There are two parts here
1 Jesus and John the Baptizer
2 Jesus and the Prostitute
John has been arrested by Herod Antipas and is being held at the Machaerus Fortress. His crime is that he had gone a bit too far in voicing direct criticism of Herod. If we think this is unlikely, consider for a moment the recent case of the Dutch journalist who was arrested in Turkey for criticising the Turkish President. A background to why John was arrested is that if he had moved South he would have been working close to the border of a kingdom called Nabatea. Nabatea is famous for two things, it is where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed, and the daughter of King Aretas IV married Herod, giving Herod good strategy. Then Herod went to Rome and fell in love with one of his relations, Herodias. The focus of John’s criticism of Herod was his relationship with Herodias. Herodias insisted that Herod divorce his wife, who finding out about the plan ran back to her Father, who not surprisingly swore vengeance on Herod. Bad Strategy.
So you can see if John was causing trouble near the Nabatean border, it could cause Herod serious trouble, so he acted as all good dictators do, he removed the problem.
John is therefore in prison, and hears about Jesus activities, especially Jesus’ apparent lack of interest in the purity laws, a disagreement alluded to in John 3:26. Now from the Machareus, John sends a message to Jesus, “Are you the one”. I see this as another of those examples of it’s so bad it has to be true. Why would any self respecting hero worshipper sow doubts about the hero of the story. It is a bit like Peter’s denial. John the Baptizer, it seems even has his doubts.
Jesus is not angry with John but answers with evidence of his activities and uses Isaiah revisiting his scripture reading he gave at Nazareth. He challenges John to say firm in v23, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me”, an echo from the Sermon on the Mount.
He then tells the people present about John, describing him as a prophet and the greatest Israel has seen. This is a huge compliment, and then adds that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Is that a slap in the face? Commentaries offer differing views. Most tend to suggest that over reliance on John will cause you to miss Jesus.
Is Jesus equating himself with the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, Paul in Phillipians 2:6-8 says, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. “
Is this a further example of the economics of Grace and what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, don’t forget, it is not some otherworldly place, it is very real, it is about relationship with God in the here and now as much as in the future, it is about a return to Eden. In the new age, power and status are being shown as meaningless, set against God. We are all equal, we are all sinners and in need of God’s love and forgiveness.
And so we move on to part 2:
Jesus and the Prostitute:
Jesus is still in Nain, that place about 22 miles from Jerusalem, and I am guessing his reputation was enhanced by showing his credentials when he arrived, you’ll remember he raised a widow’s son from death or imminent death. Jesus is subsequently invited to the home of one of the local Pharisees, a man called Simon. They have dinner, reclining around a table head towards the table, feet away, when a women of ill repute wanders in. It is not like this is in someone’s dining room, they were eating outside although within the perimeters of Simon’s house, and he wasn’t so rich or powerful to have security like Caiaphas. The woman is called a sinner by Luke, but is most likely to be a prostitute. At least Simon seems to know who or what she is, and he does live in Nain. The story of this event mirrors in many ways a similar event set in Bethany during Holy Week, but the point here is radically different. The common understanding is that this story in Luke is about love and forgiveness, interestingly the same as the previous point Jesus was making, about the Kingdom of God.
The more we are forgiven the more we can love; the more we love, and are loved, the more we can forgive. It is also of story of hypocrisy, of image set against a totally different type of world values that Jesus is living out. Jesus is not ashamed of behaviour that would be deemed outrageous in 1st Century Middle Eastern society. Women’s hair was considered to be sexually provocative, in the way that cleavage is today. Having your hair uncovered would be like wearing a skimpy bikini to work or to go shopping.
We have already discussed how lowly women were viewed in the Roman Empire of the 1st Century, prostitutes were even lower down the scale. They were the lowest of the low. They were women for a start, they were slaves, they were unclean, because they mixed with gentiles. So another interesting feature of this is that the woman would have made the home unclean, and certainly Jesus as she didn’t stop kissing his feet. Jesus of course doesn’t bat an eyelid.
In the end, that is what this is about. Jesus’ Kingdom is open to everyone, not just those who look the part, and you know perhaps they need to deal with that plank in their own eyes . Again we have a practical demonstration of the Sermon teachings from Chapter 6 with Jesus’ host appearing snobbish and drawing a stinging rebuke in return.
Before we are too hard on Simon though, imagine you are having an open air BBQ with some local celebrity, when someone very odd turns up totally inappropriately dressed and behaving oddly to say the least, how would you react? So like Simon, we too need to look for areas in us that need forgiveness.
1st Century Society was highly male favoured, and it looked down on women. Anyone considered unclean was effectively excluded from temple worship and therefore communal life. Jesus is challenging the boundaries with gusto. John took the temple regulations and stretched them by applying sacraments outside the temple confines. Jesus is rewriting them in a whole new way entirely.
Everyone is welcome to the Kingdom and we are all equal. Equal in our beauty and equal in our brokenness and need for grace, love and forgiveness.
© Colin Waldock