June 23, 2019

Pentecost 2 June 23, 2019   (Ps 42, I Kings 19:19-21, Galatians 3:23-29) 

Luke 7:36-50

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Your faith has saved you, go in peace, Jesus says to this woman crashing the party, washing his feet with tears and drying them with her hair. Well – Jesus never was known for his table manners… and…

          Jesus is a dinner guest today in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Pharisees are usually adversaries of Jesus in the gospels. But not always. Jesus has raised someone from the dead earlier in this chapter, now he’s being called a prophet. Simon’s at least interested enough to want to check Jesus out.

Now a woman known in the community as a sinner comes in with a jar of ointment. Picture a banquet-type-meal with guests reclining, according to Roman custom, eating from low tables, sandals off, in a large home, probably with an open courtyard…

Neighbors would often come listen when a guest speaker was present at a banquet. The welcome however, wouldn’t normally include people regarded as beyond the boundaries of religious norms – especially when the host’s a member of the strictest religious sect.

But this woman, known as a sinner, has heard Jesus will be at the banquet – and she enters, welcome or not – intending perhaps just to anoint Jesus quietly – but as she gets close to him she bursts out crying, can’t stop, and perhaps without thinking, lets her hair down, starts washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair. Kissing his feet, anointing with ointment, causing a scene. For a woman to let her hair down in public then would be like wearing a bikini to church today, though probably worse…

Simon, the host of the dinner party sees her at the feet of Jesus and thinks to himself, “if this he was a real prophet he’d know what kind of woman she is…”

Jesus reads his mind and says, “Simon, what do you think? A man had two debtors – one owed fifty thousand, the other five thousand. Neither could pay – so he cancels the debts of both. Which do you think will love him more?”   Simon replies, “the one forgiven more, I suppose.”

“Good answer,” Jesus says. “ Do you see this woman?” Like – really see her? Did you notice what she was doing? Because –

“I came into your house as your guest, but you didn’t wash my feet or anoint my head or greet me with a kiss.” In those days of foot travel on dusty roads offering water for foot-washing was expected. Foot-washing’s rare now, but a kiss on the cheek or forehead’s still common practice in many parts of the Mideast today; the equivalent of a handshake for us. Anointing with oil wasn’t always expected, but the point is –  “You gave me no proper greeting,” Jesus says, “But she washed my feet with her tears, anointed my feet with ointment, and kissed my feet. And her sins, which were many, have been forgiven – so she shows great love – while the one who’s been forgiven less – (or thinks he’s been forgiven less) – only loves a little.”

We’re never told what Simon, the host, thinks or says in response to Jesus saying this. But we overhear other guests say “who does this guy think he is – forgiving sins?” The same thing we hear Pharisees, who believe only God and the high priest can forgive sins – saying back in chapter 5 of Luke –  “who is this guy and who does he think he is?” (Still the big question for all of us.) And…

We don’t know if Jesus has met this woman before and forgiven her – as some bible commentaries suggest, since her actions seem to be in response to grace already received.  But it’s also possible this is their first meeting – she just somehow believes (correctly) Jesus can save, forgive and heal. And…

It doesn’t actually matter – whether we repent first, then receive forgiveness – or receive forgiveness, then repent. Either way works. The bible has many examples of grace flowing both directions. Either way, Jesus says now to the woman, “your faith has saved you, go in peace” – saying it twice to make sure the whole community knows she is forgiven…

          And his blessing of her stands in contrast with what he says to Simon, host of the party. As…

Jesus sees her heart – and counts her actions as repentance. And reads Simon’s mind – and gently, firmly, clearly points out his failures – to see the real situation. John Calvin the reformer of old is actually tougher on Simon than Jesus is, as he  comments on this verse: “Proud men deprive themselves of the benefits of the presence of Christ – even when he is at home with them in their houses – (while) … these benefits (of Jesus) the humble and base (or lowly) enjoy.”

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I can relate to the woman in the story. I too have been forgiven a lot. It could take weeks of confession to begin to cover all I’ve been forgiven. Unlike this woman of faith though, I can’t recall ever being nearly as extravagant as she is in expressing my love for Jesus – who has forgiven me so very much – who continues to forgive me every day… I’ve learned to say “thank you Jesus” often. But I can never thank Jesus enough – considering – Jesus knows all about me – and loves me and forgives me anyway. And –

Unlike the woman in today’s episode, I’ve never felt excluded or ostracized as a sinner. Partly because of male privilege – yes, we men still get away with more bad behavior than women as a general rule. Partly also because the times are both the same as and also different from back then. (As the Yardbirds band sang back when I was in high school in the middle ages: “When I was young people spoke of immorality – all the things they said were wrong are what I want to be.) Being bad was considered cool…as long as you stayed a step ahead of the law… and…

The most obviously bad sorts of behavioral stuff wasn’t then and still isn’t all I did wrong… and still sometimes do wrong. I confess I also recognize some of Simon the Pharisee in myself. I too can be judgmental of others. I too still sometimes make assumptions based on outward appearances….even though I know better…

Unlike Simon, I don’t remember having Jesus read my mind out loud in public – though sometimes my wife and daughter and some of you seem to be channeling Jesus – as if reading my mind – and convicting me with a few well-chosen words.

But the main take-away for me this week – is still the big contrast in how Jesus speaks with the woman, who receives grace with gratitude – and the way he speaks with Simon the Pharisee… Letting him know – without ever using the words – that he too has plenty to repent of… and be forgiven of. A reminder from Jesus – any one who thinks they’re sinless – is someone who needs to be forgiven a lot… as…

The apostle James tells us – anyone who breaks part of the law breaks it all. Thus – the commandment against bearing false witness or judging others improperly – can kill the soul as surely as adultery, even murder. The law is even-handed – and tough.

Yet the law’s also holy and good – as long as we apply it with grace, humility, wisdom. The law is good – and tough. That’s why Paul tells us today in Galatians we were both imprisoned and guarded under the law. Guarded, in a positive sense – kept safe from willful sin – and also imprisoned – locked into ways of thinking that bottle up the flow of grace, and cause us, consciously or unconsciously – to think of ourselves as better than others.

Against the theme of New England Annual Conference of the Methodist Church, where Susan Goux and I were for three days last week. A classic theme from the prophet Micah, who said (Micah 6:8): What does the Lord require of you – but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

An excellent theme for Annual Conference and for the future of Methodism (more on both of these over lunch today – please join us).

We need to hear the words of Micah often – because one of our human tendencies is to forget or overlook justice, kindness, and humble walking… and worship the law more than the law-giver.

Which is why Jesus and Paul both tell us – in slightly different ways – just as in Christ there’s no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, woman or man – within the faith community we’re all one in Christ. So too, in Christ there’s no longer even a hard and fast separation between saints and sinners. As Paul tells us in Romans (3) “all have sinned” – tells us also “anything we do that isn’t done in faith is sin” (Romans 14). Jesus tells us we are forgiven before we even know we’ve sinned. And Jesus teaches us to pray – every day – forgive us our debts and trespasses – as we forgive those who are in debt to us or trespass against us. A reminder to be aware – always – of our need to forgive and be forgiven.

A reminder from Jesus also – that like Simon the Pharisee, most of us tend to see other people’s sins magnified… and our own sins only dimly…

So we look to see again – how Jesus sees Simon and sees the woman. Simon the Pharisee, part of the strictest purest holiness movement of the day – yet Jesus sees him as just as much in need of forgiveness as the sinful woman and everyone else. Only the details of his sin, her sin, your sin, my sin are different. All have sinned… and…We all struggle with our tendency to keep sinning… and denying our sin…

But the good news is – any sinner forgiven by Jesus – no matter what he-she-they-or-we have done – is forgiven indeed. And sinners – who know how much they’ve been forgiven –

Have all the advantage – over anyone in denial of their own sin.

Not because we’re better than anyone else –

Just because Jesus says – Those who have been forgiven much – and know it –

Know how to say Thank you Jesus…

Thank you Jesus… and…

Thanks be to God…

Amen.