Now Pharisees have a rather mixed reputation in the Gospels, but they were actually good people – devoted to God, and in that devotion very observant of the Law certain kinds and standards of behavior. And, even before Paul writes to the Galatians, like so many good people, some of the Pharisees had begun to isolate themselves in their own goodness, in their own goodness as defined by how well they kept the Law. They had begun to isolate themselves in what they did, rather than in who they were, God’s loved and forgiven and restored people, whose actions came from their love of God and neighbor in response to God’s compassionate love and forgiveness toward them. They began to isolate themselves from others in their community, and to judge them for not coming up to their own particular standards. This same kind of isolation thinking had begun to surface in the Galatian church, and Paul wants to make it very clear that for Christians, it is faith in God through Jesus Christ, the one who loved us enough to share our life and death, the one who lives within us, it is faith in Jesus Christ that brings us to right relationship with God.
Luke’s account of Simon’s dinner party illustrates what that faith might look like in practice. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. We are not sure what his motives are; Luke portrays Jesus and the Pharisees as already having had numerous discussions, not all of them friendly. Certainly when the uninvited woman intrudes into his home Simon does not evict or stop her, and instead seems to think that Jesus has failed some kind of test that involves her: “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.” Simon completely ignores what the woman does and has no interest in why she does it. For him, her sin is what defines her in the past and in the present, and her sin is what should define her in her relationship to Jesus and in Jesus’ relationship to her.
The woman, as happens so often with women in the Bible, is not recorded by name, and she is recorded as not saying anything. But what she is when she is with Jesus speaks more clearly than words. She has found him – after she has taken the time and effort to find out where Jesus is staying. She has found him — so she then intrudes on a private party and proceeds to display towards Jesus an extravagance of devotion. Her extravagance is one of money: she brings ointment, not just any ointment but the kind of ointment that comes in a fancy jar made of highly-prized alabaster. Her extravagance is one of luxury: the ointment is used to anoint Jesus’ feet. Her extravagance is one of emotion: she weeps in Jesus’ presence, to the extent that she can bathe his feet with her tears. Her extravagance is one of physicality: she bends to his feet as he reclines at dinner as was the custom for men, her tears wet his feet, she dries his feet with her hair; she kisses his feet and rubs the ointment into them in an act of respect and comfort. Her whole self is this extravagance of love and devotion, and manifests as extravagant acts of recognition and hospitality as she welcomes Jesus and the possibilities he brings into her life.
Jesus in turn recognizes her: not as the sinner she may have been, but as the woman of faith she now is, a woman who responds to the compassion and forgiveness of God that she sees in Jesus with a change of life that brings a new relationship with God and with other people. In her love and devotion it is she who becomes Jesus’ true hostess, and what Simon, or anyone else, thinks of her no longer matters. Her faith that God’s compassion and forgiveness are for her has saved her from the power of the past, so that she can go in the present and into the future in peace.
Simon is a good man. And, like so many good people, he cannot get beyond his own goodness. He calls Jesus “Teacher”, but he does not take the lesson. He does realize that the more one is forgiven, the more one will love the forgiver, but he does not see that this might apply to himself. He feels no need for compassion or forgiveness for himself or for the woman. He does not realize his own transgression against the law as he neglects Jesus, his invited guest. He cannot recognize the great change taking place in the woman and in her new reality, but persists in trying to keep her in her place as a sinner. He denies not just his own need for change, but denies himself the compassion and forgiveness of God and the possibilities that might open up for him. In a poignant irony, in his refusal of forgiveness he denies himself and others the best of what he can both be and do: “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
The story of Simon and the woman who crashes his party is our story as well. We live in a culture that pays much more attention to what we do than to what we are, a culture that demands retribution, not restoration, if we transgress. We can never be too rich or too thin, and our exposure to an average of 30,000 advertisements a day tells us that whatever we do or have, it is not enough. Our schedules look like train wrecks and there is no place on the planet where people cannot reach us through some kind of technology. Already we are a nation that works more than any other, and in this economic climate many of us come into work even earlier and stay even later now all seven days a week, and we no longer take the time to eat even at our desks. And if we do not have a job, maybe we should just try a little harder. We overmedicate our children to keep them socially acceptable, and over self-medicate ourselves either to bear the pain or to keep all the balls in the air, or to do both. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. Anyone who really tries to change their life will tell you that it’s not the realization of their own mistakes or sin, or the need to change, or the acceptance of forgiveness, or the taking of responsibility for the choice of the good that is the hardest thing: the hardest thing to overcome it is the refusal of other people to acknowledge that any change is possible for him or her or has actually occurred. And as we all know, the hardest person of all to forgive is ourself.
It does not matter how well we keep the law, whatever law we choose to observe. Last October Frank Warren visited Boston to talk about the latest book and news on his PostSecret project. He began the project five years ago when he invited people to mail in anonymously a secret printed on one side of a postcard decorated with art meaningful to them. The secret could be anything, as long as it was true and the sender had never shared it with anyone before. Half a million postcards later and counting from all over the world, and with the postcard secrets posted on a website and on Facebook and Twitter, the project has become a phenomenon, and is still going strong. The secrets are funny, or they sadden, shock, move, or disturb, and they reveal our common humanity and our common desire and need to keep some things hidden, some things we feel we cannot let anyone else know. We are not, and cannot be, perfect: especially to ourselves. And yet our need to reveal, the need for someone
to know, is also there, relieved if only by a stranger’s invitation to let ourselves be fully known without judgment. Frank Warren’s project has grown, and he has become known as “the most trusted stranger in America”, because he does not judge, but accepts each secret confession with respect and compassion. This invites the sharer of the secret also to have respect and compassion for the secret they have shared: many who have posted a secret report that they have gone on to share the secret with those who have needed to know it or with people who can help them with any next steps they may want to take. This also invites the reader to have respect and compassion for the secret, for the sharer of the secret, and for the reader’s own secrets so that the reader feels less alone. When the secret is shared, and compassion is shared, it becomes less a question of what we do than a question of who we are in our common humanity.
The challenge for us as followers of Christ is to claim who we are in the midst of and in spite of the demands made of us to do. In the great religious and philosophical treasury of bumper sticker wisdom, it is revealed that we are not perfect, just forgiven. What we do or how acceptably we behave does not save us in this world; the demands continue to escalate, all we do is never enough. Instead we are saved by our faith in the promises of God through Jesus Christ, that in that faith we are forgiven, we are forgiven, that the whole process of repentance, compassion, forgiveness, and restoration is at work in us and for us, even us, with our mistakes and our secrets and our sin. And our faith does not save us just once for all, for some place where we will have pie in the sky when we die by and by. Our faith saves us also for our whole life long, for this life here in this world, in this place and time, so that we are freed from the power of the past and can live in peace with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors right now. For when we know that the compassion and forgiveness of God is at work in our lives, we can begin to invite others to experience these gifts as well, and can begin to recognize them at work in others and to support their peace and wholeness as we do our own.
Now this may sound simple. But it may not be easy. Our faith in our own forgiveness may shock others, and may surprise us as well. There are plenty of people like Simon who will want to keep us in the past or in the opinions they have of us. There are people like the other guests at the dinner party, who may question whether our forgiveness is legitimate. People like the other guests at the dinner party who took exception to Jesus’ support of the woman may take exception to our support of others as they move toward a new way of being. Forgiveness comes from change as repentance, and forgiveness results in change as peace and wholeness of life, and, that change may not look like what we expect. It may look extravagant, or messy, or shocking, or outside our familiar categories. We might expect, as it might be assumed it was for the woman whose sins were forgiven, that those who are not respectable will become respectable. What may also happen, that we might not expect, is that those who are respectable may become not respectable. This happened for Mary Magdalene (even though she had already been relieved of seven demons). It happened for Joanna (the wife of Herod’s steward, no less). It happened for Susanna, and for the many other women, who out of their love for and devotion to Jesus found themselves called to leave home and to travel around the country, to keep the Son of God and twelve other men out of their own resources, and to shatter every stereotype of both respectable women and respectable community, just by their very being.
So the key in all this, as the woman at the dinner party demonstrated, is to keep our focus on Jesus, to keep our focus on our love for and devotion to him, and to keep our focust on the possibilities he offers for our own peace and wholeness through the compassion and forgiveness of God he proclaims and embodies. Then, like the woman at the dinner party, and the women on the road with Jesus proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kin-dom of God, we can have faith in our own forgiveness in spite of what others may think, and in spite of what others may think can offer that forgiveness, peace, and wholeness to others.
There’s no time like the present. If we ourselves have not repented or changed our direction and claimed God’s compassion and forgiveness, we can do that now or whenever we choose. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can begin or continue to move out on that faith to build relationships of forgiveness, health and wholeness with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors. If we already have faith that forgiveness continues to work in our lives, we can also begin or continue to recognize where forgiveness is or has been at work in the lives of those around us, and can begin to support them as they become a new creation in spite of the obstacles thrown up by those who have a vested interest in the status quo. No matter what we have done in the past, or if now we make mistakes, or backslide, or just choose the not good out of ignorance or orneriness; it is our faith in God through Jesus Christ, our faith in the compassion and forgiveness of God at work for us and in us, it is our faith that has and will save us, so that we can go in peace into our lives and into the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Chapel Associate for Methodist Students