Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings : When Juvenal wrote his Satires on Roman life in the 1st century, one of his targets was banqueting. As he saw them, they were far from the convivial meetings of friends and equals we know; much more an opportunity for demonstrating dependence and social stratification. He does it to make you suffer, said Juvenal. Something of this appears to be happening in our gospel, (Luke 7:36-8:3). This is one of three meals shared between Jesus and the Pharisees, and all of them show uncomfortable clashes between people with very different values. The Pharisee indeed, seems to have invited Jesus with the deliberate intention of marking out Jesus’ lower status; as we see with his fulfilling only the minimal requirements of the Jewish law but going no further. Invites such as these, as Juvenal well knew, were deliberate acts determined to foster one’s own power and class status and press home the inferiority and dependence of others. The Pharisee does not do for Jesus what he would do for an honoured guest; sending water to wash his feet; greeting him with a kiss or anointing him with olive oil. Far from it, his minimal response suggests his deliberate intention of demeaning Jesus, someone he clearly believed was getting too big for his boots.
Greco-Roman banquets; and Luke clearly intends us to see this as one such; were public events, housed in the open atria of large houses and clearly visible to the public – how else are we to account for the presence of the sinner woman, most likely a prostitute, who cleans Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair and anoints him with costly oils? We can be quite sure she wouldn’t have been an invited guest of the Pharisee! Clearly, she had followed Jesus and walked in off the street, albeit this was a premeditated action as the story makes clear by her provision of the alabaster jar of costly ointment, most likely bought with her immoral earnings. I expect that Jesus was seated a long way away from the master of the house and his chosen cronies, those whom Juvenal noted would have been offered special foods and fine wines. All the attention at such banquets should have been focussed on the host, paying him honour and bolstering his esteem. Instead here we see Jesus and this disreputable woman, down on the bottom divans, lowest of the invited; possibly even seated in a minor corridor, stealing the entire show and demonstrating to the Pharisee the falsity of his actions; showing up their worthlessness. Fulfilling the minimal demands of the law can actually be an abuse of the person and the law itself rather than being the actions of the righteous.
Here the inadequacy of the law, or rather its application, becomes all too clear. What Jesus wants is lovers; those who are really attracted to what God in him has to offer, and he is prepared to bend the rules to facilitate this woman’s needs even when she risks her own reputation, and certainly his, by her extravagant and even totally inappropriate actions. And it is in precisely this context that he reveals his real identity. “Your sins are forgiven you…..Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” All Jews knew that only God could forgive sins, so quite clearly Jesus was claiming he was divine! Clearly then this banquet was a disaster from the point of view of the Pharisee who must have been shocked rigid by the outcome of this disreputable woman’s actions and the response it evoked in Jesus.
It is rather the same with the story of David and Nathan, (2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13). Kings were understood as appointed by God in Israel and meant to be good rulers, dispensing the law as God’s representative, with compassion and fairness. Here, David, led astray by his lust, has ordered the destruction of Uriah, a good and loyal warrior in his service, in order to steal his wife. Exposed for the murderer and cheat that he was, David should have expected to be punished for this gross violation of the law and his failure in the sacred trust laid upon him. In ancient Israel, contempt for God was shown in contempt for his Law and was punished severely, as the story of the warring dynasty of David shows. It appears that the Jewish ‘law’ could be a very dangerous and bitter tool for those who misapplied it!
Paul addresses this incapacity of the Jewish law in Galatians (2:16.19-21). He recognizes that living according to the law can never really bring one close to God; it can only, as he would point out in the Letter to the Romans, highlight our faults. The whole point is that the believer has to be indwelt by Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” For Paul, this divine indwelling was to become both a joy and an obsession, the ruling power in his life; and we too need to recognise that demand in our lives. The Holy Spirit never gives itself by halves but totally and completely, and continually asks for our attention and commitment to the life of Christ. Our entire lives are about our “being conformed to the image of his likeness”. Only when we allow the real implications of the faith to penetrate and take-over our lives will we truly begin to understand what our faith in Jesus is about.