Are Welcomed by Jesus.
(This sermon is also available in audio.)
In his book
The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells a story of a friend
who worked with the urban poor in Chicago.
happened? I can tell you that there are hundreds of people who will never
walk in the doors of any church in this city, regardless how desperate
they are for help, because they can't imagine the church as a place of
welcome and hospitality for them. What has happened? The story of Jesus'
visit in the home of Simon might be a place to begin answering that question.
as I read Luke 7:36-50:
"Who is this who even forgives sins?" Earlier in this chapter Luke tells us that there were two popular answers to the question. Some said that he was a prophet. Interestingly, it was the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who said that. Some said that he was a fraud. Again, interestingly and unexpectedly, it was the Pharisees and religious people who said that. They called him, "A glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners."
Simon the Pharisee apparently wanted to judge for himself. You must give him credit for that. And so, he invited Jesus to his home for dinner. My guess is that it was a dinner with lots of theological questions, every answer carefully scrutinized. Remember, Simon wants to know for himself whether this Jesus is a prophet or a fraud.
In the midst of this theological conversation, a woman came into the house. An uninvited guest seems strange to us. But in the first century, the homes were open and it would not have been unusual. But what she did was very unusual. As Jesus reclined at the table, she came up behind him. In order to understand this scene, you must try to understand the setting. Jesus would have been reclining, resting on his left elbow with his legs lying parallel to the table. If the table was in front of him, the only way that the woman could approach him was from behind.
The Bible says that she was, "a woman in the city, a sinner." You don't have to read the commentaries to recognize what that must mean. Simon the Pharisee recognized her immediately. Either she had a reputation and was known, or there was something about her appearance that identified her. Regardless, everybody knew who she was or, Simon thought, should have known.
The woman came to anoint Jesus' feet with ointment. She took an alabaster jar of ointment and began to rub the ointment on his feet. As she did, she began to weep and the tears began to drop on his feet. The Bible says that she began "to bathe his feet with her tears." She must have been sobbing. And then, perhaps without even thinking, she took down her hair and began to wipe the tears and then she began to kiss the feet. In his commentary on this text, Charles Cousar says, "At some point she has heard a word of divine pardon, and her deep sense of gratitude prompts an extravagant response" (Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching: Year C, p. 389).
Now, Simon the Pharisee is watching this whole scene unfold and he is speechless. Remember, Simon is wanting to judge who Jesus is for himself-prophet or fraud. He can't believe what he is seeing. It was shocking when she began to rub Jesus' feet with the ointment and he did not stop her. In the ancient world, Jewish women did not touch men in public. But this kissing and rubbing herself over his feet and legs was not just shocking. It was scandalous. Even though no one says anything, you can be sure that no one is eating and everyone is watching. As far as Simon is concerned, this behavior makes up his mind. Who is Jesus? Is he a prophet or a fraud? Simon answers that question for 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."
Listen carefully to this statement because it shows some religious assumptions that are still at work today. Simon assumed that if Jesus was a prophet, he would recoil, he would be repulsed; he would reject this woman, because God hates sinners. That is what Simon the Pharisee believed.
But Jesus shows that he is not just a prophet, but more than a prophet. He says to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven." And the watching crowd asked, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" If you are a Christian, a Trinitarian, you know that answer. "This is God. And God's name is Jesus!" In this text it is God who receives and forgives the sinner.
In his commentary on this text, Alan Culpepper says, "Unless we see something of ourselves in the character of Simon the Pharisee. . . we have failed to hear the story" (Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreters Bible, "Luke," p. 172). There is a little of Simon the Pharisee in all of us. We all tend to recoil, to be repulsed, to reject people that we define as sinners. That is why the prostitute in Chicago never thought to go to the church for help.
Larry had not been in church for years. He would not have even considered darkening the doors of a church. His behavior was the scandal of the small, rural community. But Larry met a young woman and she moved in with him. Even though they were not married, everyone noted that Larry's behavior changed for the better. One day, Larry and his lover came to church. It was the first time he had been in church in years. Later, the deacons had a meeting. They were worried that if they let Larry attend, the reputation of their church would be at stake in that community.
Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, came back to the city one day to find men huddled in doorways to keep warm without overcoats. She imagined that they had sold their coats to satisfy their alcoholic urges. She makes this pointed observation. "Those without love would say, 'It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.'" But then Dorothy concludes, "God help us if we got just what we deserved" (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, p. 125).
It was my great privilege to preach in this pulpit for the "Service of Prayer and Healing for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS" some years ago. After the service, a transvestite came up to me and shook my hand. He had obviously had a very difficult life. It showed on his face. He held my hand tightly and said, "God sees my inside and not my outside." That is the message that Simon the Pharisee never got. Instead of giving us what we deserve, God has given us forgiveness. Whenever we realize that, we will stop being judgmental and start being loving.
Thomas Long tells the story of a child from the mountains of north Georgia that became very sick and had to be flown to the children's hospital in Atlanta:
That is the way that God sees us: not our sins, not our shortcomings, not our failures, but our souls, cleansed and forgiven through Jesus Christ. If you are one of those who has never felt welcome in church before, forgive us. You are welcomed by Jesus. That is the message of the gospel.
Copyright 2002 The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr
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