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One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner (Luke 7:36-39).”
The sinner woman in this story could not conceal her sinfulness from the religious people in the room. She was frowned upon, but what could she do? She loved Jesus, and the sinner woman wanted to express that love, so she showed up where Jesus was hanging out.
The problem was that a bunch of religious people were there too. While her sinfulness was evident to all, their sin was nicely tucked and hidden behind their religious garb. That put the sinner lady at a disadvantage. The good news is that she had Jesus, which proved to be all she needed.
There were two people groups in the room that day, both of whom were religious. In one corner was the “sinner woman,” and in the other corner were the “religious sinners,” who kept their sin shrouded by their self-righteous religiosity.
Jesus was also in the room. He was like a referee whose primary job was to make sure everyone was playing fair, which was why He eventually spoke up. But rather than addressing the “externals” of the woman that the religious people dialed in on, He focused on their motivations.
If you only judge a book by its cover, you may misjudge the book. Look inside the book to honestly know what the book is about and the intent of its author. The religious people in the room observed the sinner woman from an external perspective, while Jesus perceived her heart motivations.
For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
When it comes to behaviors that we observe in others or even in ourselves, we must be more cautious about our assumptions and opinions than what we are observing. The danger is obvious: if our behaviors were the only way to know a person, all we would need to do is learn the accepted, expected, and preferred practices within the people group that we want to accept us. But therein lies the trap.
The temptation to present ourselves as something on the outside while being something entirely different on the inside is part of our Adamic inheritance: he covered his shame with fig leaves (Genesis 3:7).
The person we present to the world is like our public relations manager. He helps us with our image–the person we want others to know while hoping they will accept “that person,” which is born out of a fear that we will be found out for who we are in actuality.
Everybody has a representative—the person who represents us to the world. Our desire is to be accepted; we fear that others will reject us. So, we figure out what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and we craft our lives according to our most likely chance of being loved.
Being made in the image of God implies many things, one of which is a desire to be in a community. It is our Adamic instincts that make this “good thing” go wonky. Instead of desiring a community for the right reasons, we crave it for the wrong reasons. Our temptation is to hedge our bets by not revealing our true selves to those that we want to accept us.
We don our fig leaves, hoping for acceptance. We cannot risk the chance of being kicked to the curb, which is problematic on so many levels, the biggest of which is the temptation to tolerate “a little bit of hypocrisy” in our lives.
It’s like going to a masquerade ball. We put on our masks, and head out to the dance, thinking our disguise is just enough to enjoy the community without being found out for who we are.
What I have just described to you is “acceptable behavior” among too many within our Christian community. Forget about the culture; we know how our lost friends are charlatans. There is no need to compare ourselves to them (2 Corinthians 10:12) as though we are doing any better on the “righteous food chain.”
After the Lord regenerated me (John 3:7), I was not part of a local church. I began my pursuit of God before I found a church. I bought the “Living Bible” and started working out my salvation according to how God was working in me (Philippians 2:12).
During that season of my life, I was an avid cyclist, which means I dressed like a cyclist. I wore the shortest of shorts and see-through tank tops. I used to say I rode my bicycle naked. Though that was not precisely the truth, it was not far from the truth. I rode comfortably and aerodynamically.
Then I found a church community, and within that community, I began to perceive a peculiar set of customs. Here are a few examples:
There was more. There was much more. There was much, much more. There were lists. Many lists. Each person had a unique list.
I became a (1) good student of the Bible and (2) my Christian culture, even though there were times when those two things did not relate well to each other, and as those things began to separate, my heart and practice began to live two different lives.
Over time, I masked my most authentic identity because I did not want my Christian community to think I was something other than what was unanimously accepted, approved, and supported by the community. That worldview made me a dichotomized Christian: the more I learned the “ropes of religion,” the more incongruent I became on the inside with what I presented on the outside.
Over time, I became comfortable at the masquerade ball, always knowing there was another kind of me on the inside. My irrepressible fear was that the clock would strike midnight and I would be found out for who I was.
What I have just described to you is not the religion that Jesus taught. What you have read is madness. It is a form of insanity—pretending to be something that you are not. Isn’t that what they do in an insane asylum?
Isn’t that what James talked about in the first chapter of his letter: the double-minded person? James said a person who did not seek wisdom from the Lord would have two heads—two minds (James 1:5-8). I was a Christian with two heads. Our culture would diagnose me with a multiple personality disorder.
Part of me was genuinely religious—a true lover of God. Part of me “sucked out loud,” but I could never say the word “sucked” because my friends would treat me as though I was like that sinner lady.
Part of me would never smoke a cigarette, but part of me would have loved to have a toke, a hit, or a bump. (If you don’t know what those things mean, I won’t tell you because I don’t want you to treat me like that sinner lady.)
I lived in two worlds: Adam’s and the Lord’s, and the twain were never going to meet, not if I could help it. All my eggs were in the Christian basket, and I knew what would happen if my religious friends identified the darker parts of me.
Then the worst thing that could have happened to me happened to me. My wife divorced me. That was doomsday. One of the unwritten rules of my Christian faith was the “one strike, and you’re out” clause. (It was in the fine print at the bottom of the page.)
Though I was aware of “the clause,” it did not matter to me because I was not divorced. Then I was, and my Christian friends began to separate from me. They relegated me to the back row of the Christian universe. I received a new rank that put me on the periphery of acceptability.
I could no longer speak in public settings. The only task I could perform was passing out Bible tracts to the hookers downtown. The more accepted and respected jobs belonged to those who did not have black marks on their resume (Insert big wink here).
The secret to keeping your resume clean is to double down on hiding your blemishes from any public scrutiny. If you can pull that off, which I could not, religious people won’t treat you like the lady holding the alabaster box.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner (Luke 7:39).”
What do you think about this article?
If you become sinfully angry at the Pharisees in this story (or the Pharisees in your life), you are no different from them. But if you feel pity, from a heart of humility, as you think about the Pharisees (and the religious systems in our culture), you have truly learned and applied the lesson that Jesus taught in this story.
Part of our “call to action” is to pity those who are still stuck in the bondage of religious systems, not to criticize them as though we’re any better than they are. All of us were bound in sin; there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10-12).
You will know if you’re finally free from bad religion by how you think and talk about your experiences with bad religion.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).