RCL Year C, Proper 6
So I’m talking for a few weeks in my sermons about the God we don’t believe in, the images of God that are a barrier for so many people both in the church and outside of it. We may not think too hard about theology in the day to day, but ideas we carry around in our heads can really do a number on our relationship with God and each other. What we think of God affects how we live, ultimately – so it’s important to get our ideas clear. I’ve named a couple wrong ideas so far: We don’t believe in a God who demands that we get our theology exactly right before we approach. We don’t believe in a God who sends suffering as punishment. And today, we have a third: we don’t believe in a God who holds our guilt before us, refusing to forgive.
The gospel story we heard today is a powerful story of forgiveness. It’s one of the few stories that happen in all four of the gospels. In each version, a woman approaches Jesus and anoints him with an extravagant amount of perfumed oil – but the meaning and the context of her action is different in every gospel. Luke is the only one to include the idea of forgiveness in the story. The woman is identified as ‘a sinner,’ and that is the main problem for those who watch and disapprove of what she does. It is possible that that means she is a prostitute – as an unaccompanied woman with enough money to buy expensive perfume, that seems plausible – but it’s not stated. Luke seems to present her as a universal type for all of us to identify with, a repentant sinner. But there’s no doubt the story is meant to be shocking – she is a woman breaking into a all-male gathering at the home of a religious official, ignoring the boundaries and conventions of cleanness and purity and touching a man lovingly and intimately before the gathered company. It is shocking even now to imagine the scene – little wonder it was shocking then to see it.
I wish we knew what the woman was thinking. What made her do it? Had she already encountered Jesus earlier and received forgiveness from him? Had she only heard of him or seen him from afar, and yet was drawn to him to perform this act of love and generosity? What did she see in Jesus exactly? What was she hoping for?
None of these are questions Simon the Pharisee or the guests seem to ask. They look at her and see only ‘sinner’ – a category of person, not a human being. They also see her as a good test of who Jesus is. Surely if Jesus were really a prophet, a holy man of God, he would know what kind of person she is, and he would not let her touch him in that way. But Jesus hears their unspoken criticism and addresses them all through Simon: Do you see this woman? Do you see this human being here before us? Of course the answer is no – they don’t see a human being; they see a threat to purity and appropriate behavior. So Jesus continues, and drives his point home: She has done more for me by way of hospitality than you have, Simon my host. Jesus is saying in effect, yes, I know what sort of person she is. I also know what sort of person you are, Simon. And then he offers forgiveness to the woman, whose grateful weeping shows what it means to her. And implied in this, Jesus offers that same forgiveness to Simon, should he choose to accept it. We don’t know if he does. And there the story ends.
This gospel reading today is paired with the reading from Galatians, which echoes some of the same themes. Arguing against those who say that you have to follow and obey all the laws and customs of Jewish law in order to be a Christian, Paul begins to rough out his theology of grace. It is God’s initiative and invitation to relationship that makes us clean, he insists, not our own actions. Our own behavior and righteousness do not earn us the love of God. God is the one who offers the forgiveness we need; our part is simply to live into that forgiveness and love. So we are welcome into the body whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done. Loving, right relationship, which God offers to us, is more important than any laws of good/bad behavior.
So why is it that we in religious communities continue to insist on judging other people? The gospels and the teachings of Paul that our faith is built on, as well as the Hebrew Scriptures, communicate so clearly that God is gracious and merciful. Why do we insist so strongly in our actions and rules that it is otherwise?
Partly it’s as I said last week, that we have a hard time with the idea of grace. It’s easier for us to focus on wrong done, look for who is to blame, and seek to have a price paid for the offense given. Without that, it seems to us like someone is getting away with something, and that bothers us. Fairness demands consequences – even though, of course, very often the world works otherwise. But at least God ought to be fair, we think. And that means punishment for bad behavior.
I was reading in a parenting book last night about how to teach kids forgiveness. It requires moving them from that rational part of their brain that determines ‘fairness’ to the part of the brain where empathy resides – where instead of asking whether it’s fair, they ask how the other person feels. It’s not just kids that need to do that work.
But I think it might also come down to a tendency for us religious types of getting a little bit self-righteous. We think we’re doing pretty well, all in all. We’re not nearly as bad as some of those other people. The police officer who led the Neighborhood Watch meeting the other night here kept talking about the ‘criminal element’ and which neighborhoods that ‘element’ frequents. He assured us that it’s only 15% of people that police have to work with – implying that the other 85% of us basically decent types aren’t nearly as bad as them. Easy for the Almaden crowd there to feel a little superior, a little smug that we aren’t nearly as nasty as that 15%. And as Christians, we can get the same way. We’re not perfect, but we know we’re not as bad as most.
The problem is that when we fall into that thinking, we’re all about judgment of other people. Instead of looking at the log in our own eye, we’re all over the specks in other people’s eyes. And that kind of self-righteousness – that kind of entitlement to the good citizen seal of approval – can prevent us from acknowledging that we too need to be forgiven. It’s just what Simon the Pharisee is guilty of in today’s gospel. He’s completely focused on the outrageous, notorious sin that the woman represents – and utterly blind to his own sinfulness, his lack of love and generosity. Jesus offers him forgiveness too, but for someone like Simon, that offer is not good news – it’s simply offensive.
When it comes down to it, it’s hard to really allow God to be gracious and merciful when we ourselves haven’t experienced that grace and mercy. We want God to give other people their just desserts – even though if we really looked at ourselves truthfully, we’d be pretty glad that doesn’t happen to us. But the good and terrible news of God is that everyone is offered forgiveness – everyone, the ones we consider bad and the not-so-bad, stands in need of God’s grace. There’s no point being smug – we need grace just as much as anyone else needs it. Perhaps, when you consider our sins of hardness of heart, selfishness, judging, and so on, we need forgiveness even more than your average notorious sinner. Jesus often seems far more concerned with the actions of our hearts than we are. And when we fully realize that, we might just be as immensely grateful as the woman is with her jug of oil, never mind the proprieties. Because what an amazing gift that forgiveness is – and how little we have to do to receive it. It simply requires acknowledging our need for it, and reaching out to ask. So our prayer this week: May we know both our own real need for forgiveness, and the abundant mercy God gives us, always. Amen.