A Sweet and Scandalous Life (June 16)

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 6
June 16, 2013

Prayer of the Day for June 16

Gracious God, whose infinite mercy
should prompt in us an infinite love,
help us to taste and see your goodness
and to share that banquet with all.

Some of the texts for this Sunday

2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13-15 

(Uriah is one of David’s leading men.  While off fighting the king’s wars, David spies and then sends for Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.  When she becomes pregnant, David brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime – but Uriah will not enjoy the comfort of his wife while his men are in the field.  Therefore David arranges for Uriah’s death on the battlefield. )

26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12:1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

7Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord. “Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15Then Nathan went to his house.

Luke 7:36 – 50

Alabaster (173/365)

Alabaster (173/365) (Photo credit: andrewrennie)

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “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.”

40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

These are rich and wonderful texts before us this morning.  The story of Nathan and David is a powerful one.  The prophet Nathan confronts David with a story about a man and his beloved sheep that a rich and powerful neighbor takes and slaughters for his own use.  As he hears the story, David is drawn in and condemns himself with his own words.

Nathan’s declaration, “You are the man,” is amazing.  Nathan had the audacity to challenge the king in all his power over the abuse of that power.  And, incredibly, David doesn’t silence the prophet; he repents.  I cannot think of another story in scripture where the king repents in this way.  Jeremiah is accused of treason and thrown in prison because the king does not like what he has to say.  Elijah is considered an enemy of the state and Queen Jezebel vows to murder him.  But David hears the Word of God and repents, and Nathan goes home in peace.

Wondrously, too, God forgives David for the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba.  There are still consequences.  There is still a price to be paid for David’s abuse of power.  But the sin against God is lifted away.

We must be sure to understand this: if I sin against you, if I do something to harm or betray you, it ruptures the relationship between us.  Even if I apologize, there is still a sense that I owe you; there’s a debt to be paid.  And it’s not just about the cost of whatever damages I have done – if I break your window I have to pay for the window – but there is this other debt, the debt that comes from the fact that I didn’t respect you enough or think about your welfare when I chose to play ball near your window.  So there is the actual debt for which restitution must be paid, but there is this other debt, too, this rupture in the relationship that must be paid.  Forgiveness is about removing, lifting away, this debt, this sense that I owe you.

So David has sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba and their families and the whole of Israel for betraying the kingship.  This is one of the great harms done by David, for he starts this pattern of abuse of power that ripples through the whole history of kingship in Israel.  That’s what Nathan means when he says the sword will not depart from David’s household.  But David also has this debt to God: after all God had done for him, after God has raised him up from being a shepherd boy to shepherding God’s people, after God has saved him from Saul’s murderous wrath and given him victory over all his enemies, giving him Jerusalem and the largest kingdom Israel shall ever know, after all this he betrays God by violating everything God stands for.  That’s the debt God forgives.  It’s not like the sin never happened or didn’t matter – it certainly matters to all the people involved – but God chooses to release David from the debt to God’s own self.

This is no small thing.  When our children act in a way that betrays all that we have taught them and hurts someone else, we feel betrayed, too.  Even after they make it right with whomever they have harmed, there’s a rupture between the child and us.

We should not imagine that the rupture between God and ourselves is not real.  We should not imagine that the many ways big and small we betray God don’t count, whether by gossip or theft or endangering the lives of others by drinking and driving – and just because we get home without hurting anybody doesn’t mean that there isn’t real harm done to our relationship with God.  If your child drives home drunk, you are thankful they didn’t hurt anybody, but there is a real rupture in your relationship.

That God chooses to release us from that debt is a gift.  It’s not an obligation; it’s a gift.  It’s a gift that can be trusted and counted on but not a gift that can be taken for granted.  It can be trusted and depended upon but not taken advantage of.

That God chooses to release us from our debt should be delighted in.  It should be reveled in.  It should be celebrated.  We should not worry about it whether God will forgive – but we can’t presume upon it.  It is a precious and priceless gift.

Because we forgive a child who drives home drunk doesn’t mean the child should think it does not matter what they do in the future.  They should remember how great the gift and not want to be indebted to us again.

The woman who comes to anoint Jesus comes because she has experienced that priceless gift.  All her life she has been told that God loves the righteous.  Now, from Jesus, she has heard that God loves sinners.  She has seen it in him.  And she has experienced it in him.

God loves her, the woman who was far from God, who was treated with contempt, who was looked down upon by all the righteous, whose home no righteous person would enter, whose food no righteous person would share, to whom no righteous person would even speak.  Christ has spoken to her; Christ has come to her home; Christ has eaten at her table.

(Now I know the story doesn’t tell us that Jesus ate at her home.  But just before this the text tells us that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors.  Whether or not Jesus physically ate in this woman’s home home, she got the message.  To eat with Zacchaeus is to eat with all of them.)

This unnamed woman has experienced the most priceless gift – so she takes her most precious possession, the perfumed oil sealed in an alabaster jar, the kind of thing you save for your wedding, and brings it to Simon’s house because she has heard that Jesus will be there.  What Jesus has given is priceless; now she intends to give him the best she has.

Banquets are public affairs.  The doors to the home are open.  Everybody can see the arrangement.  Everyone can see who sits where, and who sits when.  Everyone can see what is served and who speaks and can hear what is said.  People are not always all that interested, but they are interested this day because Jesus is there.  There’s a crowd.  There’s paparazzi.  There’s TV cameras.

The crowd outside knows the proper customs of these banquets.  When you come in there are stools around the outside of the room where you sit and a servant brings you water to wash your feet and hands.  Then they offer you a scented oil with which to anoint your feet and hands and hair – the oil takes the edge off the dry and dusty air.  At the proper moment the most honored person is shown to the table and each person in turn, according to their status, is seated in the appropriate place.

No water is offered to Jesus. No oils.  It is not just a slight; it’s a scandal.  The crowd must be outraged.  Certainly this woman is outraged.  What an honorable person would normally do in the face of such an insult is storm out of the house.  What Jesus does instead is take a seat at the table.  He goes into the dining room first as if he were the honored guest!  They won’t treat him with any respect, but he takes the seat of honor.  Now you should be laughing, because he has one-upped them. He is acting as if they had treated him with honor.

Of course they are scandalized that he would do such a thing!  But Jesus comes as the representative of the reign of God.  He is more than a prophet.  He is the one in whom God is reclaiming the world.  He is the one in whom God is coming to govern every human heart.  He is coming as one anointed by God!  To him belongs the seat of honor.

Now the woman who came to offer her gift of a finely scented oil sees all that has happened.  She came expecting that Jesus would receive the normal water with which to wash, and she would offer her precious oil for his head.  But now she sees that he has been treated so disrespectfully – this one she regards as so priceless because he has given her a priceless gift – and she is in tears.  She meant to anoint his head, but he needs to wash his feet – and having no water she uses her tears.  And having no towel she unbinds her hair and uses her hair.

I remember speaking to a Muslim woman in Detroit.  The members of our church had been invited to their mosque for dinner and at one point during the dinner she was asked about her head scarf and she spoke to us about what it meant to her the her hair was only for her husband.  This is a profoundly intimate act for this woman to unbind her hair.  The first time a man would see a woman’s hair was on their wedding night.  In a society where proper women would not even speak to a male outside the home, especially one who was not of her family – to unbind her hair was another remarkable scandal.

What she’s doing – just so you have this picture correctly in your mind – is: she has washed his feet with her tears, and then she has poured this fine scented oil on them.  Then she has wiped the excess oil off with her hair – taking the oil into her own hair – so that the aroma of Christ is upon her.  (I suspect that what she has done is used her tears to wash his feet, used her head scarf to dry his feet, and then used her hair to soak up the extra oil.)

Now, of course, comes the drama with Simon.  For Simon and all his buddies, the fact that Jesus has allowed this woman to touch him is proof positive that he is not a prophet.  What Jesus should have done, in their eyes, is to tell this woman that he is not worthy of having her bow at his feet – such adoration is due only to God – and that she should go to the temple and give thanks to God in the proper way.

This woman is saying by her act that the place to give thanks to God is in Jesus.  The place where God is present on earth is not in the temple, but in Jesus.  Think about this: this nation with its thousand-year history of a temple in this place – with this the place where God is present on earth to bring blessing and wholeness and salvation is not in the temple, but in Jesus.

Of course all these religious leaders are scandalized.  Jesus is accepting accolades that do not belong to any human being.  And he is tolerating behavior that is intolerable by any god-fearing person.

But Jesus isn’t done with Simon and his cohorts.  And I want to be sure that you hear the grace that is present in this.  Our response to self-righteous know-it-alls is to walk away, maybe even to curse them under –or over – our breath.  But Jesus wants to bring the reign of God to all, including Simon.  He wants to reach Simon; he loves Simon, too.  Jesus loves sinners: sinners like the woman, and sinners like the righteous.

So Jesus asks the question about the two debtors.  One owes two months’ wages; the other owes two years’ income.  Both are forgiven.  Which one will be more grateful?  Which one will love him more – meaning which one will show greater allegiance?  Which will be more eager to serve?  Which will be more earnest to do what his master desires?

Simon answers correctly.  Then Jesus does one more scandalous thing.  He says out loud how poorly Simon has treated him.  If you go to dinner at someone’s house, and they don’t welcome you at the door, and they don’t offer to take your coat, and they don’t ask what you would like to drink – you don’t point out their lack of hospitality in front of all the other guests.  You don’t sit down to dinner and say “the steak could have been more tender” or “you could have spent a little more energy on the desert’!  You might say that behind their backs after the party’s over, but you don’t say it to their face!  But Jesus speaks this truth to Simon.  Simon thinks of himself as righteous, that he has little for which to be forgiven, and Jesus reveals the lack of courtesy, the lack of respect, the lack of love in Simon’s heart.

This woman, on the other hand, loves deeply.  She knows how priceless is the gift that stands before her in this Jesus.  And because of that, her heart is full of love.

So the thing now to ponder is, “who are you in the story?”  Are you the woman coming to offer Jesus your most precious gift?  Or are you Simon, content with your own righteousness?  Does your love overflow, or is it measured out only to the deserving?  Do you owe Christ everything, or do you sit in judgment over him, deciding for yourself what is worthy and what is not in his teaching?

And with the question, “Who are you in the story?” – and I think we should consider that we are both – comes those important other questions: Does God love sinners or the righteous?  Is Christ the place where heaven renews earth?  Is Christ the place where heaven renews me?  Do I truly hear and understand that Christ has lifted away all my debts to God?

Amen.

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