In the ancient Near East, for economic and social reasons, invitations to meals, whether wedding feasts, religious or civic celebrations, or fellowship meals were usually understood under the rubric of balanced reciprocity. In short, this means that invitations were given to those who could reciprocate. A wealthy person would not embarrass a poor member of society by extending an invitation to a banquet that the poor person could not repay some day with a banquet of his own.
This is the code written into every invitation that took place in the world in which Jesus and Paul lived. “I scratch your back, and you scratch mine.” What happens, then, when Jesus welcomes this woman to the banquet by speaking about her? This woman who, according to all the customs of the day was not welcomed anywhere, much less allowed to speak to anyone, let alone touch an honoured guest at a Pharisee’s house? The people watching this take place must have been completely confused by what they were watching.
We discover that this dinner party involves a more hostile gathering than we had supposed. Not only was the host inhospitable, but the other participants are revealed as people who worry about theological correctness while ignoring loving action. They are, however, careful not to grouse out loud. They only “say in themselves,” which is not protection at all since Jesus has already demonstrated that he can read Simon’s thoughts, and theirs aren’t safe either; which is why Jesus lauds the woman a second time. The woman didn’t need to hear it. The other diners do.
Under the code of balance reciprocity, this woman did not exist— for she had nothing to offer. There wasn’t even a ritual she could undergo, as the Gentiles in Jerusalem could. This happens: Jesus, with a word, abolishes the code of reciprocity, he cancels the debt for those who owe much, and for those who owe little. To us, Jesus says: “Come to my table, for you are welcome here. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. You are freed from the law, you are freed from the world’s codes of balanced reciprocity, for I have re-balanced all things and made all things new. Through my death and resurrection, I have made a place for you at my table, I have given you an invitation. Come!