An awkward-turtle moment in Capernaum – part 1 (Luke 7:34-50)

Are you familiar with the awkward turtle?

If you’re over 40, you’re probably not. At 43, I’m technically too old to know about it, but for more than a decade I was a pastor to young adults. Keeps me young. And well-informed when it comes to useless information about youth culture. And one of the more useless things I picked up a few years ago is a hand gesture called the ‘awkward turtle’. It looks like this:


It’s supposed to represent a turtle paddling awkwardly on the spot, because it’s got nowhere to go. The ‘awkward turtle’ can be used in any awkward social situation, as a way of saying, ‘hey, this just got awkward, didn’t it’. You know, those times when someone says or does something a little inappropriate, and no-one quite knows what to say next. Everyone just looks around and hopes the ground will swallow them up. That’s when you bring out the ‘awkward turtle’, to break the tension.

(BTW, if you have to ask ‘why a turtle’, then it shows you’re too old to get it. Or at least, that’s what they told me.)

Today’s story is an awkward turtle-moment in the life of Jesus. He’s out for dinner with what appear to be some important people. And while he’s talking away, a woman ‘with a reputation’ comes in and starts pouring perfume on his feet, and washing them with her hair.

7:36-38 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

Now, I don’t know how you react when you’re out for dinner with friends and a notorious prostitute starts wiping your feet with their hair – but you’d have to agree, it’s one of those awkward turtle-moments. Everyone around Jesus stops. There’s an embarrassing silence. It’ll be nearly 2 millennia before anyone invents an appropriate hand gesture, so no-one knows quite how to respond.

I can almost imagine the host, Simon the Pharisee, saying, ‘Um, Jesus. You’ve got a sinner on your foot… No, the other one…’ And Jesus goes, ‘Oh yes, so I have. What’s your point?’

Except Simon doesn’t say anything. He just thinks it. While everyone else feels increasingly awkward.

But let’s backtrack for a minute. I mean, how could this happen? How did such a woman of ill-repute get invited to the home of a Pharisee? A religious leader?

The short answer is: she wasn’t. In those days, if you were a wealthy person with a large house and you were entertaining someone important – someone like Jesus, who was beginning to attract quite a following – you’d invite all of your important friends. They’d be seated in the large dining hall close to your special guest. But then you’d leave your doors open, and members of the public could gather at the back, or in the doorway, if they wanted to hear what your important guest had to say. As long as they knew their place and kept quiet, that was all fine.

But although technically anyone could do this, a woman of such a background should have known to stay away. She was openly defying cultural expectations in doing so – a known prostitute coming to the house of a religious leader. What impudence! Except she doesn’t stop there. I mean, if she had to come, then being right down the bottom of society’s food chain, she should at least have hung back near the door. Listen from up the back. But instead – she has the gall to approach Jesus. To touch him. And to create this embarrassing scene of lavish affection. Rather than knowing her place, she puts herself front and centre – and in so doing creates this awkward turtle-moment. A moment which becomes a bit of a test, to see how people will respond.

Simon’s response represents the conservative element of Jewish religion. The Pharisees. He doesn’t say anything, but he thinks it.

7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Simon’s thinking: How is Jesus letting this happen? Why does he seem so unconcerned about an unclean sinner like this woman touch him? And in such an embarrassing way? Great, I’ve invited this Jesus guy over because everyone thought he was some kind of prophet. But he can’t be, if he doesn’t know her background. I mean, how can he not? She’s got her phone number carved into the wall of every public toilet in Capernaum! Some prophet he is!

Well Simon’s got two things wrong. Because firstly, Jesus is a prophet. Luke subtly points this out in the next verse where Jesus reads Simon’s thoughts.

Luke 7:40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Did you notice that? In v39 he ‘says to himself’ these things, and in the very next verse Jesus ‘answers’ his thoughts. Just a little prophet-like, don’t you think?

And the other thing he gets wrong is how Jesus should respond to ‘sinners’. Here, as elsewhere in the gospels, the term ‘sinner’ is a euphemism that includes prostitutes and those who openly practise other kinds of immorality. And as a conservative, religious ‘holier-than-thou’ type, Simon the Pharisee would avoid contact with the local lowlife. The very name ‘Pharisee’ comes from a word meaning ‘separate’. They kept themselves apart from the rest of the population by their strict observance of the law – and especially from the worst of sinners.

So you can understand Simon’s thinking. Since Jesus appears to be a religious teacher, surely he should have the same attitude toward sinners! What’s going on? It’s thrown Simon into a complete spin.

So in response, Jesus asks him a question, in the form of a story. It’s a story designed to help Simon ‘get it’. One that asks Simon – and us – three hard-hitting questions. Let’s read it now:

7:41-47 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii [about $100,000], and the other fifty [about $10,000]. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Although this is a simple parable, it explains the actions of the three people in our story: the woman, Simon the Pharisee, and of course, Jesus. We’ll look at the first today, and the other two tomorrow.

The Woman

Firstly, it explains the woman’s actions. This physical display of intense emotion, as she poured costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. What prompted her to do such a thing?

The parable Jesus tells gives us the answer. Love. Gratitude. Joy at being forgiven a great debt. This is what Jesus means when he says in v47:

47a Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much [or better, ‘hence her great love’].

In other words, her extravagant display of emotion comes from the fact that she’s been forgiven much – and she knows it. When she was forgiven, we’re not told. Possibly she had a previous encounter with Jesus where she repented andwas forgiven, and has now tracked him down to show her gratitude.

What we do know is that this display of emotion is evidence of the great mercy God has shown her. Evidence that she’s responded to God’s grace. And she’s responded in such a way that she’s consumed by the sheer joy of it. She doesn’t care that she’s making a scene. She doesn’t care that she’s showing her love in a way that everyone else thinks is inappropriate. She probably doesn’t even notice that everyone’s dropped their fork and is now staring at her. She’s been forgiven much, so she loves much. She truly grasps the extent of the mercy that’s been shown to her.

And that’s the first question this story hits us with. Do we? So let me ask it of you now: Do you grasp the extent of the mercy God has shown you? Do you get how much sin God had to forgive, in order for you to be declared righteous in his sight?

Because often our response suggests we don’t. We become a bit blasé about God’s mercy. As though God – if he wants to go around calling himself the God of Mercy – were somehow contractually obliged to forgive us. As though it were no big deal.

Because if we did truly get it, then wouldn’t our response be a bit more like the woman in this story? OK, maybe not the perfume and hair, but the emotion behind it? The overwhelming sense of gratitude that prompts exuberance and joy, and maybe even a little bit of inappropriate behaviour.

It’s harder if you’re an uptight, emotionally-repressed Anglo like myself, because we’re brought up being taught our culture’s golden rule: ‘don’t make a scene’. If you’re British, I think you have to be actually in the process of losing a limb before you’re allowed to draw attention to yourself. And even then, you have to be apologetic. ‘Awfully sorry to interrupt, but it appears your dog has just chewed off my leg – could I be a bother and ask you to fetch it back?’ For someone, like me, with a decent proportion of British blood, just the thought of making any kind of ‘scene’ is abhorrent!

But even the more expressive Americans have limits – witness the reaction a number of years ago to Tom Cruise’s famous outburst on Oprah’s couch. Jumping up and down telling us how much he loved Katie. I think everyone went all awkward turtle at that point. Get down, Tom! Don’t make a scene! You’re embarrassing yourself!

Yet when you consider the depth of mercy God has shown to us – shouldn’t we be making that kind of scene? Shouldn’t we be jumping up and down on the nearest couch shouting ‘I love Jesus’ – at least on the inside?

Shouldn’t our joy at being forgiven be visible? Shouldn’t it make the rest of the world – when they see it – just a little uncomfortable? It will, if we truly grasp the extent of the amazing grace that saved wretches like us.

More tomorrow…

One thought on “An awkward-turtle moment in Capernaum – part 1 (Luke 7:34-50)

  1. Gold, Tim. Had a good chuckle at the line, ‘there appears to be a sinner on your foot…no the other one..’ I regularly wonder why there isn’t a little more fun and joy on show. Loved Francis Chan’s ‘Crazy Love’ for that

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