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From the immense and undifferentiated space in the world, all of us claim our own. In one way or another, we raise four walls and cover them with a roof, filling the space inside with everything that makes life possible and meaningful.
We divide the world into an inside and an outside. Inside our four walls is a place of warmth, light, friends, and companionship; outside cold, darkness, strangers, and loneliness. Our homes are more than material objects, and their value cannot be measured in dollars and cents. A home is the stage upon which the drama of living and dying is played out.
A number of years ago my son called me in the late afternoon from Gary, Indiana. On his way from our home in Holland, Michigan to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, his old Buick Skylark broke down. Quickly we devised a plan. I would drive to where he had broken down and tow him to a friend’s house who lived just north of the Chicago loop. There we would exchange cars. I would stay at my friend’s home and have his Buick repaired in the morning.
The plan went awry. I took a wrong turn in Chicago. The towrope broke in a desolate neighborhood. A policeman whom we asked for directions threatened to put us all in jail because towing was illegal in Chicago.
Chicago at night had turned into a nightmare. When I finally arrived at my friend’s house, I collapsed onto his couch in the living room. Sitting there and sipping red wine, I looked around and took in the meaning of his home. Darkness had been replaced by light, danger by safety, cold by warmth, and strangers by friends. My friend’s house was definitely more than its market value to me.
Our homes are fragile and constantly threatened by an array of forces from the outside world. We homemakers have to be ever vigilant and protect the sanctity of our homes. The roof leaks over time; dirt invades; termites chew away; fire erupts; thieves break in and steal. And it is a lot easier to replace the loss of a computer than it is to replace the loss of our feeling of security.
Inside even a fragile home, people can survive. Outside is an entirely different matter. Exposed to the elements, homeless people suffer and die. Actually, to label people homeless confuses the issue.
Street people are homemakers just like everyone else. They build homes with the meager resources available to them — an abandoned bus, a cardboard box, a park bench, newspaper blankets. When the wolf comes — as children know from the fable — he huffs and puffs and blows down their homes of straw and sticks.
We homemakers want to keep the wolf out, but we do not want to keep everyone out. We build our homes with doors after all. Our homes are places where we celebrate life and build community by sharing our resources with others. We invite people in, but we have pretty strict rules that determine who passes through our doors. We have to be vigilant because there are dangerous people about.
God, the Homemaker
The ancient people of Israel understood God to be a homemaker. Of all the images of God — shepherd, king, shield, etc. — homemaker was the one to which they turned most often. They believed that God dwelt in an invisible, heavenly house and that the tabernacle and later the temple were its visible, earthy replicas. In his holy temple, God prepared a table with cups of wine overflowing and food in abundance and invited his people to come. Worship was homecoming.
The people of Israel understood their homes and tables to be an extension of God’s. They were to do the will of God on earth as it was in heaven. They were the means by which the hospitality and love of God would fill the world (Psalm 33:5). The people desired that others would say of them the same things they said of God: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8).
The people of Israel exercised hospitality, but they struggled with the question, who belongs at the table? Scripture tells the story of how they try again and again to close the door to outsiders and limit access to the table while God tries to open the door and allow those deemed outsiders in. And we read of the same struggle in Jesus’ day, especially in the Gospel of Luke.
Simon, the Homemaker
Jesus came into the world to manifest the hospitality of God and to challenge the people of God regarding the rules that governed entry to the temple and their homes. Jesus’ visit to Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) captures in a few verses the essence of this challenge.
Simon was engaged in the practice of hospitality, but he had some pretty strict rules about who could pass through the door of his house. The prophet from Nazareth was the right sort to invite to his table. The woman who followed him was definitely the wrong sort. She was a sinner. Sin was a contagious disease as far as Simon was concerned. It spread by social contact. He did not want to get in coughing range of this woman.
Not only was she contaminating Simon’s house by her presence, but she was contaminating Jesus’ body by touching and kissing him. Simon was repulsed. Jesus could not be a true prophet because he clearly could not see who this woman really was. But Jesus turned the tables on him with this question: “Simon, do you see this woman?”
Simon, of course, does not see her. He has constructed a social world in which certain people do not gain entrance and therefore are never seen. This is the moral dilemma facing every homemaker. Busy building a home or a church or a country for themselves, homemakers distinguish between insiders and outsiders. The outsiders all too quickly lose their visibility and identity and all too easily become the object of the insiders’ fear and loathing. Insiders all too quickly label outsiders as sinners and banish them to the outer reaches of society.
In this encounter with Simon, Jesus is teaching him that there is no distinction between insiders and outsiders, those whom we think sin a little and those whom we think sin a lot. All are equally sinners in need of the forgiveness of God.
Jesus is also teaching Simon that his survival ironically does not depend on keeping certain people out but letting them in. This woman washing and anointing Jesus’ feet knows the depth of her sin and therefore knows the depth of the love of God when she is forgiven.
This sinful woman could teach Simon and the rest of us Pharisees something about the steadfast and expansive love of God, if we would just open the door and let her in.
Well said. We all need the hospitality that opens its doors.
Thank you, Tom. A teaching colleague recently pointed me to an article on this topic by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh, which led me to their 2008 book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in A Culture of Displacement. God as homemaker is such a great theme for consideration as we consider the purpose of the homes, faith communities, municipalities and homelands we construct.
And as we wrestle with decisions about what is the optimal permeability of the borders, entrances, exits for those spaces.
And as we decide whether to allocate budgets that lean more toward security equipment like Rings, bulletproof glass, alarm systems and firearms, or invest in hospitality resources like serving dishes, spare rooms, and accessibility ramps.
Tom, among the things I appreciate about this is the art. Can you tell me about it? Thanks.
Steve MVW and the other editors chose the art in this case.
Once I heard Rich Kooistra preach a sermon on the friends of the paralytic who tore the roof off the crowded house to drop their friend down in front of Jesus. Rich preached that just because our churches may be crowded does not mean they welcome in people who need Jesus, and that sometimes we should tear the roofs off our own churches.
Thanks Tom for an important lesson. Our churches can be friendly towards strangers but often fail to befriend such strangers. To be a true friend, they have to become members, accept or own our core beliefs. Then we will truly embrace them. For Christians, Jesus is the only gate to acceptance with God and the church.
Thank you for this thoughtful post. It’s a keeper.
“A policeman whom we asked for directions threatened to put us all in jail because towing was illegal in Chicago.” Alternative wording: “We were thankful to a gracious policeman who chose not to cite us, instead warning us that rope-towing is illegal in Chicago. The fact that our tow rope broke was a good reminder of just how dangerous this practice can be, particularly in settings with lots of traffic. I should have called a tow service in the first place.”
Instead of attempting to bring scorn on the public servant and paint yourself as some sort of victim, perhaps you could express gratitude for his service as he works to keep you and all others safe, even while people like you make poor decisions and fail to show your appreciation of his service or understanding of your poor choice.
Well said, Eric.