a definitive conclusion.   Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”   Notice how the Pharisee likes to sort people out, loves to categorize them, and this woman is a sinner!!  He’s judged Jesus, not a prophet, has labeled and categorized this woman, a sinner.  He has labeled everyone and has it all figured out, he’s feeling pretty good about himself.  He’s done it all in his head.  Problem is, he’s all wrong.  Jesus is a prophet.  So Jesus answers him, even though he’s said none of this out loud.  But Jesus knew his thoughts…

And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”   Notice what Luke has been doing here.  Up until now, this Pharisee has no name, he is simply “the Pharisee”.   He has no name until Jesus addresses him directly.  Jesus does not address him by his own self imposed label, does not refer to him as “Mr. Pharisee”. He calls him by his name, and his name is Simon.   Simon, I have something to say to you.   

Simon had not only labeled Jesus, not a prophet, and labeled the woman, a prostitute, he’d also labeled himself, a Pharisee.  As such, he had to live up, or down, to certain expectations.  He had to exclude certain people from his life and from his concept of grace.  Jesus wants to cut through all of that and addresses him by name.  Jesus is attempting to rescue (save) the Pharisee from the prison of his self imposed label.  It’s as if Jesus is saying I don’t want to talk to this pressure group label called Pharisee, I want to talk to Simon I want to talk to you.  Let your guard down.  You don’t have to live up to the pressure group mentality.

Because Jesus can’t save the Pharisee.  But he can save Simon.   He says to Simon – you hiding behind the mask of Pharisee.  Put that down a minute.  Let go of your label.  The human being called Simon, I have something to say to you.    And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

Jesus has something to say to Simon.  Jesus has something to say to me.  Jesus might even have something to say to you.  But Jesus wants get past our masks, the labels we throw out into the world.  The labels we put in others…and ourselves.  To Simon the Pharisee, Jesus was not a prophet, this woman was nothing but a prostitute and a sinner, and he himself was a Pharisee…which meant that he could not have anything to do with Jesus or this woman.  Because of the label he had put upon himself, Simon was restricted and prevented from the salvation which was being offered directly to him by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  He could not hear the message, was prevented receiving from the love of God because, after all, there are standards to be kept.  He was a Pharisee, after all!!   He knew his bible, he knew whom God approved and whom God did not.  He knew who to associate with and who to exclude.

And he knows that If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.   He knew so much.  Yet he did not know the love of God, the Word made Flesh, when he was reclining at his own dinner table.   His labels were keeping him from those two most important commandments as laid out by Jesus.  They kept him from loving God even as God himself reclined at table with him.  They kept him from loving his neighbor, this woman whom he could see past his judgment of her.

Who have your labels kept you from loving.  Whose love have you kept yourself from receiving by those same labels?

John Lewis

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