Summary: While reading this story we are all focused on what the woman does. It is Simon however on whom I would like to put the spotlight: the reality is that we are like the Pharisee, and not like the woman!
Simon, the Self-righteous Pharisee
- sermon on Luke 7: 36-50 -
The sinful woman. That is the name the translators of our translation gave to this paragraph in Luke’s gospel. Another title would have been more appropriate however. Maybe something like ‘Simon, the proud Pharisee.’ For the deepest meaning of the story is not the anointing by the sinful woman, but the forgiveness that the Pharisee would need so badly. The conduct of the woman is indeed tremendously impressive and gripping, but the strongest appeal is made to the lack of faith and skepticism on the part of Simon the Pharisee. When we read this story, we are all focused on what the woman does, more or less the star in the story. Tonight however, I would like to put the spotlight on Simon, who seems to carry out only the supporting role.
What is the situation? Jesus has been invited to have dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Luke does not tell us why Simon has extended this invitation. But commentators have suggested three possible reasons.
First, some say that Simon invited Jesus because he was very humble and sincere; that he wanted to know more about Jesus, and longed for a change in his own life. He was not like the other Pharisees, but he was an exception among them. Just like Nicodemus, he had respect for Jesus and wanted to learn from him. There is no valid ground for this assumption, in the text however. Simon was not a Nicodemus, who came silently in the night to Jesus with some honest questions. In this paragraph we meet in Simon rather a skeptical Pharisee, and certainly not a beginning follower of Jesus.
Some other scholars have defended the opposite side of this debate. Instead of being honest and sincere, Simon would rather have had bad intentions with this dinner. They suggest that he might have been looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, just as other Pharisees had done before (Luke 6:7). The dinner was meant as a trap, so that Jesus would contradict one of the laws, and he could be brought before the Sanhedrin. According to my personal conviction, this seems somewhat unlikely, because the place and time of this dinner are not indicated in the text. Controversies with Pharisees usually took place on the Sabbath, because on that day, it was easier for them to catch someone doing something wrong. Sabbath was hunting day for Pharisees.
The third reason that has been put forward, and the one that seems most likely to me, is a middle position between the two theories. Instead of having either having much respect for Jesus or having very bad intentions with the diinner, Simon was simply curious. Probably he had heard that many people were calling Jesus a great prophet, and that he was performing great miracles. He may have invited Jesus to see whether there was any substance to the fame the so-called prophet was acquiring.
Whatever might have been the deepest motive behind Simon’s invitation, Jesus accepted it and enters the Pharisee’s house. This is not as strange as it might seem. Even though Jesus had numerous conflicts and controversies with Pharisees, we shouldn’t view the situation as, "Jesus having dinner with the enemy," since there was still a considerable area of agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus lived as a loyal Jew and accepted the authority of the Torah. He was a Jewish rabbi himself, who taught in synagogues and had many friendly contacts with Pharisees. In Luke 13:31, it is recorded that some Pharisees came to Jesus to warn him that the soldiers of Herod were coming to kill him. And in Matthew 23:1-2, Jesus says to the crowds and to his disciples, “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.”
Precisely because there was much in common between Jesus and the Pharisees, their disagreements stand out boldly. One of them is the issue of the attitude towards sinners. The Pharisees attitude was well defined: a pious Jew must keep apart from those who neglected the law, who were not ceremonially clean, and who didn’t pay the religious taxes. They tried to achieve some kind of physical separation from the ones they considered as sinners. In contrast, Jesus was often in the homes of sinners and tax collectors. He didn’t separate himself from them, but he mingled with them instead! He even saw it as his main mission on earth; "for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Just like he said, “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus associated with sinners in order that they might be converted and saved.