June 12, 2016 “Two Ways to Receive Jesus” – Luke 7:36 – 8:3

June 12, 2016
Mike Fargo

Psalm 32, II Samuel 11:26-12:10, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-50

Often when I am invited to preach at a particular church, the pastor will suggest I just preach from the lectionary, which I’m always glad to do, and it’s what I’m doing today.  But there is a challenge to this.  The lectionary makes a genuine effort to try and group readings around a similar theme, but it’s also trying to get us through the whole bible in three years, so often in reality the readings don’t fit that well together.  Today is a glorious exception.  Seldom in my experience do four readings dovetail so perfectly.

Today the readings tackle the topic of sin—how it can trap us, deceive us, eat away at us, as well as the healing that happens when we acknowledge our sin and turn away from it.  The story of David is the epic backdrop to everything.  Here is a truly great saint who fell into a common trap.  His obsession with Bathsheba eventually blinds him.  David’s normally sensitive moral awareness is suspended in the face of sexual temptation, and he gives in to adultery.  But had it stopped there, who knows how much evil and suffering might have been avoided.

But no, rather than acknowledge his sin, he actually justifies murder in order to cover it up.  We can all easily imagine the rationale that his mind used.  He was a king whose rule had been constantly challenged by those who had previously followed Saul.  The safety and stability of the whole nation would have been shaken if his adultery became a tool in the hands of his enemies.  No, thought David, his sin must not become public.  Killing Uriah was simply an unfortunate but necessary step.  And so David gives the command.

But we know the rest of the story.  His whole existence—emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual—gradually implodes.  As Psalm 32 captures so graphically, it’s not until he finally acknowledges his sin and accepts responsibility does any kind of healing begin to take place.  Yes, consequences follow.  He pays a terrible price within his own family, as well as a civil war in the nation, but a profound change has taken place in David that would never leave him.  He’s no longer the impetuous, proud warrior, but the humbled and contrite sinner who marvels at the grace of God.  His life now anticipates, if you will, what Paul describes in the Galatian passage—the old David has died, and a new David has been born.

Unfortunately the story of David and Bathsheba is almost too epic.  It can be instructive but still very removed from the mundane, humdrum sins we ordinary Christians commit.  Which is why I am so grateful that the lectionary plugs in here the story we read from Luke’s gospel.  It brings the issue so much closer to home without losing any of the impact that David’s story has.  But because the account is so brief, I fear we often miss its power.

When we read stories like this in the gospels, we need to slow way down and really enter into the setting and the details.  Unfortunately we are more accustomed to getting our information fast, summarized, in sound-bites.  And so it can be very difficult for us to really listen to a text closely.  But it’s a skill we all need to cultivate when we read scripture.

Our gospel reading opens with Luke telling us that a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner.  Now this, in itself, raises some questions.  By and large the Pharisees were hostile to Jesus and his message, although we do encounter a few of them who seemed more open minded.  So what kind of Pharisee is this who has invited him in Luke’s account?  Later in the story Jesus will point out that upon arriving for dinner this particular Pharisee had actually treated Jesus rather coldly.  First of all, back then when a guest entered your home, it was customary to greet them with a kiss upon the cheek, much like the French do today.  Second, people wore leather sandals back then, and most of the roads in Palestine were unpaved and very dusty, so even a short walk resulted in everyone having dirty feet.  So when you arrived for dinner, it was assumed that the host would make provision for washing your feet.  Finally, as a gesture of appreciation, a host would often anoint your head with a perfumed olive oil, which was an inexpensive but pleasant way of making you feel welcomed.

However, this host did none of these things.  Jesus was forced to recline at table un-greeted, un-washed, and un-annoited.  In short, the Pharisee wanted to make it clear that Jesus was not really a valued guest, but someone who was merely being tolerated.  He was there because the Pharisee didn’t know what to make of him.  He was there to be examined and possibly criticized.

What we also need to realize is that due to Jesus’ fame, in addition to the other guests reclining at the table, there was likely a very large crowd hanging around.  When a person of repute attended a dinner, especially a controversial rabbi like Jesus, it was customary for large crowds to gather in the host’s courtyard in order to listen in on the conversation.  This would explain why it was so easy for this uninvited woman to be present and to have such easy access to Jesus.

Next, please notice a few things about the woman herself.  We are told that she was known in that town as a “sinner,” which in that culture almost certainly meant she was either a prostitute or, at the very least, a notoriously promiscuous woman.  She hears that Jesus is dinning nearby, and immediately joins the crowd at the Pharisee’s house.  No doubt people were shocked to see her there.  No doubt as she entered a path cleared out in front of her since nobody would want to associate with her.  But this only made it easier for her to find her target, which was Jesus.

Finally, the Greek text tells us that Jesus “reclined” or “laid down” for dinner, since in that day you didn’t eat from a chair, but you stretched out on a recliner on your left elbow, with your head pointed toward the table and your feet pointed away from it.  Once you can visualize this, all the details of the story make much more sense.

Jesus is facing the other guests, while the woman quietly approaches his feet.  She is weeping.  In fact she is weeping so hard that her tears are literally falling all over Jesus’ feet.  She sees this, and so she unbinds her hair (which was, in those days, a rather scandalous thing for a woman to do in public), then she kneels down and begins to wipe his feet with her hair.  What’s more, she actually begins to kiss his feet and then to pour perfume over them.

The dinner guests and the larger crowd almost certainly fell silent during all this.  The local people know who she is.  The host knows who she is.  They are all waiting for Jesus to respond to her in the expected way, either by pulling his feet back or telling her to go away.  Instead Jesus studies the face of his host, and by so doing he perceives precisely what’s going on in the man’s heart.  The Pharisee, like everyone else there, had heard so much about Jesus’ remarkable powers and his great insight.  Surely Jesus would know what kind of woman this is.  And so they are all disappointed to see Jesus doing nothing at all.  He simply allows the woman to do what she wants.

In fact, instead of being concerned about the woman, Jesus in more concerned about the Pharisee.  But before we reflect on what happens next, I want to ask one more question: Why was this woman weeping in the first place?  The easiest and most natural assumption to make is that she is feeling bad about her sins.  Her tears would thus be those of contrition and remorse.  She needs forgiveness and has come to seek it.  But as we’ll soon learn from Jesus, this is not the caseShe is not weeping out of guilt but out of gratitude.  Somehow, somewhere, she had already discovered the forgiveness that Jesus offers.  She may have attended one of his rallies or heard the good news from a friend.  Like the woman at the well in John’s gospel, she may have already discovered that living water, that new life that Jesus promised.  In short, she had not come to Jesus to grieve but show her love, pure and simple.

Which explains Jesus’ response to the Pharisee.  He tells his host a very simple story and then asks him an even simpler question, the answer to which would have been obvious to everyone there.  You have two men who owe a debt to the same lender.  One man owes a gazillion dollars, while the other man owes a comparative trifle.  Neither man has the means to repay the lender, so he decides to show compassion on them both and forgives all debts.  So, asks Jesus, which borrower will show the most love to that lender?  It’s a no-brainer, and the Pharisee answers correctly—he will love most who was forgiven most.

And by his own words that the Pharisee is caught.  By his very actions the Pharisee had made it clear that he had little regard for Jesus.  He had shown his disregard by violating all the standard courtesies of the day.   But in doing so he had also revealed that he had little awareness of how great his own sinfulness was.  He was smugly content in his own religion, his own righteousness, perfectly confident that he was pleasing to God because he kept all the rules and didn’t explore too deeply the real condition of his own heart.

But this woman had shown her love for Jesus in the most dramatic and extreme way possible, for she knew how much she had been forgiven.  She was painfully aware of the immense grace God had shown her, and this had transformed her whole perspective on life.  Curious, isn’t it?  The same Jesus, but two such different responses.

To truly know Christ is to become aware of our own hearts.  We love to recite John 3:16-17, but we seldom reflect on the verses that follow.  We love to hear the words:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

This is great stuff and the core of our gospel.  But listen to what follows: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.   Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.   But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

What John is conveying here is that living transparently before God can be painful, but it’s essential if we are ever going to discover the life God has for us.  When David decided to cover up his sin rather than confess it, he had become the Pharisee of Luke 7.  He had become more concerned about what he looked like in his outward appearance before the people than how he looked before God.  But thankfully, the David in Psalm 32, who could speak about the blessedness that follows true repentance, has now become the woman in Luke 7, overflowing with the tears of gratitude and love.

Taken together, all of these readings point to one essential truth.  We must, before all else, live transparently before GodOnly in the purifying light of God’s Holy Spirit can we ever come to terms with realityOnly then do we discover the true heart of God, a God whose forgiveness is not a sweeping of our sins under some cosmic rug but bringing them into the light of day so that we can name them and turn away from them.

This also explains all those appalling comments that Jesus makes throughout the gospels when he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.  For many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and perform many miracles?’  But then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’

            In other words, you can draw near to the Christian faith for some vague comfort it might offer you and yet never know Christ, never know his deep forgiveness and transforming power.  We can dress up in a kind of Christian religion that makes us look good to others and feel good to ourselves, but which has nothing to do with Christ himself.

Over the years I’ve taught at three different Episcopal churches in the Salem area.  What I love most about the Episcopal tradition is their Book of Common Prayer, a 500-year-old compendium of some of Christianity’s finest liturgy and prayer.  And in particular, I deeply appreciate how confession of sin is woven into their weekly worship.  Some of you may be thinking, “Well maybe that’s because Episcopalians have a lot to repent of!”  But I assume the same could be said for all of us, right?

In particular, in Rite 1 of their Eucharistic liturgy, the prayer of confession goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all mankind:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against your divine Majesty,
provoking most justly your wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for your Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please you in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Now this language sounds rather dramatic and extreme to our modern ears, doesn’t it?  Yet truth be told, it also sounds a lot like Psalm 32 that was read today.  And if you think Psalm 32 is intense, when you go home today, take a deep breath and then read Psalm 38.  It’s even worse.  Frankly, I think modern ears have trouble with prayers like this because we have lost all sense of how truly deep and evil our own personal sin actually is—how toxic, contagious, crippling and destructive it is, even our smallest sins.  We ask for God’s forgiveness, but in our hearts we really think, “Well, what’s the big deal?  Okay, so I screwed up; nobody’s perfect.  My heart’s basically in the right place.  Anyway, God will forgive me.  That’s what he does—he forgives.”

            The French cynic Anatole France, as he lay dying was apparently asked if he feared meeting God.  He is reported to have said, “Le bon Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier” (“The good God will forgive me; that’s his job”).  He could be cavalier about God’s forgiveness, because he was cavalier about his own sin.  But the woman who washed Jesus’ feet was radical in her love precisely because she understood what her sin had done to her and to God, and just how much she had been forgiven.  She knew that thanks to Jesus she could walk out of that place breathing deeply, freely, and full of hope for the future.  She had been restored to fellowship with the living God, and that made all the difference in the world.

May the Lord grant all of us this deep awareness of our own sin and the price God has paid to bring about our forgiveness.  May it foster in us all that kind of radical love that leads to newness of life.