Early American education depended on very few textbooks. But two became fixtures in most education programs: the Bible and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Pilgrim's Progress was very popular as a guide to Christian living. The book is an allegory about the main character Christian and his journey to the Promised Land. Along the way he meets a number of fellow journeyers who are missing the mark, named by their particular sins. American children grew up naming each other's sins.
A group of your fellow Cary Presbyterians took a journey during the past year. We covenanted with each other to study the Bible, examine what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus, to pray, and to care for each other. We met weekly for three hours every Sunday evening to discuss the journey of the previous week. Each day we had an assignment in reading the Bible, focussed around a topic of the week. By the end of the year, we had read 70% of the Bible. We prayed with and for each other, for the needs of the group, friends, community, and world. We fasted during Lent. But most importantly, we discovered much about ourselves and each other - much like the characters in today's Gospel lesson.
The story in Luke is placed midway in a series of stories that occurred during the second year of Jesus ministry where Jesus reveals that he is the Son of God. The story is unique in that it appears only in Luke. The story of a woman anointing Jesus in the other Gospels occurs right before the end of his ministry.
The setting is the courtyard of Simon the Pharisee. As you know, Jesus often had meetings and confrontations with Pharisees. These Pharisees were the keepers of the Law. They believed that God intended men and women to live by a certain set of rules. They thought adherence to these righteousness rules built up brownie points with God. In order to be in right relationship with God, one had to follow the rules.
Simon had invited Jesus for dinner. Most likely it was an ostentatious affair in the courtyard; the gate left open for others in the town to marvel at the food and marvel of the event. Folks may have wandered in and out depending on their standing in the community. Simon's motives are unstated - whether there was a genuine interest in finding out Jesus' message or to trap him in some violation of the law. What unfolds makes the motive irrelevant.
During the meal something happens that shocks the social order. A woman, no less a woman with a sinful reputation, enters the scene and violates every rule of social and religious law. First, she dared to touch Jesus. Having a woman touch you was to make you ceremoniously unclean. But to be touched by a woman with such a notorious reputation would have been a serious defilement. With her tears she washed Jesus feet. Then she unbound her hair and wiped Jesus' feet with it.
Simon was flabbergasted. What was wrong with Jesus? If he were a prophet or holy man, how could he allow this woman to touch him? Certainly he knew what kind of woman she was. How dare Jesus allow such, such unholy behavior?
Who was this woman? We are not sure. All we know is that she was a sinner.
The Greek word translated here as sinner - harmatolos - is the same word used in Romans to describe the fallen condition of humankind. This term was used by the Pharisees to describe tax collectors and prostitutes. No matter - her total focus was on Jesus. She dropped to her knees and wet his feet with her tears, tears of gratefulness and love. Then she took down her hair and wiped his feet with it. When a Jewish woman reached the marrying age, she would bind up her hair. To appear publicly with unbound hair was a great immodesty. Taking down her hair would be reserved for her most intimate love. Here she was in public, ignoring everything around her, at the feet of her Christ showing her grateful love toward Jesus.
What was Jesus reaction? First of all, he proved Simon's contention that he was a prophet. He read Simon's heart. He looked up at Simon and said "Simon, this I wish to tell you." And in his gentle, but firm manner, grabbed at Simon's heart by telling him a story. It is a simple story of two men who had debts that could not be repaid. One owed the equivalent of two months salary, the other two years. But neither one could repay their debt. So the lender forgave them both. Jesus then asks what on the surface appears to be a simple question. "Which one will love him more?" Simon quickly responds that the one who owed him more would. The impression we get is that Simon means the man who owed two years salary.
Jesus smiles and says you are right Simon. But what Jesus is agreeing to is that the one who owed the most would be most grateful. Remember, neither man could repay the debt. The effect of non-payment was the same for each of them. Both could have been put in prison. Both could have ultimately lost their lives over the non-payment. In reality, both men's debt were the same. Both required the same salvation. Both should have been equally grateful.
Jesus then leans forward and looks sternly at Simon, using Simon's misunderstanding to make his claim of being the Messiah. He chastises Simon for being a poor host and for not appreciating the gift of having him in his house. The "sinful" woman showed him all the courtesies and hospitality that Simon should have shown him. She washed his feet, kissed, and anointed him. Then the zinger ... Jesus said "I say to you, her sins, which are many (present tense) have been forgiven (perfect tense - prior time to the future), for she loved (agape, self-sacrificing love) much."
As for Simon ... "but he who is forgiven little, loves little." This reverse English structure bluntly says: Simon, because you love little, it is obvious that you are not forgiven. His self-righteousness blinded him to his need for being grateful for the gift that God had given him.
Then, looking into the tearful eyes of the woman he says, again in perfect tense, "Your sins have been forgiven." How this astonished the others in the courtyard. The story ends with the rhetorical question: "Who is this man who even forgives sins?" Of course, there is no question - he is the Christ.
Another question we often asked was how does the Scripture apply to us today? What can we learn about ourselves on our spiritual journey as disciples? In the Galatians lesson, Paul points out one aspect that has remains a real problem in Christ's Church today. He is rebuking the Jewish Christians in Galatia for wishing to reapply the Mosaic rules upon themselves and the Gentile Christians in their community. They wish to again earn salvation through adherence to a law that nobody could meet without violation. Paul makes the argument that if adherence to the law brought salvation, and each of us failed sometime in upholding the law, then how could a perfect Christ become a minister of these violations. Obviously he couldn't. So each of us must not depend on the Law to gain salvation.
Then Paul describes the essence of what we should be and see on the journey. Verse 20: "I have been crucified with Christ; therefore I no longer live, but Christ who lives in me." Forgiveness brings Christ into me. Forgiveness brings Christ into you. When I look at my life - then I "live by the faith in the Son of God who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me." And in living by faith, I must live in gratefulness on my knees, like the sinful woman. If I don't, as Paul says, then Christ died needlessly.
But if Christ lives in me and Christ lives in you ... what are we to say about each other on our journey? Are we to be like Simon and rank the journey and faith of each traveler by some righteousness scale? Are we to look down our noses on those who struggle with their faith and ask hard questions? Are we to idolize those who seem to have it all together and feel inadequate ourselves? Are we to think that a liberal or conservative Christian thought brings out a new idea during a discussion on Scripture.will destroy the church? Or are we to look ahead and behind and beside.ourselves on the journey and see Christ who lives within? Or has Christ died needlessly?
Unfortunately the Christian Church has had and continues to have problems with seeing other things besides Christ. First it was the struggle between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Then the Eastern and Roman Orthodoxies. Then the Protestant and Catholic problems which have continued into this century, most evident in Northern Ireland. Of course we have the views of many American Christians who said that blacks were inferior. And within the past 30 years those who would have denied that God could (or in some sermons should) call women to positions of leadership. This struggle continues, most recently erupting again with the recent Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Salt Lake City. (As an aside, it is of interest that Luke includes the names of women of importance to Jesus ministry. And during our Disciples gathering, I became very convicted of the impact of the church's message and language upon women. Thank you fellow disciples.)
Even our own Presbyterian denomination is embroiled in ranking the value of each other. As our denomination's General Assembly is gathering in Charlotte this week, there is a move to put a moratorium on discussion of whether or not our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are worthy of being full members on the journey. The effect of a moratorium would be to codify a certain sin above others. This has the effect of placing a pink triangle on many of our fellow journeyers. The moratorium is being supported by the strategists on both sides of the argument as a time to regroup the members of their respective tribes for further battle. And while all this occurs, the level of rhetoric increases, mistrust increases, assumptions of motives become more polarized, and the work of Christ suffers. One wonders where Christ is being seen. Let's hope and pray this week that our General Assembly will put aside everything but the Christ that lives in each of them before our Presbyterian denomination is broken apart.
The Disciples study that we have been through has taught me to see Christ in a variety of people. It has allowed me to see the pain that each of us has traveled through and how Christ has and is helping us through it. And as we shared and prayed and fasted and studied together, I could feel and sense more of Christ living in me. I could sense and feel and see Christ living in others.
I would urge that you take a note card when you get home and copy down Galatians 2:20. Put it on your bathroom mirror so that the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see before turning out the light at night is:
"I have been crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live, but Christ now lives in me."
And prayerfully consider joining a Disciples group next academic year - it is a journey that will change you forever.
In his name,