Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pharisees and Sinners, Each and All

Pharisees and Sinners, Each and All
Lk 7:36-50[1]
  There are a lot of reasons why people practice their religion.  For some, it’s simply what their family has always done, and so they do it too.  For others, attending church or synagogue or mosque is an integral part of their ethnic identity.  Then there are those who have more interesting motivations.  Some practice their religion as a way of “keeping up appearances.”  For others, their religious accomplishments are a source of personal pride, and they parade them every chance they get.  In recent times, especially in this country, the Christian faith has become a sanctified means of wish fulfillment: if you pray the right way or follow the right steps, all your dreams will come true.  You’ll have the marriage you’ve always wanted, you’ll have perfect children, and you’ll never have to worry about your finances.  As I said, there are a lot of reasons why people practice their religion.
  I think our Gospel lesson for today provides us with a study that contrasts two very different people and their very different reasons for practicing their religion.  Jesus attends a dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon.  He must have been a person of some prominence, because he’s one of the few Jewish leaders to be called by name in the Gospels.  Apparently, Simon had heard about Jesus and he was curious to see for himself what this rabbi from Nazareth was about.  There’s no indication that Simon had any genuine interest in becoming a disciple of Jesus.  The fact that Jesus wasn’t the only guest suggests Simon must have invited some of his friends to the dinner--presumably other Jewish leaders.  It’s hard to tell what his motivation was on the surface of things.  Was he simply curious?  Did he want to question Jesus?  Was he out to demonstrate that his piety was superior to this carpenter from Galilee?  It’s hard to say.
  The contrast in the story is with the woman who comes to Jesus.  Luke’s Gospel simply says that she was a “sinner.”  Although some translations assume that she had lived an immoral life, we don’t really know that.[2]  Yes, Jesus said that her sins were many, but that’s a statement that could apply to us all.  In Jesus’ day, people like Simon had all kinds of reasons for calling someone a “sinner,” most of which had nothing to do with that person’s actual character.  But she knows that she’s a sinner.  And she knows something else as well: her sins have been forgiven.  It’s hard to know what motivated her to break all social conventions and “crash” this dinner with its VIP guests.  Apparently, she has had some kind of encounter with the love of God that Jesus embodied and shared with those around him.[3]  And so she comes, overwhelmed with gratitude to the point that she begins to weep.  And her tears flow so hard that she’s able to wash Jesus’ feet with them!  As if that weren’t surprising enough, she also dries them with her hair.  These were things that a woman simply didn’t do to a man who was not her husband.[4]
  Apparently, she had a “reputation” in Simon’s town.  Simon recognized her and looked down on her as a “sinner.”  And because Jesus allowed her to even touch him, he made an assumption--the rabbi from Nazareth must not be all that he heard he was.[5]  But Jesus responded to the situation by offering Simon a riddle that is pretty obvious: if two people have their debts cancelled, the one who owes the most is going to be the most grateful.[6]  Turns out Jesus did know who it was he had allowed to touch him--a person who has experienced the love of God as unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, and who was deeply grateful for that.[7]
  On the other hand, it would seem that Simon’s true motivation for inviting Jesus to dinner was transparent enough.  As Jesus pointed out, Simon denied Jesus all the customary courtesies a host would extend to a guest.  So it would seem that the dinner was an elaborate scheme to demonstrate Simon’s superiority to Jesus, the friend of sinners.  I think this gives us a clue as to why he practiced his religion--it was a way for him to feel superior over those he considered beneath his level of piety.  He didn’t have any real interest in anything Jesus had to say or anything he might do.  Simon simply wanted to humiliate this famous upstart, demonstrating who was really at the top of the religious ladder. 
  Two people encounter Jesus, with two very different motivations.  The one comes to Jesus out of profound gratitude for the gift of acceptance.  And she is so grateful for God’s loving acceptance and forgiveness that she cannot control her tears.  It would seem clear that she’s practicing her faith because her heart has been radically changed.  The other brings Jesus into his home simply to demonstrate his religious superiority to the man everyone is talking about.  It would seem that he practices his faith simply to make himself look good in the eyes of his peers. He seems stuck in the mindset that his “righteousness” means that he deserves God’s favor.  Unfortunately, we’ve read the stories about Pharisees and sinners in the Gospels so long that we make another assumption: the woman’s sins were forgiven, but the Pharisee’s were not.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  He said the one who was forgiven little loves little.  Despite all that Simon has done to publicly humiliate Jesus, he offers forgiveness to him as well![8]  Unfortunately, Simon will have to undergo a change of heart before he can even be aware of his sins, and that they are indeed great.[9] 
  I think this is important because we have to realize that we all practice our faith from a variety of mixed motives.  While we tend to identify with the “sinners” in the Gospel stories, if we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that we all have some of the “Pharisee” in us as well.  We all have that part of us that practices our faith because it makes us feel good about ourselves.  We all have that part of us that thinks we deserve a reward for doing the right thing.  We all have that part that looks down on certain people as “inferior.”  And Jesus offers us all forgiveness and acceptance--whether we’re more “sinners” or “Pharisees.”  The path to the kind of heart-felt faith that the woman displayed by pushing past all the conventions and taboos of her world to express her gratitude is through a radical change of heart.[10]  That kind of transformation, that kind of experience of God’s unconditional love for us, can only come when we recognize that we’re all both sinners and Pharisees.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/16/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John J. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins (Luke 7:36-50),” Novum Testamentum 40 (April, 1998):106, where he comments, “By positioning the phrase "in the city" as he does, Luke means to say, not that the woman was a sinner, but that the woman was considered by the city to be a sinner.”  Cf. also Michael Lindvall, “Scandalous Behavior,”  The Christian Century (June 1,2004):119.
[3] Cf. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins,” 109-110.
[4] Cf. Francis Taylor Gench, “Luke 7:36-50: Making the Familiar Seem Strange,” Interpretation 46 (July 1992):287: “Not only are her actions out-of-the-ordinary, but they are also a violation of norms of decorum. By removing her headdress and unbinding her hair in public, she performs the ‘greatest disgrace for a woman’ (Jeremias).”
[5] Cf. Gench, “Lk. 7:36-50,” 287: she says that Simon’s response is “formulaic and logical according to his routine way of looking at things: An indecorous act means a sinner and an inappropriate association with a sinner means no prophet.”
[6] Cf. Kilgallen, “Forgiveness of Sins,” 107: Jesus’ parable “makes clear the immensity of Simon's error: all has been forgiven, while he can only think that nothing has been forgiven.”
[7] Cf. F. Bovon, Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 297 , where he observes that “the removal of destructive prejudices in society (the cliques that exist in all classes, from drug addicts to bankers), and self-examination (where does my sin lie?) in the individual occur not in the legal investigation of inability and in the application of written rules, but in an encounter” (emphasis original).  Cf. similarly, Gench, “Lk. 7:36-50,” 288-89.
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ 114, where he says that Jesus’ offer of acceptance to “sinners and tax collectors,” in effect “is breaking through the vicious circle of their discrimination in the system of values set up by the righteous. In this way he is also potentially rescuing ‘the righteous’ from the compulsion of self-righteousness.”
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:797, where he says, “The question is left open whether the Pharisee Simon, who has not shown Him this love, is forgiven to this extent or can receive such absolution.”
[10] Cf. Peter S. Hawkins, “Mousetraps,” The Christian Century 118 (May 23, 2001):17, where he puts it this way: “Because the Pharisee believes that he has very little to ask from Jesus, he has little to give him in return: not a drop of water, a kiss or a drop of oil. The woman, on the other hand, knows the enormity of the debt that has been canceled. As a result, she crashes a party to make a fool of herself, skipping all appropriate expressions of thanks and soaring straight into the stratosphere of the outrageous. Forgiven much, she loves much more than good taste could ever allow.”

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