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Outsiders and Insiders Galatians 2:15-end; Luke 7:36-8:3

I would like to begin by quoting from the UNHCR website: “Every year on June 20 the world honours the courage, resilience and strength of refugees. On this sixth anniversary of the United Nations-designated World Refugee Day, thousands of organisations in hundreds of countries will come together to focus global attention not only on the plight of refugees and the causes of their exile, but also on their determination and will to survive and on the contributions they make to their host communities…. Often classified unfairly with economic migrants, refugees flee their country not for economic gain but to escape persecution, the threat of imprisonment and even threats to their lives. They need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma and rebuild their hopes for a better future.”

Here in the UK a whole week is designated for a focus on refugees. Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities. Refugee Week 2007 is 18th to 24th June.

Out and In for Jesus
One of the main problems faced by refugees is that they are perceived as outsiders or as not belonging – both in the places they have been obliged to flee and in the place where they seek safety. I think this is a proper concern for followers of Jesus as our reading from Luke’s gospel shows us today. Let’s look at it.

You may be familiar with the story of the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume and the parable of the two debtors. Coming afresh to this story one thing I noticed was that Luke doesn’t tell us directly why Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him. However, we can pick up hints from the way Luke tells the story and the context in which he places it.
In the preceding verses Jesus has been responding to criticism of his behaviour and especially in comparison to John the Baptist whose disciples had just been to visit Jesus. John was too austere for some of you says Jesus. You said he had a demon that he was a religious nutter. Then Jesus says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking and you say a glutton and a drunkard!” In other words, John was too ascetic and Jesus was not abstemious enough! You’re like one group of children playing – never satisfied with the way others try to play, always changing tunes.

Perhaps, then, Simon invites Jesus to eat with him to try and provide an antidote to the company Jesus has been keeping – let’s give him a respectable dinner party where his teaching can be given a proper hearing! But Simon’s treatment of Jesus is not as welcoming as it could have been. Simon did not provide the customary courtesies a guest would normally expect: water to wash the feet, a hearty kiss or embrace of greeting, some fragranced oil to freshen him up. Maybe Simon is in two minds about Jesus: on the one hand he thinks that Jesus’ teaching is worth listening to; on the other hand, he disapproves of the dodgy company Jesus keeps or seems to attract: tax-collectors and sinners. So he invites Jesus’ mind in but doesn’t make his body all that welcome. It’s a question of in and out: who is in, or what part of a person is in, and who is to be kept out.

In and Out in Refugee Week
To return to the subject of refugees, and quoting from the internet information: “the intolerance that is often at the root of internal displacement and refugee flows is also present in some of the countries that refugees flee to. Instead of finding empathy and understanding, they are often met with mistrust or scorn. The purpose of Refugee Week is to deliver positive educational messages that counter fear, ignorance and negative stereotypes of refugees, through arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and promote understanding about the reasons why people seek sanctuary.”
Refugee Week was first held in 1998, and was created in response to the increasingly negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers held by the general public in Britain. It remains the only UK-wide event that promotes the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities.”
An out woman comes in
Going back to the dinner party in Simon’s house an unwanted visitor appears. Dinner parties in Jesus’ culture were somewhat different to how we hold them here and now. Then they adopted the Roman custom of reclining in a circle on couches with their feet pointing away from the central table. Houses were much more open and people came and went more easily. A woman who is not given a name comes in and begins to steal the show. It is clear that this behaviour is unusual and that Simon disapproves. The trouble with inviting someone’s mind in without really wanting their body, is that you can’t separate them. The woman shows her response to Jesus with an extravagant show of devotion to him. Whilst Simon is muttering to himself, Jesus guesses the disapproval and points out that the woman is more than making up for the lack of hospitality that Simon has shown to Jesus. This woman is definitely “out” as far as Simon and his company is concerned. But she has found that Jesus counts her “in” and in so doing, her life as a sinner is transformed.

Simon cannot understand Jesus’ acceptance of the woman’s response to him, so Jesus tells a parable which uncovers Simon’s prejudice. The two debtors may be caricatures of indebtedness: a denarius was about a day’s wage for a labourer. So one owed a month and half’s wages and another owed a year and a half’s wages. There was no banking ombudsman or consumer power to make sure that credit charges were reasonable and debtors given the benefit of manageable repayment plans. Like many in the third world today, the debtors were entirely at the mercy of their creditor. If both are let off their repayments, of course you know who will be the most grateful out of the two! It is clear that Simon’s attitude towards the questionable woman was that she had the greater moral debt. That explains her lavish response to Jesus who had transformed her life either because she had been affected by his teaching or had some previous personal contact with him. She might have been an outsider (a sinner) for Simon, but by her response she was an insider for Jesus. In Galatians the writer puts it this way: “a person is justified by faith in Jesus Christ.”

The insider or the outsider – human like us
Jane Williams points out that Simon the Pharisee discounts the woman’s humanity – she is merely a “sinner” not a “woman with a history and a desire to change.” He is not ready for her to be the heroine of the story, the focus of attention. Unlike the Pharisee, she does not need a powerful parable to point out her need for change. Luke goes on to tell us of the many who supplied Jesus’ needs as a response to the way he had transformed their lives.

This is where I think our reading of this parable connects with the issue of refugees and our attitude towards them. Do we recognise their humanity? When refugees have names and we get to know their history, we can begin to treat them as fellow human beings, rather than a threat to us and the safety and prosperity that we enjoy.

In conclusion I quote from the UK’s Refugee Week website: “There is so much misinformation circulating about refugees and asylum seekers in the media that it is sometimes hard to work out what is reality and what is myth. ..Refugees have always had a huge contribution to make to UK society, in economic terms as well as culturally and socially. Home Office research.. in 2000 concluded that refugees make a net contribution to the UK economy. Refugees have made a massive.. contribution to our life in the last 450 years..Many famous household names are evidence of the presence of refugees: Camille Pisarro, Sigmund Freud, Frank Auerbach and Arthur Koestler to name but a few.”



Faithful Creator,
whose mercy never fails:
deepen our faithfulness to you
and to your living Word,
Jesus Christ our Lord.