Readings for June 12: Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36 – 8:3
In our reading from Galatians this morning, the apostle Paul speaks to the Galatians very passionately about salvation by faith alone through grace alone – words which, 1500 years later, became the cornerstone of the Protestant reformation.
Paul speaks in sort of legal-sounding language – which makes sense because Paul was essentially a lawyer – but the point he’s making is that it’s not what we do that saves us. It’s who we believe in.
When Paul first brought the gospel to the Galatians, they received the good news with joy and were blessed by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts. But a few years later, other religious teachers came, teaching that Christians must obey Jewish law as set out in the Old Testament. After all, they said, Christians follow a Jewish Messiah; and Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So all these non-Jewish people in Greece and Rome and elsewhere who were coming to faith through Paul’s teaching needed to observe the Jewish laws and feasts and traditions.
Paul is very passionate about putting these teachers in their places, because they were dividing the church as well as negating the Gospel message. And that’s most of what the book of Galatians is about. I recommend it to your reading. But for this morning I want to call attention to this quotation from Galatians 2:16. Paul writes:
“…we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
John Wesley, in one of his sermons, said this:
“To be justified is to have all of our sins completely blotted out, as if they had never been. […] It is the sinner, not the saint, who is forgiven. The good shepherd came “to seek and to save the lost”, to pardon those in need of mercy, to rescue us from the guilt and the power of sin. […] On what terms are they justified? On only one – faith.” (http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=3142#ixzz4BCzKEW7A )
So this teaching about salvation by faith has been the foundation of the Methodist Church from the very beginning until now. We are not saved by things we do; we are saved by trusting Jesus.
Our reading from Luke’s gospel today gives a wonderful illustration of this teaching: what it means, and what it looks like in real life. So let’s turn our attention to this story.
One day a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. This was not unusual; it’s a common practice even in our day for clergy to invite guest speakers out to lunch after church. Most likely this was an after-synagogue invitation after Jesus had been a guest speaker.
I’ve been to a number of after-church dinners like this, and usually it involves the senior pastor and family, the junior pastor (if there is one) and family, maybe the head of church council… and the conversation is usually friendly, sharing stories and so on.
But this particular dinner Jesus was invited to was not like that. First off the families weren’t there. This group was all men. The dinner was at the Pharisee’s house – his name was Simon – and the other people there were Simon’s friends. Luke doesn’t say exactly who they were but my guess is they were probably other Pharisees, maybe a few scribes… religious types, mostly. Maybe one or two of the disciples.
Now (speaking as a recent seminarian) it’s not unusual for theology geeks to bunch together at the dinner table and debate minute details of theological teachings… but that’s not what’s happening here either. Simon the Pharisee has too many friends to qualify as a theology geek.
So why did Simon invite Jesus to dinner? Was he trying to ride the wave of Jesus’ popularity? I doubt it. Was he hoping to see a miracle? Luke doesn’t mention that. Was he seeking the truth, like the Pharisee Nicodemus did – was he coming to Jesus with questions? No – he doesn’t ask Jesus any questions.
Luke doesn’t say why Jesus was invited to this dinner. But he does say that Simon did not treat Jesus with proper hospitality. Simon failed to greet Jesus with a kiss. Even today, on the news, you see European and Middle Eastern politicians greet each other with kisses, even if they can’t stand each other. It’s the polite thing to do. But Simon didn’t. Simon didn’t offer Jesus water to wash his feet, or oil to clean his hair… both of which were common courtesy. So Jesus started out the dinner party with his host trying to make him feel like the odd man out. This was not a friendly invitation.
This undercurrent of hostility becomes even clearer when we look at the previous few chapters of Luke, where we see Jesus coming under scrutiny of the Pharisees. Jesus has been scolded by various Pharisees for things like (1) healing a paralyzed man and then forgiving his sins; (2) attending a feast with Tax Collector Matthew and all his tax collector buddies – ‘eating with sinners’ they called it; (3) not teaching his disciples to fast; (4) harvesting grain on the Sabbath; and (5) healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. After that last healing, by the way, Jesus asked the Pharisees which was lawful to do on the Sabbath: to heal or to kill? At which point the Pharisees got angry with him, and in the ultimate irony went out and started making plans – on the Sabbath – to kill Jesus!
Jesus had much to say about Pharisees. Of all the religious leaders of his day, he criticized them more than any others. We tend to forget, those of us who live 2000 years later, that the Pharisees were very popular in their day. The Sadducees were essentially collaborators with the Greeks and the chief priests were in cahoots with the Romans, but the Pharisees – they were the true-blue Jews. They were… the Joel Osteens and the Robert Schullers and Rick Warrens and Pat Robertsons of their day. Proud supporters of their country and their heritage and the God of Israel.
So why do they have trouble with Jesus, and why does Jesus have trouble with them?
It all comes down to the great and the small. The Pharisees were considered great – but their love was small. And everyday people were considered small… but they’re about to meet someone whose love was great.
So Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner, and Jesus said “yes”. And the men reclined at table: heads and shoulders near the table, feet extended out behind them. And they began to eat.
All of a sudden a woman from the city crashes the party. Luke says she was known for being ‘a sinner’. Many people have said she was a prostitute, but Luke doesn’t say that. The word he uses in Greek means essentially an ‘unbeliever’. She was Jewish by birth but didn’t observe the faith. She certainly didn’t give the Pharisees or Sadducees the time of day!
And she shows up with an alabaster jar of ointment. Was this a spur-of-the-moment thing on her part? I don’t think so. This woman – whose name we don’t know, I wish we did – lived in the Galilee region where Jesus had been preaching. She’d heard about him. It was public knowledge that Jesus had cast out demons, and healed people who came to him for healing. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead. It was public knowledge that the Pharisees were criticizing him, particularly for telling people their sins were forgiven. And he would be teaching in the synagogue one day and then eating with tax collectors the next!
She finally got a chance to hear him preach… from a distance, she didn’t dare come close… and she heard him talk about loving one’s enemies… and blessing the poor and the broken-hearted. And something deep inside her was moved.
Where it came to church she’d been an outsider all her life. She figured God, if there was a God, didn’t care all that much about people like her. But this guy – this Jesus – if there was ever a God she could believe in… if there was ever a God worth believing in… he’d be like Jesus. She just knew it. She looked at Jesus and she saw him for who he really was, on the inside, his love and his god-likeness – and she loved him from the depths of her soul. If this wasn’t the Messiah, she thought to herself, there would never be one.
And she had to find some way to tell him. That’s the nature of love: real love can’t go unexpressed. Love has to be spoken, or demonstrated, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. She had to do something.
And then she was told about the dinner party at Simon’s house. What a perfect opportunity to do something! Jesus would be taking a swim in the shark tank (so to speak) and he could probably use a friend at a party like that. So she hatched her plan. She would watch from outside the house, and once Jesus had been welcomed and his feet had been washed and the men were reclined at table she would enter and pour perfume on his feet – an extract of myrrh, by the way, according to Luke. It would be a wonderful way to praise him, to say by her actions ‘this man is royalty, he has the heart of a king’.
But when she got there she discovered Jesus’ feet had never been washed! Simon had insulted the most truthful and loving person she’d ever seen! Anger at Simon’s insult mixed with her own feelings of amazement at Jesus and unworthiness to touch such a holy man, and all those feelings mixed and combined and came to the surface in the form of tears – which she used to wash his feet, and used her hair to dry them. Once Jesus’ feet were properly cleaned she broke the alabaster jar and poured out the ointment, filling the whole house with the smell of perfume.
As she began to finish she could feel the eyes of all the men on her… and they weren’t looking at her kindly, except for one. The odd thing is they weren’t saying anything. They weren’t chasing her out. In fact… she suddenly realized… she wasn’t actually the focus of their attention, Jesus was. Their judgement was aimed at him. And through her confusion she heard Jesus speak:
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Rabbi, speak,” he answered.
Jesus said, “A certain man had two people who owed him money. One owed him about a month’s wages, the other owed him almost two years’ wages. When they could not pay, he cancelled both debts. Which of these two men will love him more?”
The woman remained at Jesus’ feet in silence but her heart took flight. Jesus understood! Without a word he knew her heart and had received her gift.
Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.”
And Jesus said, “you’re right.” And he went on to compare two people in the room who had been forgiven: Simon himself, and the woman. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus said. “When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair… I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
And for the first time the woman dared to raise her eyes and look at Jesus. She looked into the face of love, and he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
And for the first time in her life, she felt like her heart was at peace. Jesus had not only received her gift, he had given her an even greater gift in return: the assurance that she was right about God. That God is a God who cares about the least and the lost, and Jesus is the Messiah worth believing in, the one who forgives, the one who honors love. She went home a different person, changed forever, seeing life in a new light, at peace with God.
Meanwhile back at the Pharisees’ dinner party the guests were asking each other, “who is this who forgives sins?” Truly there is none so blind as those who will not see. Each person at that dinner table had been offered the same forgiveness that the woman received, but they never knew it. These men ate dinner with Jesus himself and went away untouched and unchanged and unmoved. They didn’t love, and they didn’t believe.
All in all this woman’s story is a beautiful illustration of what Paul is talking about when he says we are saved by faith.
But wait… doesn’t Jesus say the woman’s sins were forgiven because she loved so much? Yes. And this is no contradiction. It comes under the heading of the old saying, “faith without works is dead”. The woman was saved by faith. Jesus even said so: “your faith has saved you.” But real faith moves us to action. And the deeper the faith, the deeper the love; and the deeper the love, the more passionate the action.
So today as we listen to this woman’s story, where do we find ourselves in the story? Do we relate to Simon, wanting to be in Jesus’ company but always keeping him emotionally at arm’s length? Do we relate to the other dinner guests, curious but not getting involved? Or do we relate to the woman, who in spite of all the disappointments in her life, sees in Jesus a love and a worth and a truth that can’t be found anywhere else? Do we seen in Jesus someone we would give anything to be with? Something greater than anything this world can offer?
This woman’s heart shows us the very heart and soul of the Christian faith. To be Christian is to love Jesus so much that we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t stay silent. We are captivated by the person Jesus is, and like the woman we feel we must respond.
Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, inspire in our hearts such love for you today that we would not be ashamed to fall at your feet in tears and receive your welcome with joy. Help us to hear your voice as you say to each one of us, “your sins are forgiven – go in peace.” Amen.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/12/16