Whose Side Does Jesus Take?

October 13th, 2011
Image © Wonderlane, 1885 etching | Used under Creative Commons license.

I have a problem that perhaps you can relate to. I’m very good at taking sides according to the lines that the world draws for me rather than taking Jesus’ side. Right now, we are living in the midst of a struggle for Christian identity at least in the self-important Christian blogosphere between those who might be called "Teavangelicals" and “social justice Christians." It’s the latest configuration of the century-old debate between the social gospel and fundamentalism in American Christianity (there really was a time before this was how Christians understood their "left" and "right"). Both sides define themselves in reaction to each other and put together combinations of Bible verses and logic that support their ideology and trash the other side’s. Jesus did take sides, sometimes very strongly so, but absolutely not according to our terms. He consistently opposed the proud and gave grace to the humble. Two important examples can be found in the stories of how Jesus came to the defense of women who violated social taboos in order to express their love for Him.

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus was eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon with a bunch of religious leaders. The Bible says that while he was eating, a woman of sin came in and started anointing his feet with oil, then caressing and kissing them. If this sounds like a very uncomfortably erotic public scene for a religious leader to be involved in, that’s because it was! It’s always incredible to me in reading this story that this woman was allowed to enter Simon’s home uninvited in the middle of dinner, but apparently first-century Palestinian society did not have the same boundaries of private and public that we take for granted. When Simon observes what’s going on, he’s appropriately scandalized. He doesn’t say anything aloud, but merely thinks to himself that Jesus has no business allowing a woman of sin to fondle His feet in a gathering of religious leaders. I can’t imagine how I could have avoided having the same thought as Simon.

What Jesus says to Simon is incredibly harsh. He responds to Simon’s silent judgment with a public ridicule of Simon by criticizing his hospitality at a banquet that he’s hosting. Nothing could be more humiliating in a shame-based culture where hospitality was one of the highest virtues. It was not a reasonable first-century cultural expectation for the master of the house, the host of a banquet to wash guests’ feet (v. 44), give them a kiss (v. 45), or anoint their heads with oil (v. 46). Jesus’ critique of Simon has nothing to do with his legitimate shortcomings as a host; it is a vigorous defense of the sinful woman’s dignity at Simon’s expense. Despite the fact that her behavior was completely socially inappropriate and would be in our time as well, she did what she did out of a genuine love for Jesus. Jesus took her side ferociously against the person who judged her in a situation in which it would be exceptionally hard not to judge her.

A very similar circumstance takes place in Matthew 26:6-13. Jesus is eating in the home of another guy named Simon. This time a woman breaks a very expensive jar of perfume and dumps it on Jesus’ head. How many times have you taken a bottle of cologne, unscrewed the sprayer from it, and dumped the whole thing on your head? Jesus and everyone within ten feet of him must have gone through a coughing spell immediately after the woman did this. If I had been there, it would have been pretty hard not to say, “What in the world?!” to the woman who had done this, especially if she were someone in our community for whom this kind of cluelessness was a common disaster.

The fact that Jesus sticks up for the woman doesn’t mean that what she did wasn’t recklessly extravagant and socially inappropriate. Imagine how strong the smell would have been if she had poured a potent enough dose of perfume to counteract the smell of rotting flesh, which is what it means to “prepare [a body] for burial” (v. 12). We should not see the woman as possessing some kind of supernatural clairvoyance about Jesus’ fate. Jesus’ response simply gives dignity to her clumsy but genuine act of love. When Jesus tells His disciples, “The poor will always be with you” (v. 11), He is simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of their concern for the poor and repudiating their criticism of the woman’s lack of frugality. Even though it’s right to take care of the poor, if it turns you into a self-righteous scoffer who lays into other people for spending their money in ways that you question of a genuine desire to honor God, then you’re not on Jesus’ side.

Both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 say that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Jesus’ defense of the women in these two stories illustrates this principle as do numerous other examples throughout the gospels. Jesus will always stick up for the humble against the judgment of the proud when they do things that are clumsy, naïve, or inappropriate out of love for Him. The Old Testament proverb which both James and Peter are citing uses a slightly different wording that is an appropriate rebuke to Christian bloggers on all sides of the various blogosphere debates today: “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34).

In today’s age of sarcasm, proud mocking is the default form of conversation especially in the blogosphere. It’s so easy to think we’re being prophets when all we are is proud mockers. Here’s the difference: proud mockers find all the hypocrisy in other people’s behavior and judge them mercilessly for it; prophets take the side of Jesus, which should mean defending those who are being mocked even if they’ve done something worth mocking. We need to examine our tones and change our attitudes if we’re going to represent Christ with our words. We have to be better than proud mockers who entertain themselves with the gotcha games and deconstructions that are so popular in worldly discourse. There’s too much at stake. Jesus needs prophets who are on His side.

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