Sermon preached by Chris Rice on 10/15/10 at New Life Evangelistic Center, 1411 Locust St., St. Louis, MO
We serve a Living God we can trust. One who knows our needs and looks after us continually. Every day we have to receive new eyes of faith to see as God sees. Our world is so very different than the world the first century Church knew, but we serve the same Living God who loves us. The gospels show us that when Jesus entered the scene in Judea in the first century AD he treated people very differently than what they were used to. He spoke of God differently. He spoke of a new kingdom that operated in new and unexpected ways. People who were normally excluded as an embarrassment were given the spotlight. Jesus saw himself (Luke 4:18) as the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1, which said:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.” (KJV)
Now the words that followed this quote in Isaiah, words that are not quoted by Jesus here in Luke, were “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” What this is referring to is what we know of as the Year of Jubilee. His hearers in the synagogue would have known that. He is in essence saying that he himself was doing what God’s nation of Israel had failed to do. He was bringing about the deliverance and healing that people so badly needed. And then he went further and he claimed that this is actually what God is like. God wants healing and liberation for us and is still active doing these things in the world today. I’d like to look at a few examples of this in the gospel of Luke.
In Luke 7:36-50 we have a picture of God’s Jubilee in Action that has perhaps meant more to me personally than any other that I can think of. Jesus has been invited over for dinner to a man named Simon’s house in the city of Capernaum. He is respected as a teacher by Simon and he takes the place assigned to him at the table, where according to the custom at the time is a place to recline. They didn’t sit in chairs like we do now. A certain woman who is known to be a sinner shows up with an alabaster jar of perfume. Our first question might be “what kind of sinner”? We want to know, right? We think its our right to get personal. How bad was her sin? How did she earn this reputation? But the Scriptures don’t specify. Was she a prostitute? A thief? A jaywalker? We don’t know. She had a reputation. Simon recognized her.
Here’s how the scene is described: Luke 7: 38
“And standing behind Him at His feet weeping, she began to wet His feet with [her] tears; and she wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed His feet [affectionately] and anointed them with the ointment (perfume).” (Amplified)
Like I said, this story means a lot to me, and if you’ll humor me I’ll share the way I described it on my blog that is titled “A Desperate Kind of Faithful”: “Look at the feet. A broken bottle of incense lies on the floor. She lies there weeping and kissing the Son of God. She mops her tears with her hair. Some think it’s disgusting. The waste sickens his moneyman. The Son of God says, “When you’re forgiven much you love much.” This humiliating, messy, desperate attempt at kindness is my kind of story. It illustrates the only kind of faith that fits me.”
I shared this idea with my kids and their first reaction was, “Ooh! Gross! Who would want to kiss someone’s feet over and over!?!” And you know what? That’s an understandable reaction. I’m sure Simon was not the only one repulsed by the scene that day. This anonymous woman was no doubt ruining quite a few people’s dinner. Her actions display an emotion that makes us uncomfortable even today. She is desperate to show care for Jesus and doesn’t care who notices. She’s not humiliated, she’s devoted. She models the kind of love that Jesus later shows to his own disciples in John 13:1. At the hour of His passion he strips down, puts a towel around his waist, gets a bowl of water and begins washing his disciple’s feet. And again, they are embarrassed and upset.
But let’s get back to Simon the Pharisee, a good man who is hosting this party for Jesus. Luke somehow knows what Simon is saying 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.” (vs. 39) What does he mean by “sinner”? Well, at this time, Temple worship involved ritual purity. Every righteous Jew offered a sacrifice for their sin and received assurance of their righteous state before God from the Temple. Those who did not do this were known to everyone else as unclean, physically and spiritually. So in point of fact Simon knew that she wasn’t faithful in her Temple worship. The significance of the Temple and who Jesus believes himself to be gets clear later in Jesus’ ministry. While Simon is going on in his head about this Jesus speaks up: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon replies, “Teacher” or Rabbi, “speak.” This is his formal invitation to let Jesus impart his wisdom for everyone at the dinner to hear. Jesus tells a short story, a parable, as he often does: “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Then 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, 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.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
In Jesus parable we hear about something called a denarii, or a day’s wages. What fascinates me is that these days we don’t have any equivalent for a day’s wages. Why? Because we don’t know what people are worth. We in America have no set standard for a livable wage. Don’t tell me that minimum wage is our attempt at a livable wage, because I’ll just laugh. You try to live for thirty days on an after tax minimum wage job. Try to pay for an apartment, transportation, food, and medicine on minimum wage and then come and tell me that’s a day’s wages. See what I mean? So we have no equivalent for a denarii here in a America. But we do know about debt. And that’s the point of this story. One man owes a crippling debt of over 500 day’s wages, over a year of sweat and toil, and another man owes 50, nearly a few month’s worth of work. Jesus says, that both men’s debts are canceled. What is the effect for both men? They both go free, but we know that the one owing 500 most likely had prison and the loss of property and potential livelihood at stake. See unless you’re convicted here in the US of fraud or theft of some kind prison is usually not at stake here in America. Back then they had prison, and even beatings involved. They’d take that money back out of your hide!
So Jesus asks which one would have loved the creditor more? And Simon answers “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus answered, “You have judged rightly.” Note that Jesus uses that word “judge”. Remember that Simon had just been judging Jesus because of this woman touching him. Jesus turns around and asks, “Do you see this woman?” And this is the question before us today. Do we see? How many of us like Simon see people and do not really see them? We see their problems. We see what they don’t have. We see them with little cardboard signs on the exit ramps and think we see them. We see them huddled in tents and scrapping tin cans to make change and save it. And we think we know who they are. We see an African American woman who is pregnant with 2 children seated around her trying to balance work, and school while living in a shelter and we think we see her. But here Jesus tells us we’re not really seeing at all. Here in America we don’t have one Temple as our holy site where we all go and get ritually clean. But we have other ways of checking people out. We look at their credit scores. We look at their buying power. We look at the size TV they own and the speed of their computer. We look at their car and how well it’s maintained. We look at where they live and how clean their yard looks. And if all these things check out we call them “righteous” or “good” or, let’s face it, we don’t see them at all. We’ve learned to see from our TVs and the internet. We’ve learned by ritually purifying ourselves with our buying power.
Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?” and by our standards the answer is, “What woman?” In another similar story Jesus’ moneyman, Judas, doesn’t see the woman, he smells the perfume and he sees waste. He gets upset and says in effect, “Lord we could have helped so many people with that money!” (John 12:1-8) To him it was worth a year’s wages. Some love to misquote Jesus words in that story, “The poor you will always have with you.” Some take that to mean, “keep making and worshiping the money and don’t worry about the poor, they’ll make due.” When what Jesus said was “Leave her alone” and “you won’t always have me.” He was saying that our care for the poor should always continue past the time he would be physically present with us. We in the Church are not exempt from Jesus chastisement for Judas. Our eyes grow dim and we’ve got to pray to be shaken from our blindness. Jesus helps Simon see the woman by comparing her actions with Simon’s own.
Simon was judging Jesus for allowing her to touch him, but he himself had neglected the many hospitable actions shown to every guest such as water for washing, a kiss of greeting, and anointing the head with oil. Jesus points out each of these, and that must have been painful to hear, but he also points out the level of devotion this woman was showing. Her water was her tears, the kisses were repeated to his feet, and the oil was expensive perfume. By Jesus’ account this woman, not Simon, is the true host in his house. But this is not what the other guests find most difficult to swallow. Next Jesus says that because she has shown great love, her sins, “which were many,” are forgiven. “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” In the Jubilee of the kingdom of heaven the real winners are those who’ve had the least to lose. Those who care far less about the way they look than about losing that burden of sin they know they can’t carry. The other guests immediately began saying aloud “Who is this who even forgives sins?” If they were sure of anything it was that Jesus was claiming too much. And this question resounds throughout the gospels. Not just anyone can forgive sins. The Temple has to be involved. God himself forgives sins, but we can’t be too sure of it. But Jesus addresses his final words to her personally, “Your faith has saved you: go in peace.”
We’re not really told how the dinner ends. I’d like to think that rather than just feeling embarrassed Simon began to see this woman, and himself, differently. Our hope today is that rather than protecting our assumptions about people, we begin to really see them. Now we could cop out by saying that we can’t interpret people’s actions like Jesus because we can’t know their thoughts. But in truth, if we’re willing to see and give people the space, their desperate devotion for the Lord will become evident. It will require an appreciation for radical hospitality. Sometimes we’ll be confronted by the smallness of our hearts and the dimness of our eyes.
In the last three months I’ve spent time with men and women whose careful insight into things I’d usually regard as common have caused me to marvel. One sister in the Lord told me that as a child she believed that if she got under a rainbow she knew God would speak to her. Her favorite way to spend a weekend off is at church studying God’s Word with a couple who volunteer here. Our next-door neighbor and coworker here in NLEC’s ministry recently and very unexpectedly rang our doorbell and presented my wife with a bouquet of flowers for her birthday. We would never have asked her to spend her money on such a gift, but she wanted to. She signed the card “to my sister” and Martha was so humbled and grateful. God puts us in new relationships as family with all kinds of people that outside of this work we would probably have never met. Our various needs thrust us into new ways of being together. Often little inconveniences form new possibilities for seeing God’s Spirit move, if we’re prayed up for it. And when we’re not hopefully we’re still stumbling forward in that direction, learning from our stubbornness how much we need the Lord.
In Luke 11:1-13 Jesus’ disciples observe Jesus praying and ask him to show them just like John the Baptist had taught his disciples. In his teaching in this passage we learn a lot about Jesus himself. In calling God Father we are reminded of the way God fathered his people Israel through the Exodus. His name was holy to them and is to us. But this time we pray for God’s kingdom to come, His will to be done here as it is in heaven. We’re drawn up into God’s self, into the Trinitarian way of mutual submission and love. Then we ask for daily bread. Jesus is the bread of life given just as it was during the Exodus. God is our nourishment. Forgiveness for our sins as we forgive those who sin against us is a hallmark of the Kingdom of God. As I indicated earlier, Jesus puts the power to forgive sins back on God rather than the Temple. And here he makes it clear that we forgive as we are forgiven. The forgiveness we receive marks a new life of forgiving others. Finally, in praying for deliverance from temptation, we are praying to be like Jesus. Jesus’ life was full of trial and temptation and God delivered him. In following Jesus we are led by His Spirit and delivered from evil.
In Luke the model for prayer is immediately followed by a parable regarding a friend who needs bread at midnight. A father is awakened in the middle of the night. His wife and children are in bed with him asleep and the visitor at the door is shamelessly asking for three loaves for a friend. Jesus says, “I tell you, although he will not get up and supply him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his shameless persistence and insistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” (Luke 11:8) He is telling his disciples that God is much better at knowing and meeting our needs than we are. He says to ask, seek, and knock with confidence because God is so much better than this father with his family around at midnight. God is never taken by surprise by our problems. He is never inconvenienced, but we’ve got to get over our own stubborn insistence at going it alone. We’ve got to see the new reality of Christ’s kingdom.
For further reading:
Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass, Eerdmans, 2008, pgs. 88-91.
Luke for Everyone, Tom Wright, WJK, 2004, pgs. 90-92.