Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 12, 2016
Luke 7:36-8:3 Commentary
It’s such an interesting story, made the more curious by the Lectionary’s decision to extend the reading into the first 3 verses of Luke 8 where we encounter a brief list of the women who joined Jesus’ entourage of disciples and who even somehow bankrolled the ministry. Of course, that is just the capper to a story that features a “sinful” woman front and center to whom Jesus reaches out in intense Gospel love and whose sins Jesus forgives in an instant.
I guess it goes without saying that back in Jesus’ day and in the patriarchal culture of the time, attracting the support and company of lots of females probably only cinched the case against Jesus in many people’s minds. It’s nice to have followers but honestly, if Jesus were the Messiah—if Jesus were “going places” as we’d say today—then the people he’d be gathering around him would be movers and shakers, can-do folks of means who could get the job done and advance Jesus’ movement. But a rag-tag group of people that consisted of untutored fishermen, the odd tax collector, and above all, women did not fit that bill. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
Now, if Jesus could get more folks like Pharisee Simon to support his cause . . . well, that would be a different story. Get inside one of the more powerful religious groups of the day and you’d have a shot at accomplishing something. Maybe draw in the high priest, maybe the whole Sanhedrin. Today if you are running for the White House, you’ll solicit support from ordinary citizens like me (just donate $10 to a candidate sometime and watch what happens to your email account in coming months—candidates will definitely solicit your money). But when the candidate needs to cozy up to folks, have a high-level reception even in your own city, you as the small fry in the political world will never get invited and couldn’t get yourself in the door if you tried. Jesus needed to mingle not with the little people but with the higher-up types if he wanted to get something done.
This story, of course, turns all that on its head (as does the little coda in Luke 8:1-3). The kingdom of God and the Gospel it heralds will, it turns out, have the greatest appeal to and the mightiest impact on those who know they need grace and mercy the most, and as it true still yet today, the high and mighty of society are usually the last to feel that way. Surely Simon felt no need to anything in the way of forgiveness. He’d made his own way his whole life, thank you very much, on the Pharisee Plan and was, therefore, gratefully beholden to precisely no one.
Personally, I suspect Simon knew of Jesus’ reputation for attracting lowlifes before he issued this rather unusual dinner invitation. Call me cynical if you will but the whole thing feels like a set up to me. I am not sure why Jesus would get invited to the house of someone who was a part of the very religious establishment that was opposing Jesus. And I am really not sure why, upon arriving there, Jesus was treated so shabbily in a way no other guest would be treated. Were they already then trying to get a rise out of Jesus? Were they testing to see if this “holy” teacher they’d heard tell of would pitch a fit and make a scene on account of some social slight?
And while we’re in this cynical mode anyway, how in the world did a woman “with a past” slip into the house of a holy Pharisee who could no more afford to be seen in her company than any of his fellow Pharisees? Was she like those clever gate-crashers who somehow finagled their way to a White House dinner a few years ago? That seems unlikely. And seeing as everyone there, starting with Simon, knew of this woman and had her sized up in one short glance, it’s a cinch the doorman didn’t admit her to the party in complete ignorance of who it was he was letting in through the front door.
Looks to me like she was planted there to see how Jesus would react. Unsurprisingly Jesus reacts true to his gracious form and forgives the woman, welcomes her repentance and absorbs her lifetime of pain. Jesus is so full of the Gospel that it’s impossible for him to become unclean on account of coming into contact with the unclean—with Jesus it always went the other way as his holiness “infected” the other person, cleaning them up once and for all right then, right there.
And of course the bottom line is that she who has been forgiven much has much to feel grateful for and therefore is far more likely to be full of love than those who need little to no forgiveness in the first place.
The thing is . . . if how I have interpreted this story here as anything going for it in terms of the truth of the situation, then it turns out that Simon is a not-very-nice person who actually has at least as much crap in his soul as that hapless woman ever did.
I like how Luke frames the last part of the story, calling attention to the fact that at some point Jesus—although still speaking TO Simon—turned away from him to look directly at the woman (v. 44). I imagine that was still his posture when at the end of the story he utters to heartbreakingly wonderful words “Your sins are forgiven.” What Simon could not and did not know at that moment was that his own dearest longing should have been to have Jesus turn his face back toward Simon in order to say the same thing. Of course, Simon would not welcome the words. He’d get hung up on the apparent blasphemy of Jesus’ taking on the prerogative of God the same as Simon’s other guests did.
So the scene ends with Jesus turned away from his duplicitous and self-righteous host beaming the very grace and compassion we all need toward her alone whilst the self-righteous prigs in the house clucked their tongues and wagged their heads over the tawdry scandal and heresy of it all. Small wonder that the very next few verses Luke took care to note that Jesus’ entourage was getting beefed up by some generous and loving women.
They were far better company than Simon and his friends could ever be on this earth.
That’s sad. It’s also a warning insofar as any of us even yet today feel like forgiveness is needed more for some folks than for we ourselves. We all need to pine for that loving look from Jesus. It’s never something somebody else needs more than I do.
Remembering that little fact generates a whole lot of joy, and among other things, the church should be a font of joy far more often than it sometimes actually is.
The Greek text of this story provides several key vocabulary words and also theological concepts that attend those words. First, as is true all through Luke, the idea of forgiveness is closely tied with the idea of “release” and “letting go” as stemming from the word for forgiveness which is aphesis. And in this story it’s hard to deny that among all the things that Jesus’ forgiveness of this woman means, one key meaning is that she is released from being stuck to the category of “sinner” into which the Pharisees and others had permanently pigeonholed her. Also, when Jesus says that this woman had “loved” much, he does use the loaded Greek word “agape”.
(If you want to view a powerful sermon on this story from Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School, click here.)
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Apparently, forgiveness is important, it’s necessary, it’s even healthy. What’s more, we need it because sooner or later, we will encounter hurts inflicted by others. That seems to be no less true inside the church than it is beyond the church’s fellowship. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, whatever else the Lord Jesus Christ may have envisioned for his church, one thing is certain: Jesus was not so naive as to think that the church would be such a bright, sunny, happy place that forgiveness of sins would never be needed. Quite the opposite: Jesus was no utopian visionary who imagined that if only a few simple ground rules were followed, his future disciples would experience unending bliss. Forgiveness is where we live. The question is whether we know this, celebrate this, and so share Jesus’ own eagerness to pass it along to all others who, like the woman in Luke 7, spend their days literally crying for release.
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