As I prepared to lead a marriage seminar with Jennifer last Saturday, I landed back at one of my favorite stories involving Jesus and his great self-awareness, his terrific emotional health. As the title of my column below says, just because you are emotionally present does not mean everyone will like you. I hope you read my take on what happened to Jesus and give me your thoughts.
Don Follis July 22 column: “Staying emotionally engaged does not mean everyone will like you”
When I present seminars on emotional health I tell a story from Luke chapter 7 (verses 36-50), where I think Jesus shows remarkable self-awareness. Jesus was invited to a dinner party hosted by one of the Jewish teachers of the day named Simon. Just after arriving Jesus is approached by a woman who heard Jesus would be attending the dinner.
Now in first-century Palestine, women might be among the servants, but not guests. Neither guest nor servant, this woman somehow has made her way into the dinner party. This is not just any woman. The writer Luke tells us that she is a bad woman. Most Bible translations call her “a sinner.” People have labeled her. Eugene Peterson’s popular Bible version – “The Message” – simply calls the woman “the town harlot.”
As the dinner party started, the woman made a beeline for Jesus. She came up behind Jesus with a bottle of perfume and in the words of Peterson’s Bible version “stood at his feet weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume.”
At this point in my seminar I ask, “Now, if you were Jesus, and this had happened to you, how would you feel being in full view of the muckety muck dinner guests from your town?” You can probably guess the answers, especially from men in the seminar. “Uncomfortable.” “Nervous.” “Embarrassed.” “Stressed.”
As the woman wiped lotion off Jesus’ feet with her flowing hair, the host feels disdain toward him. Jesus the guest has become Jesus the fraud. One guy once told me that merely reading this story makes him feel tense. When I asked him what he would have done if he had been Jesus, he was quick to answer, “Oh, that’s easy. I’d have gotten out there as fast I could have. I probably would have bolted right in front of everyone.”
When presented with a stressful conflict, many people do in fact flee. Most can imagine few things worse than being publicly humiliated. But not everyone flees. A few stand their ground. “Excuse me, Mr. Simon the Pharisee. You and your cronies are sitting here looking down on me and this poor woman. I am one of your guests tonight. Frankly, I don’t appreciate your smirks or your judgment. You owe an apology to both the woman and me.”
Still others freeze. Those in that group go quiet and don’t say anything, even though their stomachs are doing somersaults. Dissociating from reality, they emotionally numb out, solidly embedding themselves deep into the land of numb. If we see someone freeze and ask, “Are you okay?”, they answer from the land of numb: “Sure. Lovely Party.”
At this point you can guess one of the questions I ask those in my seminar. “How do we stay emotionally present when things get tense and we feel out of control?” Well, what did Jesus do? With a woman wiping lotion from his feet with her hair, and with all eyes in the room on him, Jesus stood and asked the host if he could speak.
The host gave Jesus the floor. With the woman next to him, Jesus told the guests this parable. A certain money lender had two debtors. One owed a debt of nearly two years wages, while the other owed a debt of two months wages. The moneylender unexpectedly forgave the debt of both debtors.
Looking at his host, Jesus asked which of the two would love the moneylender more. “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt,” answered Simon the Pharisee.
“That’s right,” Jesus said. Then turning to the woman Jesus said the woman’s debts were significant. And yet, he said her behavior toward him was prompted solely by deep love and profound repentance. Turning to Simon, Jesus pointed out that Simon had not given him any of the customary Palestinian greetings when Jesus arrived for the party. The contrast between the woman’s actions and the host’s inhospitality was not lost on any in the room.
Now let’s be honest. At any given moment in most of our social interactions, we all have many emotions coursing through us – all at the same time! We are happy and sad and angry and ashamed and embarrassed and who knows what else. Though we want to stay calm, speaking the truth with love in stressful predicaments, our emotions get us all jumbled. Sometimes we respond way too defensively. Other times we deny our emotions all together, naively thinking if we sweep emotions under the carpet we’ll be done with them.
We all get caught off guard, just like Jesus did. That’s when we most need to be emotionally present, staying in the ring and remembering that Jesus stayed present and engaged when abruptly overwhelmed by a desperate woman.
Even though his courage made all the guests in the room harrumph with derision, Jesus stayed engaged, standing up for a woman who crashed the party. When we are emotionally present, we have the best chance of doing the right thing, of courageously loving ourselves and others, even when we may have to pay the price of not being liked.