The Sunday Sermon: Forgiveness is Great for Those With Much to Forgive
Sermon for Proper 6 C 2016
The Rev’d Thomas J. Pettigrew
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel this morning is one of those passages which probably sounds familiar to us, but not quite familiar as say the Good Samaritan, or the beatitudes.
Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a dinner. Certainly, he was invited because of his growing renown as a teacher – someone who was making waves in society. Simon the Pharisee, the host of this formal dinner wanted Jesus there so he could see and hear what everyone was talking about.
As a bit of an aside, it turns out that Luke is the only of the Gospels that tells us that Jesus accepted formal dinner invitations to eat with Pharisees. And in each instance of these dinners, he turns out to be a scandal to his host.
This is true here, in this dinner party at Simon’s house. Jesus becomes a scandal to his host when he allows a woman, who was publically a sinner, which is an euphemistic way of saying she is a prostitute. She comes into the house and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment, and wipes her tears off his feet with her hair.
First off, lets cover two things – How did she get into the dinner party, and second, how did she get access to Jesus’ feet. Believe it or not, her access into the house was not a problem at all. Apparently it was common that at these dinner parties, the public could freely come and go from the house. It doesn’t really make sense to us – I can’t think of any other equivalent in contemporary society where the public is allowed to come into a dinner and watch the invited guests eat, up close and personal.
As for this woman’s access to Jesus’ feet – Luke tells us that the guests reclined at table. Since Alexander the Great in the 300’s BC, Israel had become increasingly Hellenized – that is to say they were adopting many customs and courtesies of their Greco-Roman rulers. If you recall, this is one of the main themes in the Maccabean Period of the Early 1st Century BC. It was the custom, at formal dinner parties such as this one, for the guests to recline in the Greco-roman fashion in which a short table was in the middle with everyone laying with their heads towards it, while their feet were behind them, like the spokes of a wheel.
Visualizing that will show how easy it is for someone to have access to the feet of Jesus.
As this woman is there at our Lord’s feet, anointing them with oil, and wiping her tears off with her hair, Simon, the host of the dinner party notices, and says 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.” And in a certain ironic twist, Jesus knows what Simon is thinking and so he tells them a parable about two debtors, who owed money to a lender but who’s loan debts were cancelled. “Which of the two will love the lender more?” asked Jesus. Simon replies, “the one who had the larger debt.”
He then goes on to point out that this woman has done all the things which Simon failed to do as the host of the party when Jesus arrived: “You gave me no water for my feet, but she was we my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Now, to be clear, it’s not that Simon, in not doing all of these things was being a bad host. By failing to do these things he wasn’t being rude. Social convention did not require him to do any of these things. What it does show, though, is the relationship that Simon had with our Lord, his guest. Simon treated Jesus properly according to the polite demands that a respectable host would be expected to treat his guest. That he didn’t go beyond those demands shows us he true attitude toward Jesus. On the other hand, this woman had to break social convention, and no doubt, over come many mental and emotional barriers in order to show her love for Jesus.
Going back to that question of Jesus- “Which of the two debtors will love the lender more?” The word that Luke uses for Love is agape. It’s a word which I have drilled into your heads over the last 5 years as meaning something like “God’s perfect love.” And in this context, that word Agape means a love that expresses thanksgiving.
Think about it this way – the early Christians gathered for worship – and they were accused of some rather bizarre things – because they called their gathering a love feast – and agape meal – overtime that word agape was replaced by Eucharist – which means more directly, thanksgiving.
So Jesus’ question could perhaps better be translated as “Who will be more thankful to the lender for the forgiveness of their debts” – “the one who was forgiven more.”
Simon’s welcome of Jesus followed the prescribed social norms. But think about how we welcome a great guest into our homes. If the UPS guy knocks on our door to drop off a package, we follow a set of norms and courtesies – we say good morning, we might ask how the day is going, we say thank you, have a nice day. These are the social norms and courtesies which keep us above the “your being rude” line.
But if our long lost best friend were to knock on our door unexpectedly, the reaction to their appearing would be tremendously different. Our reaction would be more like the father of the prodigal son – we’d probably have a big smile, a hug, invite them in, offer them a drink, and just be full of joy at their presence.
Simon’s greeting and welcome of Jesus was perhaps the equivalent of our greeting of the UPS man – while the woman’s greeting of Jesus – well to say it was the greeting of a long lost friend might just be right.
This woman’s actions towards Jesus demonstrated a greater joy and a greater thankfulness and greater love for Jesus’ presence than Simon’s – because she had realized the great gift that Jesus’ had given to her – the forgiveness of her sins.
But in order to show that gratitude, in order to give that thanks, that woman, who was publically and probably notoriously, a sinner had to overcome much within her self in order to greet her Lord with such joy and thanksgiving. And I want to suggest to you that you and I must go through the same things which this woman did, so that today, as we kneel at communion, we too can give thanks and greet the Lord with love and joy.
She had first to acknowledge her sinfulness. Everyone probably made it know to her that she was a horrible sinful person – by the way they treated her in the streets; by the way the disrespectfully spoke to her; by what they used her for as a prostitute. But for you and for me to face our own sinfulness is not something which we like to do. We become comfortable with our faults and our flaws. And rather than charging at them head on to allow the grace of God to conquer them, we learn to live around them, to hide them, from ourselves and from others.
Secondly, she had to be willing to come to our Lord for that forgiveness. She had to be willing to believe that God has the power to forgive her. Like her, we need to realize that no matter how great our sin – how bad we may think it is, or how long we have been living in it, God is able, and indeed, ready and willing to forgive us for our sins.
Finally, she had to be willing to accept the forgiveness within herself. Forgiving others for what they have done is hard enough. But forgiving ourselves for our faults and imperfections is, I think, even harder. Once we acknowledge our sinfulness, we have to acknowledge that we are infact the person who did that sort of thing. And we don’t like to admit to ourselves that we’ve done wrong, let alone the type of person who would do that sort of wrong in the first place.
Why don’t we like to do that? I want to suggest that it’s because when we’ve discovered that we’re the kind of person who sins – indeed, does that one particular kind of thing – and you can name your own fault – we begin to feel that our value, our worth, our self-respect, and perhaps even our integrity as a human being has been utterly and completely destroyed. We might even say that we feel that something within us, or who we thought we were, was dying or had suddenly died.
What I want to say this morning is that it’s okay to feel that way. Indeed, there is a sense in which we must feel that way. And the reason is that because those feelings come because we have had the source of our value, worth, respectability, and dignity all wrong.
They don’t come from within us, though they do exist within us.
When we realize, like the woman weeping at our Lords feet that our value, our worth, and our dignity come to us from God, and from God alone… When we realize that – when we realize that our value and worth as people come from God, who sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, then greeting which we give to our Lord will be the same greeting that the Sinful woman gave Jesus, instead of the customary platitudes given by Simon.
When we realize that our sins can be forgiven, our value and dignity, not only restored but given from the true source they were supposed to come from all along, then how could we not with Joy and Love, and thanksgiving, greet our Lord as we would greet a friend who has returned to us.
Yet, in a certain twist, in greeting our Lord this way, we realize that it’s not we who have given the greeting, but indeed it is our Lord who greets us at his door with joy and love as one greeting a long lost friend who has returned.