Ministry and the Marginalized—Luke 7:36-50

Luke wrote two volumes, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. His second book, the Book of Acts emphasizes the mission to the nations—a crucial mission without which we would not have Gentile Christians today (though we might at least have Messianic Judaism). But before recounting the mission to Gentiles in Acts, Luke prepares his audience by recounting Jesus’s mission to other kinds of outsiders in his first volume, the Gospel of Luke.

If we want to be ready for mission in another location, we can start preparing by crossing cultural and other barriers closer to home.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ministers to those lacking status and power in his culture (such as the poor and non-elite women). Among those alienated from society, he reaches out to “sinners”—those marginalized by virtue of their behavior. His kingdom does not depend on human political or military power; he pursues the lowly, showing that God is not impressed with our worldly credentials. Yet Jesus not only ministers to the marginalized; he builds his new kingdom around them.

Scripture often reports that God is near the lowly but far from the proud (e.g., Matt 23:12; Luke 1:52; 14:11; 18:14; Jms 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5); he reveals himself in human weakness more than in what the world deems power (1 Cor 1:18-26; 2 Cor 12:9; 13:4). Jesus welcomes everyone, but it is those who recognize their desperate need of him who most welcome him. If we recognize our need to depend fully on God, we are blessed. If we do not, we need to spend more time among the broken and the lowly, learning from their hearts.

In Luke 7:36-50, he welcomes the controversial gift that one such marginalized person offers.

It was considered pious to invite a popular sage over for dinner, and Simon the Pharisee has invited Jesus for dinner (Luke 7:36). At banquets, guests typically reclined on large, backless couches (three or four diners per couch), their feet pointed away from the tables; sometimes outsiders might come watch. A woman of ignoble repute in the community (so 7:37) enters the house and begins washing Jesus’s feet, wiping them with her hair. Simon is offended: surely a prophet like Jesus would know this woman’s ill repute. Indeed, in his culture respectable married women (i.e., respectable adult women) covered their hair in public. Thus by wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair, as far as Simon was concerned, the woman put her sinfulness on display!

But Jesus is indeed a prophet—he knows what Simon is thinking. Jesus helps Simon to realize that those who recognize their need for forgiveness most are the most grateful to receive it. Then Jesus, though still addressing Simon, turns away from the table to finally face the woman. Washing Jesus’s feet, she has been outside the circle of couches; banqueters reclined on their left elbows and their feet pointed away from the tables (after all, who wants someone’s stinky feet in their face?)

Jesus reminds Simon that he offensively failed to provide Jesus with the most basic, expected courtesies in their culture. A host should provide a guest water for washing the feet (though a respectable host would not wash the guests’ feet himself, a more servile task). Likewise, one should give a light kiss of respect to a teacher; one might also provide oil for anointing. Simon has failed in all these courtesies expected of a host. Jesus might be a special guest, but for Simon, Jesus is not that significant, compared to Simon and his peers.

By contrast, this woman has provided Jesus all the honors that Simon failed to offer—displaying gratitude for her forgiven sins. By linking forgiveness to their treatment of himself, Jesus implies that he himself is the bearer of divine forgiveness. By honoring or dishonoring him people show their response to grace.

Meanwhile, other table guests recoil in horror from Jesus’s words: how can he forgive sins (7:49)? They do not recognize how central Jesus is to God’s plan. They do not understand his identity. And, like Simon, they are proud, more ready to judge Jesus than to learn from him. All because he welcomes sinners!

When we look down on others who received grace after we did (perhaps the incarcerated, or unwed mothers, or even someone who wronged us personally), we forget that we, too, can be saved only by grace. Of course, Jesus is not offering cheap forgiveness to those choosing to remain in sin; he forgives those who truly turn to him. Yet this woman was turning from being a “sinner” more readily than the Pharisee and most of his guests were willing to turn from sinful, religious pride. To be most ready for crossing cultural barriers in mission (the Book of Acts), we should begin crossing barriers near us, to experience and share God’s grace (his generous favor) to others around us.

That Jesus welcomes the woman’s gift—no matter what others think—reminds us of another theme in Luke-Acts: those who are initially objects of mission can become missionaries themselves. For the most part, Jesus chose as his first agents fishermen, a tax collector, and those of apparently nondescript professions rather than the more humanly obvious choices of priests or scribes. Peter, the “sinful man” (Luke 5:8); Paul the persecutor (Acts 9:13-15); and others become agents of Christ’s mission.

The Spirit empowering the apostles’ circle for mission at Pentecost (Acts 1:8) is also poured out on the Samaritans (Acts 8:17) and Gentiles (Acts 10:44-47) and all who are far off (Acts 2:38-39). Why? So all these groups can share in the apostolic mission of proclaiming Christ. Some who may begin as some sort of marginal minority within our circle of believers may be laying the foundations for future ministry. Cheryl Sanders, a pastor and professor of ethics at Howard University, has a valuable book called Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth & the Poor. Her title catches one of the themes in Luke-Acts.

God does not usually start his activity where we expect or the way we expect. He does not need our wealth, status or power, because he does not want our pride. He often starts with the lowly and the marginal (Luke 1:51-53), pouring out his Spirit and surprising us with revival, just to remind us all that the power for his work comes from him and not from ourselves.

Craig Keener is author of commentaries on Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Revelation; his IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, has sold more than half a million copies.

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