Although they don’t understand, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and scribes about the irrelevance of their self-imposed and self-righteous dietary rules and meal traditions in the absence of a repentant heart. The contrast is stark, when, in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6), Jesus promises blessing to those who are spiritually hungry (Luke 6:21) and woe to those who are (or think they are) well-fed now (Luke 6:25).
After this, the Jewish leaders invite Jesus to a meal on at least three occasions. At first, the welcome to Jesus is likely the kind that would have been extended to any other itinerant Jewish teacher new on the scene. The Pharisees and scribes would naturally want to hear more of what this man had to say, extending hospitality out of respect to honor the guest through table fellowship. Because of the general Hellenization of the times, it is not out of order to imagine that the meetings the Jewish leadership held were plausibly comprised of a shared meal followed by a symposium-like discussion. This was the common practice among colleagues, religious and civic groups, clubs and societies, clients and patrons, and philosophers.
So, we next see Jesus attend a meal in Luke 7:36-50 at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Jesus has just scathingly and publicly accused the Pharisees of folly for their complaints that, unlike John who abstained from bread and wine, Jesus came eating and drinking, a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34-35). So it is interesting to contemplate what seems on first blush to be an absurd scene in which a Pharisee (of all people!) has invited this Jesus (of questionable reputation for fraternizing with the unclean) to his home for dinner. In reality the welcome should be considered a natural extension of Jewish hospitality.
Jesus reclines with Simon (and, presumably, others, most likely Pharisees and/or scribes) at the table in Simon’s house. While they are eating, a woman well-known throughout the town as a prostitute stands behind Jesus at his feet, crying. Remember, uninvited guests could enter a dining room and stand behind the reclining diners at their feet. Although relatively unwelcome, out of respect for the ancient rules of hospitality unsolicited company was allowed to stay and observe. But, this woman gets involved. While Jesus is eating, she begins to cry, then for lack of anything better, wipes his tear-wetted feet with her hair. She kisses his washed feet, and pours expensive perfume on them (most likely paid for out of her sin-begotten earnings).
Simon is privately disgusted, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is- that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But Jesus knows exactly what Simon is thinking, so he raises a discussion point about debts owed a lender, trapping Simon into agreeing that the one forgiven the largest debt will most love the one who forgives. This meal scene plays out as a perfect example of the ways in which Jesus used mealtimes to accept an invitation no matter its motive, then to teach repentance, confront and forgive sin, and accept the love and sacrifice of those whose hearts are changed.
Given the expected etiquette of the day, Simon turns out to be an intentionally appalling host, and given the Pharisaic obsession with insulating oneself from the unclean, it is a wonder that he even deigns to share his table with Jesus. This is because Simon, going against every culturally-mandated rule of hospitality does not offer Jesus any water for washing. Without washing first, Jesus must eat as one unclean. Moreover, Simon does not greet Jesus with a kiss, nor does he provide any oil for anointing (all three of these are actions subsequently offered freely by the prostitute). Of course, Jesus not only notes Simon’s deliberate disrespect (no one at this meal could help but notice), he publicly calls Simon out for his rude behavior. The prostitute is forgiven, the Pharisee exposed. What an interesting meal! Jesus tells the woman to go in peace because her faith has saved her (Luke 7:50). We can only speculate what Simon was left thinking, but from this point forward, the Pharisees and teachers of the law stop badgering Jesus and begin their attempts to bait him.
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