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When I was a teenager, one of the quotes I heard most about God wasn’t from the Bible but from a fictional woodland creature. The line was:
“Course he isn’t’ safe, but he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
These words were from the story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They’re spoken by a talking beaver to a preteen girl named Susan who has wandered into a magical land called Narnia and is first hearing about the rightful king of that land, a lion named Aslan. She wonders:
Oh, I’d thought this king was a person. But he’s a lion – is he safe?
And that’s when the beaver says:
Course he isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is an allegory for Jesus. And it’s no wonder I thought about this line a lot. I’d read this story as a child, and when I was coming into my own faith in God in the very late 80s, C.S. Lewis was really popular. You could do worse. Lewis had many interesting and helpful things to say about God.
But this line – that God is not safe, but good, I no longer endorse.
I get the idea. Jesus, and the God he reveals, is unpredictable, uncontrollable, unconventional. Yes to all that. But unsafe. I don’t accept that anymore.
I’ve spent my whole adult life working on being a safe person. I can’t say I’ve succeeded in every circumstance, but it’s really important to me.
Because I think that goodness starts with safety – the goodness of God, and any goodness we have to offer or find in others too. Too many of us have had our experiences of God clouded by unsafety. Threats of hell, toxic shame, feeling like a burden or disappointment to God. Or simply the terribly unethical, dangerous behavior of church leaders who in some sense represent God to others.
Safety doesn’t by itself get you to goodness. You need more than that. But it starts here.
So today, we explore how Jesus is safe. At Jesus’ table, people are safe. Jesus shows us how God is both safe and good. And I think Jesus can also teach us about spotting safe and unsafe people and about becoming a safe person ourselves.
Let’s read today’s passage from the good news of Luke.
Common English Bible
36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table.
37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster.
38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.
40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, speak,” he said.
41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty.
42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.
45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in.
46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet.
47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
So, as always with Jesus, there is a lot here. This is a story about forgiveness. It’s a story about acceptance. It’s also a story about shame and judgment. It’s a story about a lot of things. But, as I said, it’s also a story about being safe and unsafe, and whether or not God is a safe God, which is where we’ll focus today.
Usually, our curiosity is drawn to this unnamed woman. And for good reason. She is passionate and provocative. We wonder: where did she get her wealth? And also: where did she get her reputation? Male readers over the years have put these two things together and imagined this woman had been a prostitute. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but I know this passage doesn’t say that about her, so I won’t either.
Jesus says she’s been forgiven much and that she loves much and that (unlike Simon, the man that invited Jesus over for dinner), she is the ideal host. We could say a lot about this extraordinary woman.
But first I want us to notice the difference between the two men in the story.
Simon, the owner of this house, is not safe. He doesn’t see this woman, he stares at her. He calls to mind the worst of her reputation – true or untrue – and looks down on her. Perhaps some part of him is jealous. Perhaps a part of him wants this woman to be so close to him, kissing his feet, and not having this, he’s even angrier with her and with Jesus. I’m imagining that part, but it rings true to me.
For the woman and even for Jesus too, he is not safe. It must have been a big risk for the woman to even enter his house, knowing how she’d be seen and treated.
Jesus’ presence changes the atmosphere of the table. The Ancient Near East was a dirty and smelly place like all ancient places, and it was a dry one too. It was a gesture of kindness and honor to wash someone’s feet and to put a bit of sweet smelling oil on the head. This woman aims to do this for Jesus and finds herself losing control of her tears as she does so.
Being really seen, being really loved sometimes does this. So do relief and acceptance and deep connection. They can release deep feeling. Deep feeling is being released from this woman, and she’s safe enough to release that in ways that have a kind of erotic intimacy. The kissing of the feet, the touching of the hair.
Notice how safe Jesus is. This woman can be this intimate with Jesus without fear. She doesn’t need to fear that he will be checking her out, evaluating her body with her gaze. She doesn’t fear that Jesus will judge her, reduce her in his eyes to her worst act or biggest regret. She doesn’t fear that Jesus will take anything from her, take anything of her.
The closest situation I can relate to being in is when I’m with someone in a hospital room or at their sick bed. When people are sick or dying, they are sometimes very vulnerable – lying in bed, dressed in hospital clothes, not always fully aware and alert. And sometimes I’m invited into the intimacy of being by someone’s side in this place, holding their hand while praying, touching their head with oil, reading or even singing to them. I know that I’m safe in those circumstances because I’ve tried to follow Jesus’ example in showing up for people to see and love them as they are. I really admire Jesus’ example here.
They say that if you want to know which men are safe, ask the women in their life. Especially before the #Metoo movement, but still now I think, women in workplaces know which men are safe and which are not. It’s no secret.
Same with adults and kids. You want to know which adults are safe with kids. Ask the kids in their lives. When I was a high school principal, it struck me that the students always knew which adults in the building were safe. They knew who showed up late, who yelled, who was kind of creepy, who said things to kids adults should never say but would say anyway when other adults weren’t listening.
It’s true with white people too. You want to know which of us are safe with people of color, who’s done the anti-racism work to be trustworthy. Don’t listen to our words, don’t watch what we post on social media, but notice what people of color want to work with us, or be with us, or trust us – or not.
The proof is in the pudding. And in Jesus’ case, I love that women and children and Gentiles were all drawn to him – to associate with him, to want to be with him, to learn from him. It shows us that he knew how to see and love people, to show up for them without trying to take anything from them. To be a person you can trust enough to not hurt or diminish you.
Let’s explore a little more how Jesus was safe because I think this shows us how God is safe, and also how to spot unsafe people, and also to become safe people.
Jesus is safe – and the God he reveals to us is safe – because Jesus sees people well. Just as God sees us all, and just as we’re invited to see people well.
Jesus’ interaction with Simon hinges on this question: Do you see this woman? Do you see her?
There are at least five ways that Jesus sees that Simon doesn’t.
Jesus sees non-defensively.
Jesus sees rather than staring.
Jesus sees the image of God in the other.
Jesus sees to give and forgive, not to take.
And Jesus sees future possibility, not just past inheritance.
First the non-defensive part.
Did you notice how Jesus reacts to Simon’s judgment and critique – not just of the woman but of him? He doesn’t run from it – he tells Simon the truth. But he does it calmly, non-reactively, and gently. He tells Simon a story. He asks Simon a question. He receives the criticism without being super-reactive, and he engages, powerfully but calmly.
Years ago, I was considering working with someone more professionally. And one of their colleagues told me – he’s great, but he’s just bad at criticism. Just so you know. As if this was a small thing. I heard it but worked with this person anyway. And in some ways, I wish I hadn’t. The relationship gave me a lot of grief.
An inability to take criticism isn’t a small thing; it’s a window into a bunch of things. And it makes someone unsafe, because you can’t be honest with them, and there are limits to their growth too. If you want to be a safe person, you have to choose to hear critique non-defensively, like Jesus idd, whether you think it’s valid or not. You can sift through what you think is true and helpful and what isn’t, but you have to be able to hear it without reacting.
Just as Jesus did. Just as God does. God doesn’t lose his cookies or shut down when we blame God or yell at God or swear at God. The prayer book of the Bible is full of little moments where people are doing that. God can handle our anger and critique, whether it’s true or not. God’s safe like that.
Secondly, Jesus sees, not stares.
I got this difference from the amazing Korean American theologian, Andrew Sung Park. Seeing and staring are really different. Simon’s eyes are on this woman from the moment she walks into his house, through her sitting at Jesus’ feet and anointing them and kissing them and wiping them with her hair. He never takes his eyes off her. Again, my own instinct in reading this passage is that he finds her arousing too but is ashamed of that, which magnifies his resentment.
But he’s not seeing her – he’s staring at her. She’s an object, filtered through his own needs and worries and grievances.
We stare at so many people. We stare at the people who frighten us. We stare at the people who shock us. We stare at the people who stir our anger or lust. But when we’re staring at people, we don’t see them.
This is why if you’re travelling amidst global poverty, as some of us do with our partners called Asha in New Delhi, you should put your camera away – to help you see, not stare.
This is why Jesus asks Simon:
Do you see her?
Because in his staring, he’s missed all the important things – her love, her freedom, her generosity, her modeling to Simon how to be a good host, even though they are in Simon’s house.
Objectifying, othering, staring means you can’t see. Jesus asks us all: do you see? And invites us to see one another as God does – seeing, not starting.
How does God see us? Like Jesus sees this woman: seeing the image of God in the other? Seeing the good. Seeing whatever way the divine is shining in us.
That’s the third way Jesus sees and invites us to see: seeing the image of God in the other.
Mother Theresa famously said that she sees Jesus in the face of other people and responds accordingly.
She said this is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. It’s to seek the face of God in everything and everyone, all the time, no matter what else we see.
A fictional version of this that’s been popular these days is the TV football coach Ted Lasso. He sees and calls out the good in everyone he interacts with. At one honest, vulnerable moment he admits why he does this. He knows life is desperately hard. It’ll drive most of us to see the worst in ourselves and one another. So he tries to see the best in everyone. Jesus does this too. It’s how he sees people, seeing the face and image of God in us all.
That God does this with us makes God safe. We’re never a burden to God. We’re never an inconvenience, a disappointment. We can let God down and mess up in so many ways, but God’s going to keep seeing God’s face in us, going to keep seeing the family resemblance – like parent, like child.
And we’ll not just be safe, but we’ll be really safe and good everytime we can do the same.
The fourth way Jesus sees here is with attention. Jesus sees to give and forgive, not to take.
I’ve already talked about the lack of safety that comes with people that are trying to take. Jesus makes it clear that he’s come into freedom and self-control in his life. He’s not governed by reactive anger that diminishes people or by lust that seeks to take things from people – sexual or otherwise – that they are not freely giving to us or that aren’t ours to have.
There’s a reason that in Jesus’ great moral teaching on the Sermon the Mount, he begins by telling us all that good lives include learning to manage our anger and lust, changing from the inside out where those come from, so we can life freely and not spend our lives reducing people or trying to take from them. If we want to be safe people, we have to be brutally honest about our own proclivities toward unhealthy, reactive anger or to lust – unhealthy desire to take – sexually or otherwise – what isn’t ours. And we have to get on a path toward more health, wellness, and self-control in these areas. It’s a lot of work, but the safety and health that grows in us is worth it.
Jesus is safe because he sees someone in distress and he doesn’t see a cause for his anger or a mark for his lust. He sees someone who needs and deserves love and forgiveness, and he sees someone he would like to be in relationship with, where affection is freely and safely given and received.
These qualities of giving and forgiving make Jesus and make God safe, and they make people safe as well.
Lastly, the kind of seeing that makes Jesus safe is that he sees people’s future possibilities, not just their past inheritance.
Simon looks at the most loving, hospitable person in the room and calls her a sinner. He sees something in her past – or her past reputation – that evokes his judgment and resentment. Jesus sees her future. He sees the gratitude, freedom, and power she is experiencing and will keep on living once she knows again that she’s God’s beloved child. And he loves and celebrates what he sees.
God sees you and me this way – not merely as a sum of all our past inheritance – the mix of all our accumulated genetics and experiences, bad or good. God sees what’s possible next, with grace and help and freedom, and God longs to touch us with that grace and help, so we can embrace our future with freedom and hope.
As I close for today, I invite you, friends, to two things.
Lean into your spot at Jesus’ table, where God is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unconventional. But where God is also safe and good. God accepts and loves you as you are. There’s no shadow or anything to fear in God. God sees you non-defensively. God sees you lovingly and affirmatively, seeing God’s family resemblance in you. God looks at you not to take, but only to forgive and give, aiming to build you up toward greater freedom and hope.
And aim to become the very safest person you can be:
One who handles criticism without reactive defensiveness
One who doesn’t stare but sees
One who sees God’s face in all your fellow humans
One who seeks to give and forgive and receive and but never to take what isn’t yours
And, one who believes in others future possibilities
Be careful with people that aren’t on a journey toward these things, and let’s aim to be on that journey ourselves.