DPC 2021-22 Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living

Welcome All – Challenge Othering

Luke 7:36-50

October 24, 2021



Our Biblical Practices for Faithful Living theme for today is Challenging Othering. To “Other” is the verbal process of setting up another person or group of people as different, separate, inferior.  All it takes is one word or perhaps two to set up lasting barriers between two human beings. 

In high school, labels quickly get assigned, like band geek or Boy Scout or dumb jock.  The labels may change over the years, but the spirit of the labeling persists.  Labels describe and separate students into definable boxes. In college, where fraternities and sororities compete against each other, all one has to do was to label some guy or girl a typical “you name the fraternity or sorority”, and that provides all the description one needs to define and separate someone.

In the military, labels were assigned very intentionally in order to dehumanize an enemy combatent, to make it easier for some wide-eyed 18 year old to pull a trigger and kill a human being.  Such labeling, such defining, such othering, contradicts the spirit of Jesus Christ and the practice of Christian hospitality.

When we ‘other’ someone, we do the opposite of welcoming that person in the name of Jesus Christ. In our text for today, Simon, a Pharisee, labels a woman from the city ‘a sinner.’ Clearly, there were then, as there are today, groups of people with whom a Pharisee did not associate. Clearly, there was then, as this is today, “us” and “them”.

It seems that one of the reasons Simon invited Jesus to dinner was to determine if this rabbi – who had many followers and who was gaining much influence – was an “us” or a “them”. 

Hear the Word of God from Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘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.’

Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.‘ A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ 

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have you heard of the new television show called Ted Lasso?  Numerous people have told me that I would really enjoy it. I have not yet viewed it, but I aware that the setup of the show is preposterous.  A Division II college football coach from the Midwest somehow ends up coaching an English Premier League soccer team. This would be like some lower division soccer coach from England being hired to coach an SEC football team – preposterous.

From what I have heard, the show does a terrific job of intentionally poking holes in many of the various assumptions that we tend to make about each other as human beings. I have watched a clip of a truly masterful scene from the Ted Lasso show.  The scene circles around a game of darts in an English pub.   Ironically, a quote at the center of the scene is falsely attributed to Walt Whitman, just as one of the main characters, Rupert, falsely attributes certain qualities to Ted Lasso. 

In short, after making a significant bet on a game of darts with a character named Rupert, Lasso says, “You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote from Walt Whitman painted on the wall that said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” 

I like that, said Lasso. So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. And they judged everyone.

And I realized their underestimating me, who I was had nothing to do with it, because if they were curious, they would have asked questions, you know, questions like, “Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?” Which I would have answered yes sir, every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to16 when he passed away.”

I won’t spoil the scene for you other than to say that Ted goes on to spoil Rupert’s judgmental attitude. Rupert held that certain attitude that is far too easy to adopt:  Oh, he’s just a “fill in the blank.” Or, she’s just a “fill in the blank.”

We have all done it. We have all participated in othering someone. Most often, our tendency to other someone has something to do with our own insecurities or fears. The problem is that no human being is “just” anything. Everyone is a child of God, made in God’s image.

We are all flawed, complex, vulnerable, powerful creatures who are not easily button-holed into one category. You may have heard someone say recently – He’s just a homeless bum. What I have discovered in my conversations with those who sit on our benches outside is that someone regarded as a “homeless bum” just might be a former college professor. Or just may have been a decorated war veteran of several military tours. Or just might be someone who was abused from the day they were born.

The homeless woman you see pushing a grocery cart might have been a practicing psychotherapist just a few years prior, or she might be someone trapped in complicate grief after losing everyone and everything that she held dear. 

Be curious, not judgmental.

One of the gentlemen who was in his 60’s and was formerly living on our church property may have had some mental health issues, but he certainly had a big heart. When I learned about his military service and asked him why he was sleeping on an outdoor bench when he had a military pension, his answer surprised me. “I visited an orphanage in Kenya during my time in service,” he said, and I was shocked by their living conditions and their need for food. I decided that those orphans need money far more than I do, so I send the majority of my pension check every month to the orphanage.”

Another gentleman who stayed nearby for a while had a different reason to be on the streets. He was a former truck driver, but began to have epileptic seizures. He ultimately received disability payments since he was unable to continue his career,  but the payments were only about $1500 per month, which was not enough to sustain him year round. With no family to turn to, he would live outdoors during the warm months, saving his money, then find a cheap apartment when the weather became cool and stay there through the winter. These two men are not “just” homeless, nor are they “bums”. They are children of God with complex life stories that resulted in them being on the streets of Decatur. 

Be curious, not judgmental.

When someone is rude to you at work, you could decide for yourself that they are simply a rude person,    that they are a difficult person with whom to work. You could label them and organize your life so that you had very little to do with them. Or, you could become curious. You could ask questions. I wonder why so-and-so was rude to me yesterday. I wonder what is going on in their life this week that made them upset? 

Othering happens on the interpersonal level, affecting and limiting personal relationships, but it can eventually end up affecting societal structures and historical movements. In a complicated history that we know all too well, white settlers in the Americas quickly othered the indigenous populations.  We called them savages and a host of other names. We set up systems in which indigenous tribes would eventually be corralled like animals and marched onto reservations. Othering can be dangerous.  

For four centuries, white persons in America have been othering black and brown persons. Some even created scientific studies to “prove” a lesser than status, seeking to alleviate guilt over oppressing and enslaving human beings for the sake of economic gain.

 Othering can have long and deep and tragic consequences. There are many biblical references that address this issue of othering. The prophets spoke to this because of our dangerous human tendency to other those who are different. Jews tended to other tribes of non Hebrew peoples, so Scripture commanded them to treat the alien and refugee as one of their own. Jewish landowners tended to other the poor ones in their villages, so Scripture commanded them not to glean all the way to the edge of their fields, but to leave plenty at the margins for those who did not have enough to eat. 

Righteous Pharisees, like Simon in our text for today, separated themselves from others by strict obedience to the law. They sought to be righteous before God and obey the letter of the law, but they often seemed to miss the spirit of the law.  Simon did not break a law when he failed to offer Jesus a kiss of welcome or clean water and anointing for his feet. But he certainly failed to offer the kind of hospitality expected for welcoming a rabbi as a dinner guest. It was the woman, the “other”, who showed Jesus warm hospitality.

When Jesus advocated for God’s extravagant welcome of all people, no matter who they were, he put himself in a vulnerable position because his actions confronted religious and political power. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we can expect challenges. A life of welcoming all will not always be welcomed.

You and I will face risks —personally, socially, legally, financially— when we endeavor to challenge exclusion, when we speak up against othering. Over the past few years, many have faced this battle within their own families or friend groups.  Many decided they finally had to speak up in defense of someone who had been “othered” and then found their relationships strained as a result.

The woman who cleaned Jesus’ feet with her tears knew her sin and knew her need for forgiveness.  The Pharisee could see her sin, but he could not see his own sin, the sin of othering. He had othered Jesus by not offering hospitality. He had othered the woman by his quick judgment of her. But Jesus made space for both of them in the kingdom of God.

Vernon Gramling said it well in his blog this week: “It is in the pastoral offering of hospitality in this story that we discover the theological faith claim that Jesus saves. There is room in God’s kingdom for identified and shamed sinners and there is room in God’s kingdom for the self-righteous and self-satisfied. 

That means there is room for (you and me) and every child of God. But you have to know you need forgiveness. That is something that the woman knew but Simon did not. I believe that is what Jesus wanted Simon to see. (Knowing that one is in need of forgiveness) is the doorway to grace. 

If we ever come to know that about ourselves, we too will be bringing oil to thank and to anoint.” 

The nature of the grace of God is that it changes people. No matter what one’s condition, no matter how deep the nature of one’s sinfulness,  no matter how far one has drifted away, no matter how hopeless one’s physical or mental illness, no matter how deranged one’s spiritual perspectives, there is always hope in Jesus Christ.

Wretched man that I am!, Paul wrote. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Friends, hear again the good news of the gospel:

Your sins too are forgiven…Go in peace.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia