Rev. Ed Searcy
Luke 7:36 - 8:3
University Hill United Church : Sun, June 13, 2004
Jesus is eating out again. Every time we turn around Jesus is eating with somebody. Today he accepts an invitation from a Pharisee to come home for dinner. A pharisee. You remember the Pharisees. They are the faithful liberals of the day. Not legalistic like the scribes. Not ultra conservative like the Sadducees. Not violent like the Zealots. The Pharisees are open to reinterpretation of the Torah. The Pharisees are interested in Jesus because he sounds like he might be one of them. We have caricatured the Pharisees as mean-spirited bullies for too long. We should be more careful. When we look closely at the Pharisees they look awfully familiar. And today Jesus accepts an invitation to eat at the home of a Pharisee. Today Jesus is not eating with tax-collectors and sinners while the Pharisees murmur righteously in the background. At last Jesus is in good company, reclining at the low table, leaning on one arm, discussing scripture with those who are devoted to God. But no matter what the Pharisees do, sinners will not leave Jesus alone. Even when they are uninvited, they show up and ruin the occasion. At least, that is what Jesus’ host is thinking when that woman shows up. That woman is a known sinner. In other words, she is a criminal. She has broken laws. She is unfaithful to the covenant. She is out of place among such good company. But there is nothing to stop her from entering the room. It is a public occasion. And Jesus’ feet are stretched out behind him as he reclines towards the table. In the background she lavishes his feet with her fountain of tears, with her long hair and with her expensive ointment. Jesus says nothing. But his host is not amused. The sight of a holy man with an unclean person is almost too much for him. Surely a messenger from God knows what kind of a person is touching him in public and puts a stop to it. We are ready. We know what is coming. Jesus is going to teach the Pharisee a lesson in hospitality. He is going to show his good liberal host how to be truly inclusive by making a place at the table for sinners. But we are wrong. Jesus does nothing of the sort. In fact, he sends the woman on her way, telling her to “Go in peace”. That’s right. This isn’t a story about Jesus welcoming the sinner to the table. We assume that the text must be about the opposing ways that Jesus and a Pharisee view this sinner who so rudely - or wonderfully (depending on your point of view) - interrupts dinner. Simon the Pharisee sees someone who doesn’t belong (who that is, of course, depends upon the group that you travel with. But every group has their version of a person who doesn’t belong). Simon sees a trouble maker not to be trusted. Jesus sees a person restored to her rightful place in society. Jesus sees a wounded, troubled survivor of Indian Residential Schools now restored to her clan in the feast hall. This text has the makings of a great sermon - something about how we are so quick to internally rank one another. Our seemingly innocent question “What do you do?” too often masks a nasty habit of valuing one another by achievements or by employment. Even the uninitiated know that no one is supposed to answer “I am an unemployed ex-convict who just spent my welfare cheque at the local bar”. Yes, this could be a great sermon about making room for the sinner at the table and in the church. But it is not the sermon that Jesus is preaching this morning. Jesus speaks up: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon says: “Teacher, speak”. This is exciting. A sermon, directly from Jesus himself. This really is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God! And Jesus keeps it simple for Simon. A credit card company has two debtors. One owes five thousand dollars, the other five hundred bucks. When neither one can pay, the credit office cancels both debts. Which debtor loves the creditor more? Simon hesitantly answers: “I suppose the one who owed the most.” “Precisely,” says Jesus, “now, do you see this woman?”. Well, of course, Simon sees this woman. Everyone in the house sees this woman making a spectacle of herself and embarrassing the host who is not quite sure how to quietly usher her outside. That is what Simon sees. Jesus sees something else. He notices that Simon the Pharisee has ignored the simple gestures of hospitality. Upon entering the house there was no offer of water for Jesus to clean his dirty feet, nor was there the customary kiss from the host, nor the blessing of oil with which to anoint the head of Jesus, the guest. It turns out that Simon the Pharisee is something of a rude, ill-mannered host. And now this woman who goes unnamed and who does not live in Simon’s household welcomes Jesus, after the fact, to the table. She bathes his feet with her tears, kisses his feet with her lips, anoints his feet with ointment. So much attention to his feet. It is as if she has already read the gospel of John, already heard of the scene at the last supper when Jesus - Jesus mind you - washes his disciples’ feet and says to his infant church: “”If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example” (John 13:14-15). But she hasn’t heard that story and she isn’t acting out of obedience, doing as Jesus has commanded because he hasn’t told her to do anything. This unnamed sinner welcomes Jesus to the table with tender acts of hospitality because she is overcome with gratitude. She - an outsider - extends the welcome that Jesus is due while the Pharisee whose home it is forgets his manners. Everything is turned upside down. Gathered in this Chapel we think of Jesus as the host at the table and of good, upstanding religious folk as his servants who welcome seekers and sinners to join the meal. But today, in this peculiar text, Jesus comes as a guest to the home of an upstanding religious man where Jesus receives hospitality from an uninvited, stigmatized seeker who is a sinner. It is all very confusing. What’s going on? Jesus notices that a lot is going on beneath the surface of this meal. For that matter, Jesus notices that a lot is going on beneath the surface of this worship. The woman’s act of overflowing hospitality and Simon the Pharisee’s stingy hosting are signs of something deeper. Jesus says that what is going at the table is all about forgiven debt. Peasants in 1st Century Palestine are deeply in debt. It is a huge problem for these poor sharecroppers. They understand all about credit woes. Do you hear? More than that, they know all about the many debts owed in families and neighbourhoods, in synagogues and villages. These are the debts of promises not kept and relationships broken. Over time these debts accumulate until they are impossible to repay and life is mired in the brokenness and disappointment and despair we call the wages of sin. Living in sin is living deeply in debt to others because of promises made and not kept. And chief among those creditors is God, for at baptism and at the eucharist we promise that our life will be lived as God’s people who will be faithful to God’s ways. What is going on at Simon’s table? Beneath the surface, says Jesus, there is a lot of forgiveness going on for somebody here. That is what all the gratitude is about. That is what all the hospitality is about. That is what all the outpouring of love and generosity and care is all about. Simon barely even offers the basics of hospitality to Jesus - to Jesus of all people! And Jesus doesn’t complain. He says it’s a sign of not much forgiveness needed or, at least, received beneath the surface. We are left with unanswered questions. This unnamed woman appears in the gospel with embarrassing devotion and then, just as quickly, disappears into the streets. Yet something about her resonates deeply with our life as Christ’s people. Yes, too often the church is a stingy host to Jesus. Too often the church is all form and precious little passionate gratitude. But beneath the surface something else is going on. Our debt is too huge to ever be repaid, no matter how loving and generous and kind we are from here on. We do not feel free to live into the future because we are so weighed down by the hurts and mistakes and mis-steps of the past. Forgiveness has to do with liberating us from the prison of the past. But how does it work? How is the woman forgiven? And when? And where? Jesus leaves us confused. There is no map, no guide book, no set of directions here that will show us how to be forgiven. Jesus tells Simon: “Therefore, her sins, which were many have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” and then he says to the woman “Your sins are forgiven ... Your faith has saved you”. Are her sins forgiven because she comes and finds Jesus and offers this act of gratitude? No. Jesus is clear that her hospitality is a response to forgiveness. She seeks Jesus out because she is indebted to him for cancelling her debt. Has she met him before? Has she heard him or just heard of him? We do not know. But she has encountered the good news of God’s debt forgiveness program. This is the gospel: life in the Kingdom of God begins with no debts owing. Hallelujah! No wonder that the most wildly generous and the most surprisingly hospitable in the forgiven community called the church are those who know how amazing is the gift of freedom from debt, freedom from the weight of sin, freedom from prison of the past, freedom to live today fully for God, freedom to live generously with neighbour, freedom to lavish hospitality upon the stranger in our midst, freedom to serve Jesus without reserve. This is what is going on beneath the surface of this text and beneath the surface of our life. Jesus is making a new future possible for a church and a world that is deeply mired in broken promises. To believe this news, to trust Jesus as one who tells and lives the truth, is to be saved. It is as simple as that. And all it costs is our life.