Grace, mercy, and peace to
you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Simon the Pharisee was understandably
upset. No doubt you’d be upset, too, if what happened to him happened to
you. He was trying to hold a proper gathering of the right sort of people. He
didn’t want this party-crashing woman bursting in and causing a ruckus at
his dinner. Especially that
We’d probably feel much
the same way. Let’s try it out and see. Imagine that Jesus is here. Well,
wait—that’s not a good example; He is here, after all. But imagine Jesus is
physically here. No, that’s not something we have to imagine, either; He’s
physically here each time we celebrate the Divine Service.
OK, OK… I’ve
got it now. Let’s imagine that Jesus is visibly as well as physically and
spiritually present, and in addition to being joined together and forgiven in sharing
His body and blood, He’s standing before us right now. Let’s say He’s
come to deliver the sermon this morning instead of me. And we’ve all come
eager to hear Him.
But then she enters the picture. She didn’t
come in with the rest of us – taking a bulletin from the usher, sitting down in
a pew. She slipped in late. Just to look at her, you know she’s not the
sort to be a part of the usual church-going crowd at all. Her make-up is heavy
and lewd. She wears a dress that fits so tight it reveals more than it conceals.
Some of you have seen her before. You know where she hangs out. And it sure isn’t
here. Even those of you who’ve never seen her before can make an educated
guess about just what sort of woman she is… and you wouldn’t be wrong.
But somehow she’s heard
that Jesus is here this morning and that His words are meant for her. That’s
why she’s come. It too a great deal of courage for her to do so. She’s
terrified at the thought of what might happen to her here. Will she be stopped
at the door? Laughed at? Mocked? Publicly scorned by all the morally-correct
people who occupy the pews on Sunday and look down their noses at her the rest of
the week? It wouldn’t surprise her. It happens all the time.
But still she does what she
has to do. She heads up the center aisle. Timidly at first. Then, breaking into
a run out of fear that someone might tackle her and stop her, she throws herself
down at Jesus’ feet, right here in front of us all. She begins to weep uncontrollably.
Her tears bathe Jesus’ feet. She dries them with her hair. Incredibly, Jesus
lets her do it. He even seems to enjoy it. He looks down at her with complete
And what do you, the congregation,
make of all this? Honestly, now! Wouldn’t you be horrified? Or—at
the very least—horribly embarrassed? Surely you’d expect somebody to put a stop to this. Why don’t
the ushers do something? Doesn’t Jesus know who she is? Some of you would probably decide
the incident had better be taken up at the next meeting of the Elders or the Church
Council. You’d already be composing your “shocked and appalled”
e-mails in your heads.
But Jesus knows what you’re
thinking, and so, true to form, He tells you a story, something you could probably
relate to and understand: Two people had their homes mortgaged to the same bank.
One was a month behind on the payments; the other a whole year behind. The bank
was threatening to foreclose on the both of them. But then, in a wildly unexpected
turn of events, the bank simply cancels the debt of both. So tell me, says Jesus,
which person got the better deal? Which one had the greater occasion for gratitude?
The obvious answer is the
one who was a whole year behind on his payments. Of course.
And Jesus says, “That’s
absolutely right. And this woman can’t do enough to thank me because her
sins, though they were many, have been forgiven. In fact, she puts you to shame;
you who downplay the depth and magnitude of your sins, explain them away, or try
to compare their severity to the sins of others so you seem to be ‘not so
bad.’ Because such outrageous displays of affection and gratitude for having
your death sentence removed, far from being out of place, ought to be commonplace.”
If there’s something
we can begin to learn from having this parable and Jesus’ lesson to Simon
updated a bit so it’s more connected to our own experience, it that you have
to know how incredibly much you’ve been forgiven before you can love Jesus
as you ought. It’s a matter of being a Christian on Jesus’ terms, not
According to Jesus, the first
thing you do, as the woman did, is take the risk of acknowledging the greatness—really
the treacherous rottenness—of your sin. So Jesus challenges Simon. He also
challenges you and me and anybody else who might consider themselves included with
the “ins” instead of the “outs.” Jesus is challenging you
to take the risk of loving him for what he alone can do.
It is only a seeming risk though. It’s really not
just the safe route, but the only route. It’s admitting that it is not your
goodness, your support of the work of the church, your feeding the hungry, or giving
for the relief of the poor, or anything else you might lump into the category of
respectable good deeds. It’s nothing of that sort which is going to get you
one hair’s breadth closer to the kingdom of God.
Only the forgiveness of sins does that. And that presumes that you have some sins
to forgive and—what’s more—that you know it.
So we begin the service like
you ought to begin every day; like you ought to begin every conscious thought, really:
You start with the honest confession that there’s something radically wrong
with you. Yes, even you. And one of the things that just might be radically wrong
with you is a not-so-pretty inclination to look down on others whom you think are
less morally correct than you are.
This is tough stuff. It sounds
totally strange to a world that teaches us that we ought to feel good about ourselves.
We’re different, and we believe different things, but I’m okay. You’re
okay. We’re all okay, right? What’s with all this talk about objective,
universal morality? Why bother anyone with sin and guilt? It’s a downer
isn’t it? Maybe even a psychiatric disorder. Who wants to admit that there’s
something terribly wrong with him or her?
This is the way the world
thinks. But Jesus knows better. And he teaches otherwise. Being okay is just
that: Okay. Jesus has something far better in mind. Better than just being okay,
you can know that you are deeply loved, daily cared for, once-and-for-all died-for
people. You’re considered better than okay, and you can know how highly honored
and esteemed you are by God. Not for the sake of what you’ve done, but for
the sake of what Christ did when He carried that cross to the Place of the
Skull. How much more esteemed and honored and loved can you possibly be, than to
have God die for you? And it all begins anew—your restoration and your realizing
and understanding this—when you take the risk of acknowledging your sin and
humbly plead for mercy.
But that’s just the
beginning. That’s not where it ends. So it’s interesting to speculate
what happened next with Simon, the Pharisee, who was so upset by the woman’s
outrageous display of affection and appreciation toward Jesus.
Could it be that Jesus’
love for sinners got through to Simon? It’s not altogether farfetched to
suppose that it did. After all, many of the people we meet in the New Testament
are nameless. But in this case, we know this Pharisee’s name. It’s
entirely possible; maybe even probable, that he later became a member of the new
Christian community and told fellow believers of this encounter and experience with
Jesus that changed his life.
Such a change was not impossible
for Simon, no more than is was and is for us when we are touched by Christ. And
as we are touched by his love, we realize that the risk we take involves not just
admitting that we’re in need of the mercy of God. It also involves daring
to ask what we—as redeemed, rescued, and renewed sinners—should be doing
for the kingdom of
Christ that we’re not
already doing. What should be changed in the way we live within our families, go
about our work or our schooling, and otherwise conduct our affairs?
Christ’s love and Christ’s
work for you are very real, even though I’ve asked you to use your imagination
quite a bit today. Seeing with our mind’s eye how the reality of His gifts
might guide us in new directions is a gift of God, too. As long as our vision is
shaped by His Word, there’s nothing wrong with imagining how our relationship
with God and with others might be made better.
So, then, what if Jesus’
love for sinners got through that day, even to Simon, through his initial anger
at the party-crashing, sinful woman? Think of Simon and that woman meeting the
next day, perhaps on one of the streets of their town. If Jesus’ love got
through to Simon, did he try to avoid her, and cross over to the other side of the
street as he most likely would have done in the past? Or did he stop to speak with
her? Perhaps even have her over to supper in his home, this time with an invitation,
and without the distaste for her presence?
And what about her? Would
she drop her eyes in continued shame, worried about what others thought, knowing
her reputation? Or would she hold her head high as a forgiven child within the
kingdom and household of God, her sordid past now and forever behind her, even as
she continued to need daily repentance, as do we all?
It’s proper to ask such
questions because Jesus doesn’t just leave us sitting here in church. He
sends us out into the world as forgiven sinners who keep bumping into other sinners—all
of them redeemed, some still in need of knowing that. And Jesus’ love leads
us to forgive as we have been forgiven, to deal with one another as God deals with
us. Such a change is not impossible—not for Simon; not for us. And when
it happens, outrageous displays of love and appreciation to Jesus are perfectly
proper, and affection for one another more common and more genuine.
In the holy name (X) of Jesus. Amen.