June 27, 2021
*The podcast is available here.
We’re finishing up our series on extending the table. I was going to say that the meal we read about this morning is the most awkward of all the meal stories we’ve looked at. But when I started to list the meals, I realized that they are actually all pretty awkward:
–Abraham promising water and bread only to bring out a feast; and then Sara laughing at the guests.
–The Israelites feeding the befuddled Arameans when they really want to kill them.
–Then there is the awkwardness of the Last Supper—both the original last supper where Jesus announces that someone at the table will betray him and the specific practice of observing the Lord’s Supper that Paul is addressing in Corinth where the rich people are feasting while others are starving.
–And it must have been pretty awkward for Peter to show up dripping wet for breakfast with Jesus after he had denied Jesus in his hour of need.
Maybe one of the messages here is that expanding the table requires us to tolerate a certain level of awkwardness.
Today’s scripture definitely fits the pattern. I expect the meal was already a bit awkward because they are at the house of Simon the leper. Most people assume that this Simon is someone Jesus has cured of leprosy—so not still actively a leper—but that disease is still an identifier for Simon. It marks him as someone with whom others should not associate.
And yet there sits Jesus. Along with a vague group of other men who may not have been too thrilled to recline and eat with Simon the leper, but Jesus was there, so . . .
In the midst of this already questionable assembly of men enters a woman. The men complain about her “wasting” the ointment on Jesus, but the truth is that no matter what the woman had done, the men would likely have found something to complain about because she wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.
In thinking about what this particular awkward meal might have to say to us about expanding the table, I realized that where we situate ourselves in the story makes a big difference in how we understand it.
If we’re Simon the leper, this story is an invitation to claim our new identity in Christ. To take our place at the table—even as host—even when others might view us as unworthy. I imagine that Simon must have had a deep relationship with Jesus to host him at such a stressful time, as Jesus nears his crucifixion. Because Simon is confident of Jesus’ love for him, he seems able to set aside his outsider label of “leper”—even if others cannot.
If we are feeling dejected about the dinner invitations that never come, about the tables that just don’t seem quite big enough to include us, perhaps Simon can be an encouragement to expand our own table and throw a feast. This story is a reminder that even if no one else comes, Jesus will show up.
If we’re Jesus—I mean, of course we’re not Jesus, but if we consider this text from a perspective of “what would Jesus do”—maybe the message is to say “yes” to what is offered and embrace the awkwardness that might come with that. Jesus accepted Simon’s dinner invitation, even if the disciples were grumbling about eating with a leper. He received the anointing from the woman with gratitude, even though we can probably all agree that an entire jar of oil poured over one’s head is a bit much—no matter how costly.
As Carol mentioned in sharing last week, the expanded table is an unpredictable place. Whether it’s a soaking wet disciple or an ointment-bearing woman, you never quite know who might show up and what they might bring. When the unexpected and awkward happens, we can leave the table, we can try to enforce the “rules” of the table, or we can see what gifts God might be offering in that strange moment. We can let the oil—the whole smelly jar of it—pour over us and be grateful.
If we are one of the scolding guests, this story is a not-so-gentle reminder to check our judgments.
It’s great if those guests are really concerned about the poor. Jesus is also concerned about the poor. In fact, when Jesus tells the guests, “you will always have the poor with you,” he’s quoting Deuteronomy 15. “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your siblings and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
I wonder, though, if “the poor” are really the primary concern for the grumbling dinner guests. Their reaction to the woman seems pretty extreme. They are speaking to one another “in anger,” and the Greek word translated as “scold” means “to snort in anger.” So there’s probably more going on here than concern for the poor. Like maybe fear for what awaits Jesus—and his friends—in Jerusalem. Like anxiety about how comfortable Jesus is with women showing up where women shouldn’t be and what that might mean for how the world will work moving forward. Like embarrassment that they had not thought to honor their teacher in such a way.
If we ever find ourselves ready to scold, it’s worth considering what might be behind—and underneath and around—our leap to judgment.
Even if we give the scolding guests the benefit of a very big doubt and believe that their scolding does, in fact, stem from true concern for the poor, Jesus’ rebuke still provides a good lesson. There are many ways to serve God, many ways to care for the poor, many ways to use our resources faithfully.
When we were working with the Jail No campaign, one of the most frequent scoldings we got was that we were trying to help people in the wrong way. “You should be in Topeka working on state policy,” they said. “You should be going into the jail to offer ministry and classes,” they said. It’s tempting, I know, to scold people who are addressing problems in a different way than you are. Because if you scold them, you can escape feeling guilty about not doing what they are doing.
Jesus doesn’t let them—or us—get away with this “ranking” of goodness and shaming of people who do good in less conventional (and less comfortable) ways.
And finally, if we are the unnamed woman, this story is a bold encouragement to enter whatever spaces we are called to and offer whatever gifts we have to give. It is an invitation to take our place at the table, even if others complain that we do not belong there.
Thankfully, we have some good examples to follow in this holy work of party crashing. I want to give a shout out this morning to three groups of people who have come to the church with lavish gifts despite not being invited, and despite being treated poorly when they got there. The ointment-bearers of our day.
First, people with disabilities. Of course the church hasn’t said such people are not welcome, but historically, many of our physical spaces are not easily accessible for people with limited mobility. And much of the way we communicate is not inclusive of people with visual and/or auditory limitations. And so many of our worship services and classes and meetings do not comfortably make space for people who are not neurotypical.
And yet, these people who are tacitly excluded from so much of church life have continued to participate in and bless the church as best they can. They, along with allies, continue to challenge the church to do better. In fact, Mennonite Church USA delegates will vote at some point—probably May of next year—on the “MC USA Accessibility Resolution.” The Anabaptist Disabilities Network and Mennonite Health Services brought forward this resolution, which aims to help all members “recognize and seek to remove barriers to belonging for people who have disabilities.” The resolution asks congregations to increase their accessibility and offers to provide resources and support for these efforts.
Second, women in ministry. I guess you could say that the woman in today’s scripture reading was a woman in ministry—ministering to Jesus. And the scolding of such women has continued on through the ages. This could easily be an entire sermon in itself, but for now I just want to register my deep gratitude for the women before me who claimed their place in the pulpit when so many people told them they shouldn’t be there. And to offer my strong affirmation and prayers for the women in ministry today who still face opposition as they carry out their calling from God. These women could simply abandon the church, and instead they work in faith to make it better.
And finally, a shout out to LGBTQ Christians who have insisted on their rightful place at the table. It is one of the great honors of my ministry to work with people who love God so much, whose faith in Jesus is so strong, that they give extravagantly of themselves to a church that treats them like nothing but a problem. I have deep love, understanding, and compassion for those who have grown weary of the scoldings and moved on. I am in awe of those still in the church, offering their gifts, pouring out their oil.
I think the only way we can possibly follow in this woman’s footsteps–the only way we can have the courage to enter spaces where we aren’t wanted and to offer extravagant gifts—is by focusing so much on Jesus’ words of blessing that the scolding diners become just a gentle background noise.
Because in the end, we aren’t coming to the table for those others who have gathered. We aren’t even coming to the table for ourselves. We are coming to the table because God has extended it and Jesus has invited us. Each and every one.
Thanks be to God.