A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 12, 2016
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.
Jesus was invited for dinner in the home of a devout religious man. He was a Pharisee named Simon. As I have said before, the Pharisees were not so much an organized group, but a category of people in ancient Judaism, devout and sincere, who took their religious observance seriously. Not much different than those Christians who are attending church today. We miss Jesus’ point if we become smug and think of the Pharisees as a group of people with serious faults that we as Christians don’t share.
Devout people often are certain that they know the opinions of God and are glad to spell them out. Simon thinks, “if this man were a prophet….” So the prophet is judged by the opinions of the devout and comfortable religious folk. Simon has a quick judgement of this woman—she’s a sinner. You know what that means. Do we really? It doesn’t actually say what her sin or sins were. What is clear is that she was an individual or part of some group of which Simon did not approve. Simon made assumptions about the woman, and about Jesus… and about God and what God wants. There is no reason to think that Jesus didn’t see what Simon saw, or that he did not know what Simon knew.
Jesus’ host was very disapproving, both of the sinner and of his guest, who some had called a prophet: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him.” But Jesus paid attention to what was happening, not to the assumptions and judgements that anyone was making. “Simon … you gave me no water for my feet—this woman washed them with her tears; you did not greet me with a kiss, but this woman kissed my feet…”
In their actions, the prophet indeed saw the inner truth of both the devout man and the sinful woman. It wasn’t that Jesus was admiring either person, nor condemning them. But his parable reveals how is situated with God. “Which of them will love him more?” The one who is forgiven the greater debt—is how Simon responded—and that was correct. But the difference I see between the two, is who lived in greater thankfulness to God, which one realized the mercy and loving-kindness of God. It is not great sins that bring the blessing of God, but a life of thankfulness and humility; a life of living in the truth and being courageous enough to say yes to Jesus.
It’s easy to become complacent after our long lives of virtue and achievement and to get tired of being thankful to God. To think that we have the method down and that our position as good people is secure. The story about King David and the prophet Nathan illustrates this. David was powerful and much beloved. So much so that he decided he could take what he wanted, and he wanted another man’s wife. And he arranged for that man to die in battle to cover up his indiscretion.
And when the prophet Nathan told the story, the King was so enamored of his own power that he did not recognize himself in the prophet’s parable. David was even angry—how could anyone could be so terrible—he, the King, was going to make it right, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” “You are the man!” the prophet told him.
A big dramatic story. Perhaps too big—people identify themselves with Nathan or the lamb, or the poor farmer. But Jesus pointed out the same thing to the devout religious man who hosted him for dinner. Who showed welcome? Who praised God for his mercy? Who recognized her sins that they might be forgiven?
We don’t show our devoutness by condemnation and disapproval, but by welcoming Jesus, caring for him; by living a life of thanksgiving, always aware that God is merciful to us. Every day.
“Those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bring the good news of the kingdom of God.”