What happens when you invite Jesus to come under your roof? The answer is, not always what you might expect. That, at least, was the experience of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to eat with him.
I want to talk about that encounter in a moment, but first let me begin by observing that throughout most of his earthly ministry Jesus had no home to speak of, which partly explains why there are so many stories of him in the homes of other people. “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) It’s easy for us to forget that Jesus had to rely on the hospitality of others for basic things like food and shelter. What better way for the faithful to give as well as to receive? God’s coming among us was to be a two-way street: while Jesus taught and healed he needed hospitality and wherever he stayed he was usually, but not always, an honored guest.
Inviting Jesus to come under your roof was no guarantee of a quiet and peaceful evening. At the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus at Bethany, Jesus argued with Judas about money. In another home where Jesus stayed, the roof of the home literally came off, so that a paralysed man could be lowered into the same room as Jesus. In today’s gospel, Jesus dines with a Pharisee, and in the course of the meal conveys some uncomfortable home truths to his host.
Exercising hospitality is one of the ways we please God. Remember how the Lord appeared mysteriously as three men to Abraham and Sarah in the desert, and how Abraham gave them water, washed their feet and gave them shade under the oaks of Mamre? Sarah baked them some bread, and Abraham ordered a calf, “tender and good”, to be cooked and served to the strangers. Abraham was unstinting in his hospitality to the Lord. Remember too what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews states: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
Showing hospitality is, or at least should be, integral to our lives as people of God. And like all things that matter, it is important that we get it right. I don’t think the Pharisee in today’s gospel got it right - he got part of it right, but left out some essential aspects of hospitality which exposed him to God’s anger, as expressed through Jesus. Let’s revisit the scene once more.
A Pharisee has asked Jesus to eat with him. There are few instances recorded in the gospels of Jesus eating with Pharisees. At a banquet such as the one to which Jesus is invited the guests left their sandals at the door and reclined on low couches with their feet behind them. We can assume that the Pharisee who invited Jesus respected Jesus to some degree and indeed at one point he refers to Jesus as “Teacher” or Rabbi. Nothing seems amiss until a third party - a woman whom the Pharisee describes as a “sinner” - enters the room. In ancient homes there was more public access than in modern ones, so the woman could simply have wandered in from outside. When she comes into the room she brings an unexpected emotional charge, for as soon as she sees Jesus, even before she utters a word or does anything, she is in tears.
Her tears remind me of a midday Mass I attended many years ago at St Peter’s, Eaton Square in London. There were no more than five people in the congregation. One man, whom I had not seen at Mass before, approached the altar at the giving of communion with tears in his eyes. As he held out his hand to receive the sacrament, his tears flowed ever more freely. Instead of saying “Amen” he said “Thank you” - I doubt I have ever heard those two words said with such gratitude or feeling. Because of him, I began to cry as well. Jesus was present under our roof and our emotions and feelings were being stirred at a deep level.
The woman in Jesus’ story has her sins forgiven: a generous act because her sins were many. Jesus tells her, “your faith has saved you.” It is important to note here that it was her faith, not her love, that saved her. Her love flows towards the man who does not condemn her, but who sees her faith and trust in God. And how beautifully she expresses that love, by kneeling down and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair, and then anointing his feet with ointment.
Contrast her action to what the Pharisee does, or doesn’t do. Although he has provided Jesus with a meal, in other ways he is less than generous. Jesus judges him next to the woman, whom the Pharisee regarded as unclean; yet by Jesus’ reckoning it is the woman who is justified while it is the Pharisee who has fallen short. Jesus tells him:
“I entered your house [and] you gave me no water for my feet...You gave me no kiss...You did not anoint my head with oil.”
By contrast, Jesus says to the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Yet God’s peace was not reserved solely for the woman - it was available to the Pharisee as well, but his half-hearted attempt at hospitality has denied him access to that peace. We can guess what was going through his mind; perhaps he was afraid of what the other Pharisees might think, by inviting this radical preacher and teacher into his house. He receives Jesus with formal politeness but no great warmth, refusing the small gestures of hospitality which make all the difference between a proper welcome and a perfunctory one. In effect he wishes to assert some misguided sense of superiority over his guest, but it only exposes him as a poor host, caring more about himself and about what others may think of him. It is the Pharisee, the so-called man of God, who is revealed to be deficient in the spirit of God. The woman, despite or perhaps because of her sinfulness, throws herself on the mercy of God who forgives her her sin.
This is a story about the risks you take in inviting Jesus to come under your roof. At some point in our faith journeys, we must all make this invitation. “Jesus, I want you to come into my life.” But what would happen if he did? That’s impossible to predict, and so it is a risky venture. Do you have a list of demands ready for him? My advice would be to tear them up and throw them away. Jesus knows what you need better than you know yourself. Do you wonder that Jesus would be interested in someone as unimportant as you? Jesus always honors and responds to those who call upon him.
When Jesus comes into your life there is every possibility of your life changing. If nothing changes, then your welcome is not whole hearted enough, as the Pharisee learned the hard way. Be wholehearted in your invitation, and trust God to do the right thing for you. If evidence were needed of the power of Jesus to change lives, we see it in the example of the woman whose gratitude overflowed in tears of love in response to God’s mercy. And for good measure, at the end of our reading, there is a roll call of women whose lives were cured by Jesus, and who in turn gave their lives and resources to support the mission of the church.
So practice the hospitality of a true believer. Invite Jesus in, treat him as an honored guest, and ask him for nothing more than mercy. For we are all sinners, and all have need of his healing and forgiving love.
Preached by Father David Beresford
12 June 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia