22nd June 2016
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion , Pentecost 4, 12th June 2016
Lessons: Psalm 32:1-5; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-50
Jesus said: ‘Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much (Lk 7:47) … Paul said: 'We are not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ' (Gal 2:16)
It is often said that Paul spoiled Jesus' simple message of love with his complex theology of justification by faith. But, Luke's story of Simon the Pharisee and a prostitute clearly shows the unity between Jesus ' ministry and Paul's grasp of the Good News. Unexpectedly, an unworthy woman is a recipient of grace and a decent man is exposed as an enemy of grace.
As usual, Jesus' presence causes a stir. Simon and his friends (v49) are shocked that a 'teacher' and 'prophet' of God's law should allow an immoral, disreputable woman to touch him in such a sensual, emotional and erotic way. They are even more appalled that Jesus assumes God's authority to 'forgive sins.'
In contrast, the woman is so overjoyed to be in the presence of Jesus that she cannot help expressing her gratitude with such lavish affection. She doesn’t say anything. There is no confession of sin. Yet, in touching his feet, she comes into contact with the forgiveness of God. Oblivious to the host's silent disapproval, and without any desire to manipulate Jesus for her own advantage, this unnamed 'woman of the city who was a sinner' (v37) responds to him with humble, unselfconscious, extravagant love. …
If the story had ended with her show of gratitude, most of us would be delighted that this immoral woman had found acceptance. But the fact that it takes place at a dinner party hosted by a respectable religious teacher adds a dimension of intrigue that draws us into the action. When we hear about Simon's silent disapproval of the woman, and Jesus, we have to make up our minds about where we stand. We are no longer spectators but participants in a drama of forgiveness in which 'dutiful religion' meets 'joyful faith.'
The ways in which Jesus is welcomed gives us a clue about what is to come.
Simon invites Jesus, as an important religious figure, to share a meal, a sign of fellowship. But his welcome is decidedly low key. He doesn't even greet Jesus with the traditional kiss or extend customary hospitality by providing water for his feet or oil for his head (v44f). On the other hand, the woman, greets Jesus with an enthusiasm that crosses the boundary of decency, decorum and good taste.
Although this 'unnamed woman' doesn’t speak throughout the entire drama, she, not the 'well known’ religious man, speaks volumes about the splendour of God's grace in Christ and the joy of faith in him.
Simon tells us much about the pitfalls of religion. He is a good, devout person who spends his whole life trying to fulfil God’s law. He knows the difference between right and wrong. He doesn't make a public display of his emotions. Confronted by the prostitute's outlandish behaviour, he tries to keep his criticisms of Jesus and the woman to himself (v39).
His attempt to conceal his disgust at the extravagant actions of this immoral, emotional and spiritually 'unclean' woman is understandable. She has abused her body. He knows that, because she has defied God’s good purpose for sexual relations, she has separated herself from the faith-community.
But it leads him to misunderstand the Gospel. He is blind to the magnificence of grace. He doesn't see that it is God’s desire, embodied in Jesus, for sinners, like this woman, to be reconciled to God. Like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), he is 'grudging in forgiveness.' He is incapable of sharing the prostitute’s gratitude and not one bit interested in her being reconciled to God.
So Jesus tells the Parable of the Two Debtors (vv 40-43) to show Simon the contrast between his small love of God and the woman’s big love. The irony shouldn’t be lost on us. It is the irreligious woman – not the religious man – who knows the 'magnificence of grace' and the 'joy of faith.' She cannot help but respond so enthusiastically to God's mercy embodied in Jesus because she has been touched by grace.
Although Simon is right about the woman's behaviour, he is so taken up with doing the 'works of the law' in order to be accounted as ‘just’ (as Paul puts it) that he cannot freely and openly rejoice when she is accounted as just by grace through faith. Decency and self-righteousness prevent him seeing the splendour of grace in Jesus and the extravagance of her faith.
The incident unsettles many of us. It comes as a shock to hear that good, responsible, sensible, dependable and sober citizens may miss 'seeing' the mercy of God. We may be so quietly confident of our own 'good works,' and so critical of folk who have 'wasted their lives,' that we are blind to God's Christ- embodied forgiveness 'for all' - decent and indecent alike - who are justified by grace through faith. ...
In view of a very different audience which hears this story today, it should to be noted that the woman is not praised for her radical, liberated attitude to sex. Sadly, tragically, she has abused her body in defiance of the splendid purpose for which she was created in the 'image of God.'
Yet, surprisingly, and more sadly and tragically, it is the good man, the solid citizen, the backbone of the church – and not the sinful woman – who turns his back on the good news of forgiveness and repentance.
Where Simon justifies himself by 'works,' the woman knows that she is justified and accepted solely by the grace of God. She cannot appeal to her own goodness. Where she is accepted as if she were righteous by virtue of God's forgiveness in Christ, he excludes himself by his self-righteousness. He 'loves little' because he imagines that he has 'little for which to be forgiven' (v47). ...
The episode at Simon's place shows us that the reality of God's mercy embodied in Christ may be more enthusiastically embraced by the immoral than by the custodians of righteousness.
This word needs to be heard today because we so easily pride ourselves on being good, upright. just 'pillars of society and the church' and forget that our life is founded on, and grounded in, the grace of God embodied in Christ. None of us is justified by our 'good works' but by grace alone.
If we grasp this incredible fact, then our 'works' will be glad expressions of gratitude for God's undeserved love – not a means by which to 'justify' ourselves before God and others. Then we shall rejoice in being recipients of grace and delighted to welcome others, like the prostitute, who have also rebelled against the 'law of love' but experienced the 'splendour of God's grace' in their lives.
Then, like her, we will know what it means to ‘live by faith’ - confident in God’s justifying grace that ‘saves’ us from both self-indulgence and self-righteousness and enables us to ‘go in peace.’ (v50) When we come into contact with the God who has touched the world in the body of Christ we experience a deep sense of well-being knowing that we are accepted, not because of our goodness, but by what Charles Wesley calls the ‘unexampled love of God's all-redeeming grace.’ (AHB 145)