Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Cultural Keys to Luke (Part 1):
The Hostess"

“The Hostess” (Luke 7:36-50) is Part 1 in my “Cultural Keys to Luke” sermon series.

In the Gospels, there are many cultural clues that help explain the significance of events, conversations, and Jesus’ actions. However, because we live 2000 years later in a very different culture, we don’t always catch all of the cultural information. We know our culture, so that without explanation we can mention the World Series and most people know we’re talking about baseball. In that same way, the people in the Gospels are doing things and saying things that mean a lot, but there is no explanation for us. Using the work of many scholars, I am attempting to uncover some of those cultural keys to unlock more of the meaning of the text for us in this 3-part sermon series.

For this series and handout, I rely heavily upon Kenneth E. Bailey’s Through Peasant Eyes (© 1980 Eerdmans). Bailey, as a theologian, explores the Gospel of Luke, while also using his extensive experience from living in the Middle East to unpack the cultural background hidden to us.

Other sources include:

Luke 1:1-9:50 by Art Just (Concordia © 1996)

Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15 by Kenneth E. Bailey (Concordia © 1992)

Luke (IVP NT Series) by Darrell L. Bock (IVP, © 1994)

How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons by Eugene L. Lowry (Abingdon © 1989)

Homiletical Helps, H. Armin Moellering, Concordia Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2, April 1998


This same text led to one of my first, nearly entirely narrative sermons (“Jake & His Guilt,” July 1, 2001). Twice it has inspired a narrative structure, because Jesus uses a story (parable) in order to cause Simon the Pharisee to judge his own actions. The appointed Old Testament text for this week, 2 Samuel 11:26—12:10,13-14, works in the same way. Nathan the prophet uses a story to cause David to pronounce his own judgment on his sin with Bathsheba.

Both the Luke and 2 Samuel texts show the power of narrative—the ability to capture our imagination, lower our defenses, and learn something in a powerful way. I could only hope and pray that writing a narrative sermon based on Luke 7:36-50 could achieve some of that same power.

A narrative structure—when most fully formed—allows very little (if any) room for direct discourse or didactic speech. “The Hostess” concludes with quasi-didactic speech, stepping out of the narrative just enough to invite the hearers to apply the sermon to themselves. However, the power of the narrative should come from the hearers choosing to identify with a character or characters.

In this case, perhaps a hurting person would more readily identify with the woman who has been restored by Jesus. Others who come to see their own self-righteousness exposed by the actions of Simon will be led to repent and also be restored. Still others may identify with how Jesus deftly applies Law and Gospel—seeing how we fail to be so deft and seeking the same Gospel to forgive this sin.

Why No Parable in the Retelling

My narrative obviously mimics the setting and scene at Simon’s house, but the traveling preacher in my story does not offer a parable in order to teach Mr. Simon. I originally attempted to rewrite the parable with the same sort of cultural equivalence as I had done with the main narrative. However, it proved lengthy and distracting to add another level of comparison.

Another reason I left out the parable in the retelling is because after studying the cultural information to elucidate the narrative, I found that the main story acts as a parable itself. By this I do not mean that I think the event did not really occur; Jesus really had dinner at a Pharisee’s house while his feet were washed by a sinful woman.

What I mean is that the main narrative needs just as much (if not more) explanation for us today. Jesus told the parable of two debtors as a generalized, fictional, attention-grabbing story to reveal truths about God. Yet, he did this within a situation where everyone understand what was happening (Simon wasn’t showing courtesies to Jesus; the sinful woman was showing those courtesies; the Pharisees found the actions of Jesus and the woman offensive).

Because we don’t actually understand the situation in Simon’s house, we’re not necessarily ready for the parable. The main narrative itself can be described by Art Just’s definition of a parable: “…simple but mysterious stories that must be heard with a “hearing mixed with faith” (Hebrews 4:2). The kingdom is so contrary to human expectations and human wisdom that it is in and of itself a mystery. The meaning of the parables, which compare the mysterious things of God to the mysteries of this world, will be hidden from those whose eyes and ears are closed. They do not understand because they have rejected the gift of God in Jesus (347).” The narratives in Gospel, like Luke 7:36-50, can be contrary to what we expect, mysterious to us in their meaning, and understood only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


The narrative of “The Hostess” was structured to follow the flow of Luke’s narrative, and yet, I needed to add dimensions to the storytelling—such as character motivation—that would have been foreign to Luke’s world. The challenge I set before myself, though, was to create a seemingly plausible story set in the contemporary world that matched up as best as possible.

I realize that not all scholars agree that the woman is a prostitute. Luke simply refers to her as a sinner. While I didn’t mean to make a conclusive statement by this sermon, it was best for the story/sermon to clearly identify the woman’s sin—and thereby show her ostracization from mainstream society.

One of the dangers in crafting this sermon was avoiding any crass or overly sexual tones in describing the woman’s action while at the same time developing the very real tension present in the text. In its cultural context, the woman’s actions toward Jesus had a very sexual tone, if understood incorrectly. Those kind of assumptions are what make the actions of Jesus so remarkable. I partly tried to use innuendo as much as possible which meant communicating the details to the adults without being too explicit for the children. Our local context also made me more comfortable leaving in these parts of the story, because our summer attendance by families with children really drops. If this had been the Sunday School year, I may have hesitated more. (This could be another discussion about how to preach from the Bible’s use of adult material (lust, sex, drunkenness, etc.) as metaphors for our spiritual life. While I defend the choices I made, I did get a lot of questions about a sermon I preached updating the “Israel as prostitute” metaphor by using the movie, Traffic, in a sermon titled, “Traveling into Dangerous Territory to Deliver You.”

Other comparisons simply developed out of trying to find a contemporary setting where a prostitute might show up somewhat expectedly and identifying a set of today’s (American) courtesies offered to a guest.