Jesus eats with people with dirty hands
Rev. Marissa Galván-Valle
This Is The Way We Wash Our Hands
If you asked anybody what the cardinal rule of table manners for children is, they would probably answer with: “Wash hands before coming to the table.” As someone that works with children’s curriculum, I’m very aware of the ways that we try to instruct our kids about good hygiene. For example, we take a tune like “Mulberry Bush,” and we write new lyrics so that we can get the message across:
This is the way we wash our hands
wash our hands
wash our hands
this is the way we wash our hands
before we eat our food.
But it is interesting to think about hand washing in multiple ways. In terms of health, it is important to wash our hands as we have learned very practically during the pandemic. In terms of culture, our society has found interesting ways of excluding the hands from the art of eating: we use forks, spoons, and knives so that we hardly ever touch our food. Some other cultures use chopsticks. But… if you go to countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India and eating with their hands is the norm. Some people think that food tastes better when they eat it with their hands!
At the same time hand washing, which is so normal here, can be seen as a luxury in some places where access to clean water is not the norm… all these to say that there are challenges and interruptions to the “norm” of washing our hands before eating and that flexibility is needed in certain situations.
Chapter 3 from Meeting Jesus at the Table is called “Dinner Interrupted.” The reason for this is that the author sees several interruptions in the natural flow of the dinner described in Luke. “One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him” and Jesus accepts the invitation. This is one of those invitations that might make anyone nervous. You are being invited to a dinner at the house of a high-ranking leader of the community. Manners must be top notched. Rule following must be remembered since this is a three-course dinner. And maybe… just maybe… Jesus wants to be in his best behavior to reach this crowd with God’s message.
So Jesus reclined to dine… probably noticing that he was, as the book states “less a guest of honor and more the evening’s entertainment”. He might have thought this because, as he mentions to his guest, Simon the Pharisee, he is not given water for his feet, was not given a proper welcome, and no one anointed his head with oil. Steven Kraftchick mentions this in his commentary on this passage: “Nothing suggests that Simon acted incorrectly, but his actions are more about perfunctory etiquette than honoring Jesus. Jesus is a guest—just not a welcome one.” 1
And then, the dinner is interrupted by a woman who is part of the folks that follow Jesus around. Having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of ointment with her. It is possible that she stands behind the reclining Jesus and wanting not to be more intrusive, she plans to anoint his feet because those are closer than Jesus’ head.
I think we all know the feelings that come when something unexpected happens that interrupts the normal proceedings or the plans that we might have make. I still remember the mouse that went from one place to another that one time that I was preaching at church. I also remember dogs, unexpected fallen things, and unexpected guests. Interruptions hit us with different degrees of amusement and bother, making us smile, laugh, or feel extremely uncomfortable. They can also bring judgement and calls for reaction: “Do something! This is not the way things were supposed to go!”
This is certainly Simon’s reaction. In Spanish we have a saying “se le cayó la cara de verguenza” his face fell off from shame…. But he goes pretty quickly from shame to being judgmental “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
We don’t know the woman’s sin. The Bible does not go into detail. But what we know is that the woman “stands behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair, kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” We know that she acts with “with deep humility and graciousness, reflecting her gratitude. She transcended etiquette and expressed true hospitality.” 2
The interruptions that the author mentions in the book are multiple:
The interruption of the dinner party itself.
The interruption of Jesus’ plans. It is possible that he had some things to say to this people and she interrupts him, possibly exposing him to their judgement and to the corroboration of their assumptions that he is a radical teacher that eats with sinners.
The interruption of the woman’s plans… that possibly was not planning oh breaking down and crying so hard that she could wash Jesus’ feet.
Jesus’ Teachable Moments
Jesus, being the teacher that he is, decides to make this random interruption into a teachable moment, not for the woman, but for the pharisee that has invited him to his house.
I love the way that Steve Thomason illustrates this passage. Jesus says: “A certain moneylender had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon must give the obvious answer: “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt” And then Jesus gives the obvious answer. The woman’s sins, which were many, have been forgiven. Hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is given, loves little.
This is a challenge to the way that Simon understands God’s grace. Grace is not based on table etiquette. It is not based on power or position. It is not based on our good acts. Our good acts are a consequence of God’s grace and forgiveness. Love is the obvious answer for the grace that we have received. And Jesus does not care about having the recognition of those who don’t understand such things. He eats with sinners. He eats with those that have “dirty hands.” And he recognizes their love and forgives their sins.
And maybe, just maybe, we need to seek out those teachable moments in our own lives, where we can instruct our children and continue learning that God’s grace is a love that we can’t hardly imagine, and that our extravagant, beautiful, and unconditional response to that grace is to love back.
So, let’s see if we can write a song about that with the same tune:
Jesus forgives and gives us love
Gives us love
Gives us love
Jesus forgives and gives us love
that is the grace of God.
1 Steven J. Kraftchick, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 7:36–8:3,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 143.
2 Steven J. Kraftchick, “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 7:36–8:3,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 143.