Forgiveness and worship

Scriptures: Luke 7:36-50; Psalm 130

The story in Luke today is a good story to tell around Valentine’s Day. It’s got all the qualities of a great love story, kind of like The Princess Bride. It’s got passion, it’s got overcoming obstacles, standing up for the other, other people trying to interfere, it has forgiveness. It’s a great tale about great love one for another.

There is a letter that I saw the described online, that’s not like our Bible passages today, but one that we might be somewhat familiar with, in terms of the way it sounds. It’s a letter a young man wrote to his girlfriend. It said:

“Sweetheart, if this world was as hot as the Sahara desert, I would crawl on my knees through the burning sands to come to you. if the world would be like the Atlantic Ocean, I would swim through shark-infested waters to come to you. I would fight the fiercest dragon to be by your side. I will see you on Thursday, if it doesn’t rain.” Ah, the stuff love is made of.

Let’s take this passage today and look at it in-depth. I don’t want to overanalyze it, but there are some elements that I’d like to look at. So we start out with Jesus being invited out for lunch. Now Jesus had just raised the widow’s son in Nain prior to that. He had heal the centurion’s servant.

A Pharisee named Simon asked if Jesus would like to eat at his place, and Jesus accepted. Jesus was frequently accepting invitations to go eat somewhere. He liked to meet people where they were, and as we all know, around the dinner table sometimes is where you get some of the most intimate conversations. Sometimes as with Zacchaeus, he even invited himself.

Now it seems the news got out that Jesus would be eating at Simon’s house. And a sinful woman was waiting for Jesus to show up there. This woman is not named. There are some people who believe that she was Mary Magdalene – they try to conflate different but similar stories in the Gospels.

But I think there are too many differences. There are differences in location between the three different stories that are in the four gospels. There are differences in who’s present. There are differences in what is used to anoint Jesus.

In this story at Simon’s house – and by the way, Simon was also a common name. There are some that think he might have been Simon the leper, and others that think other things. At Simon’s house, the woman on cried on Jesus’ feet, wiped them off with her own hair, kissed them and poured expensive perfume on them.

Now this sounds pretty weird today, but back then and there, since everybody wore sandals, cleaning someone else’s feet was a sign of respect and honor. It was customary. If you’ve ever walked on dirt roads – and I know that many of you have, because we’ve got dirt and gravel around here – you know what it can do to your feet.

Simon did not react well at all to this. In fact, he used it in his mind as proof that Jesus was not who people said he was. I t makes me wonder if he actually saw the raising of the widow’s son, or saw the centurion’s servant get healed. Or if he was just that blind and hard-hearted. He said to himself, if this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman that is, that she is a sinner.

Now let’s be honest in our in our hearts at least. There have been times in our lives where I bet that we have felt much the same way, where we have looked at someone, and with the same sort of disdain in our heart said, look at that person there. He or she is a sinner. They’re undeserving. Maybe they’re a prostitute. Maybe they’re a panhandler. Maybe they’re an alcoholic who’s dead drunk on a bench. Maybe it’s a homeless person.

But Simon didn’t think much of her. And because of that, he didn’t think much of Jesus. Then Jesus, actually proving he was a prophet, responded to Simon’s unspoken thoughts (he does that many times in the Gospels). And he says, “Simon I have a story to tell you.” (This was a very traditional rabbinical way of teaching.)

And then Jesus told the story that we heard, of two people who owed a creditor some money. Now one owed less than the other, who owed ten times as much. But I’d like to point out that a denarius was a day’s wages. So basically, one owed about two months’ worth of wages. One owed about two years’ worth of wages.

I point that out so that we can put it into our own frame of reference. If you know how much you make as a salary or how much you bring in, imagine being two years in arrears. And Jesus asked a simple question: who would be more thankful for the debt being canceled.

Simon looked for a trap, didn’t see anything, and said that the one he supposed (I say he was looking for a trap because he said “I suppose”) that the one who owed more was forgiven of more and would love more. And Jesus said, “You have said (or judged) rightly.”

And this was exactly Jesus’ point. Jesus then connected it to Simon and the sinful woman, saying the woman showed Jesus much more love, he declared that her sins were forgiven, and sent her off – much to the dismay of the other guests, likely Pharisees, who were annoyed at the whole thing.

Let’s look at the two people in the story beside Jesus. First there was Simon the Pharisee. He had invited Jesus to his home, but had not performed the customary foot-washing. Even though Simon was the host, and that was part of their tradition, he had not treated his guest with much courtesy.

I remind you that, in Middle Eastern culture, hospitality is not just a generous thing. It’s a sacred duty. For Simon to give nothing in the way of washing Jesus’ feet, anointing Jesus’ head, giving him the kiss of greeting, was really quite a snub. And a slap in the face, regardless of who you thought this man was. Simon invited him into his home. And then dissed him.

Why would he have done that? Maybe he was just trying to find an excuse to dismiss Jesus. Maybe he was looking for some reason that he didn’t have to listen to what Jesus was saying. And it’s not that different today.

If a person can find hypocrites, then they think that they can just throw out whatever the hypocrite is saying. I hear that all the time about Christians. “Well, I don’t go to the church because that church is full of hypocrites.” It takes such great restraint for me not to say, “Well then, come join the club.” At least we recognize what we are.

Simon was thinking something like this: If Jesus were a prophet, he would know people’s character, and if Jesus knew this woman was a sinner, he would have nothing to do with her. Since Jesus accepted this woman, then he does not know her character, and since Jesus does not know this woman is a sinner, he cannot be a prophet. Therefore since Jesus is not a prophet, I can reject him. I can reject his message, and I can reject his ministry. Case closed.

And people do that, as well, today. There are those on one end of the spectrum who say obviously Jesus would not go to dances or Jesus would not go to the liquor store, Jesus would not play cards. Or Jesus would not be out and about and around where sinners are.

There are those who say that Jesus would not vote Liberal or Jesus would not vote Conservative or Jesus would not vote at all. There are those that say Jesus would be against gay marriage and those that say the Jesus would be for gay marriage, or that Jesus would leave liberal churches (or has left liberal churches).

And who knows? Maybe some of it is true, maybe some of it isn’t. But the point is, we assume that we know what Jesus would do. You know, I really find that little bracelet that everybody loves, WWJD, to be very dangerous.

What would Jesus do? It’s a good intent. But we would have to actually be familiar with Jesus and His Word. And let’s face it. In today’s society, where there is an average of 3.5 Bibles in every household in America, and it is easily accessible in any kind of translation you might want, with study aids and everything else, Biblical literacy today is at one of the lowest points it has ever been since the Bible was translated into common tongue and made more widely available with the Gutenberg printing press. We don’t read the Word. How do we know what Jesus would do? But we presume to believe we do.

I must say that Simon backed himself up with Scriptures too. He would have been able to quote passages that say that holy people should stay away from unholy things. And what happens is that we make Jesus against the same things we’re against. We make him in our own image, rather than the reverse. We call it looking more and more like him, but we really try to make him look more and more like us.

There was nothing wrong with Simon’s logic, but it was based on a faulty premise. He assumed that holiness was primarily a matter of separation. Holiness was achieved by keeping yourself separate from sin and sinners. That was a very Pharisaic view, with something they struggled with all the time.

According to this view, Jesus would have had to shun this sinful woman in order to remain holy. The same thing happened with the lepers, who by their touch would make you unclean. Jesus touched lepers. Guilt by association. According to this view, Simon concluded that 1) either Jesus didn’t know this woman’s character or 2) whether or not he knew about her sinfulness, he was physically contaminated by her, and thus could not be holy.

Like a lot of bad theology, this view emphasizes one aspect of truth while ignoring others. This view seeks to emphasize God’s holiness and His high standards of what is good and right, but it minimizes His compassion, His love and concern for people, and His mercy. Not just what they do to mess up their lives.

In fact, Jesus answers both views in his story. He says that two people owe the creditor. One is obviously the woman, and she owes more. But Simon is the other. He probably thought that he didn’t owe anything. He probably thought he was doing pretty good anyway. He didn’t need forgiveness. He didn’t need to love this man. He and God were OK. This man Jesus was clearly wrong, and he was clearly right.

In truth he did owe something. He was not perfect, though his life may have been cleaner than the woman’s. In his pride he did not realize that he was a debtor as well, and the irony of the whole thing is, the one with more sins is the one who gets forgiveness. The woman is forgiven. But he was not.

This is something that we who have grown up in the church, I think, sometimes struggle with. We have grown up in the church. We don’t really know what it means to be forgiven. We haven’t done the despicable things that we hear about.

I’m actually thankful sometimes – although I’d like to have a moment of testimony where people tell what God is doing in their lives, it’s good – as a Presbyterian I’m kind of glad that we don’t have those testimonials that people give, because you almost always hear from somebody “I used to do drugs and I did this and I did that and I was promiscuous and then God came upon my heart and turned me around one hundred eighty degrees and I live right now” and we go “Wow, that is such a great testimony. I wish I had something like that.” (You don’t really, but…)

We’re raised in the church. It’s the only thing we know. And because it’s all we’ve known, we take it for granted. There’s a cute little illustration. A family who moved into a new neighborhood had a late start one morning. As a result their six-year-old missed her school bus. Though it would make him late for work, her father agreed to take her to school if she gave him directions.

After twenty minutes of going in circles, they finally arrived at the school, which turned out to be only a few blocks away from where they lived. Angrily, her dad asked why she drove him all over the place when the school was so close to home. “We went the way the school bus does,” she said. “That’s the only way I know.”

It’s all we know. The woman may have been sinful, but she was seeking the Lord. She probably wasn’t a faithful Jew. She probably didn’t attend synagogue weekly. But she loved the Lord more than the not-so-sinful person did. Her actions were sinful, but her heart was loving. Her actions and her heart did not line up, but it seems that’s OK with Jesus, because he saw her heart. The sinful one was more in touch with Jesus than the righteous one.

What’s more, the woman loved Jesus before she was forgiven by him in verse 48. The previous verse seems to say that her sins were already forgiven. Even before Jesus told her she was forgiven, before she heard the words, she was forgiven. Clearly it’s impossible to decide if someone else is a Christian or not. Here was a sinful woman who had been forgiven by Jesus. Her reputation worked against her. Even her actions worked against her. But Jesus saw her heart, which no one else saw.

And Jesus knew that was good enough. Again I say, it’s not up to you to decide if someone is a Christian or not. You can’t tell by church attendance or by political stripes or by reputation or even actions. Only Jesus sees the heart, and that’s where it’s all decided.

I always like to tell people, when they ask me this question, “Why do I have to go to church?” I say, “Well, you don’t. You don’t need to go to church to be saved. As long as you believe in your heart, confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and God resurrected him from the dead, you are saved.

Just like you don’t need to be baptized to be saved. I mean, if somebody came to that understanding and confessed that at a McDonald’s, and walked out and got hit by a bus, they’re still going to go to heaven.

What we need the Church for, what we need attendance here for, is to learn, to grow, to mature in our faith, and to reach out and gain support from those around us, and to teach others and support them. The book of Timothy has a wonderful section where it talks about the older women leading the younger women and the older men leading the younger men, mentoring them in their faith.

John Calvin talked about the Church Invisible, and he wasn’t talking about the Church Triumphant. He was talking about the fact that in every church, there are those are going to have and those who are not, and sometimes, as Jesus said with the sheep in the goats, when he said he was going to come and separate them, we don’t know who is who. They don’t know who is who. There are those, when Jesus comes, who are going to say, “Lord, Lord,” and he’s going to say, “I don’t know you.”

So where does that leave us? What does the story mean for us? Well, Simon’s part tells us not to judge another person’s spiritual health by their actions. This, by the way, doesn’t mean that we can’t encourage those who are having behavior that is counter to Scripture, to God’s call to live a life that witnesses to Him, particularly within the church, and bring them back. But it does mean we can’t judge them. We’re no better than they are.

But the story isn’t really about Simon. It’s about the sinful woman and the love that she showed the Lord. This is a story, at its heart, about worship. The point is not, as much as it seems, who’s been forgiven for more things The point is, who realizes all that they’ve been forgiven of.

It didn’t matter how good the woman was compared to someone else. All that matters is that she loved the Lord, that she realized how little she deserved to be with him, and she was just grateful for what she had. She loved so much because she was forgiven much.

At its heart, that’s what worship is. Worship is for sinful people. Jesus didn’t deny or minimize the fact the woman was sinful You don’t have to be perfect to come to church. Which is the image believers have given off over the years, whether Jewish or Christian. That is, they say you have to be living right if you want to be here. It’s not the image we want to project but when someone else’s lifestyle disgusts us, it’s hard to hide it, and they see it.

Again, we can call people to a better way of life, as long as we’re willing to reach out with the real heart of love and acceptance for where people are at this moment. Jesus said when we are aware of our own sinfulness, and when we are also aware of His perfection, that’s when worship happens. When we know how little we deserve, and yet God is good to us anyway, that’s when worship happens. When we can ignore the crowds that are around us, at the table, at the dinner, and focus our eyes on Jesus. That’s when worship happens.

Worship isn’t about us. It’s not about making us happy. It’s not about singing the songs we like. Worship is about Jesus. There’s a praise chorus that’s pretty well-known to a lot of people, you may have heard of it, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” [Sings] “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.”

The woman was preoccupied with Jesus. She didn’t care there were others there who looked down on her. She cared only about what the Lord thought about her. He didn’t care how many hypocrites were around. Her worship was focused on him. And for her, worship is not about receiving something from God, so much as giving something back to Him. She recognizes what God has already given.

Jesus was approached by many people, most of whom wanted something from him. I don’t wish to minimize this or condemn it. If I lived in Jesus’ day and were blind, I would want to come to Jesus for him to restore my sight. It is a big draw of many faith healers. But this woman’s worship was expressed by her giving to Jesus, not getting from him.

When we pray, sometimes our prayers seem like a wish list, and intercessory prayer is critical – we do it every Sunday – but too seldom, our prayers are praise and adoration alone, without any request, or our only desire is to be in His presence.

So I encourage you today, be thankful for the Lord’s love. Be grateful to Him for allowing you to know Him and love Him back. Sometimes it’s hard. There are reasons why this woman could have stayed away from Jesus and not worshiped him. She wasn’t invited and she wasn’t wanted by the people. She might be kicked out. She certainly would be scorned. And there would be hypocrites there. But she worshiped Jesus anyway.

Sometimes, we just have to trust Jesus. And isn’t that what faith is all about? So I say, love Him, honor Him, respect Him, obey Him. Spend time with Him. Get to know Him better. Remember all that you’ve been forgiven of, and don’t forget all His goodness to you. And then your whole life will become one of worship. And the love story will be shared with others, and carry on.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: