Sinners Make the Greatest Lovers - thrive UMC Official Blog

Sinners Make the Greatest Lovers

Since Easter, we’ve been focusing on the call of the resurrected Christ to preach ‘a new knowing for the forgiveness of sins’ to all nations. And to help us grow in that call, we’ve been going back to take a second look at a few of Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness, in order to grow a new knowing in ourselves. We’re going to continue that trend, and conclude our ‘Forgiving’ series, today by looking at one last lesson.

Much like the last lesson we explored, Jesus is again gathered around a table, sharing a meal.  Sinners and saints are also both present, and Jesus again has a parable to share. This time, however, the meal is being hosted by a Pharisee.  Our reading comes from Luke, chapter seven, verses 36-50.  Let us ready ourselves for a change of heart and lives.

36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. 37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster.38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work.[d] The other owed enough money for fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. 47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

 

So Jesus has been invited to a respectable Pharisee’s house, and then a scandal happens: a ‘sinful’ woman comes in and causes a scene with Jesus.  Now, in order to picture what’s going on here, we need to know just a little bit about the customs of the day.  In first century Palestine, meals were a big deal that happened around three low tables arranged in a ‘u’ shape.  The guests would lay down on these angled couch-thingies, with their heads toward the table, and their feet away from it, which allowed them to converse while eating.

But before the guests ever got to the table, an elaborate welcome-ritual was supposed to take place.  When the guests first arrived, custom dictated that the host greet each guest with a kiss, have a servant (if they had servants) remove their sandals and wash their feet with cool water, and put a fragrant oil balm on their heads.  And if your guest was an especially honorable one, like a rabbi, your hospitality was supposed to match their status.  

But we learn that this particular host doesn’t offer Jesus the customary hospitality.  He offers him food and a place at his table, but not the welcome he deserved.  Meanwhile, this sinner-woman (we don’t know what she’s done –but many of the male scholars assume she was a prostitute) comes in, cries on Jesus’s feet, starts kissing them, and then takes her hair down to wipe them off.  This is a breach of at least four different rules of Jewish decorum.  And since Jesus seems to be allowing this scandal to unfold, the host starts to judge Jesus.

Cue the parable: “A certain lender had two debtors…”

Sound familiar?

“One [debtor] owed enough money to pay 500 people for a day’s work.  The other owed enough money for fifty.  When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both.” 

            Quick question here; does anyone know what would have been the standard alternative to forgiveness in a situation like this? What happens to people who can’t pay their debts?  Did they just declare bankruptcy and move on with their lives?  No!

            The alternative to forgiveness was slavery! In that day and age, when you owed someone something and couldn’t pay, you and your spouse and your kids became slaves! And if the person you owed was kind, they would let you work off your debt in timed labor, with interest. That means that the man who owed 500 denaria should have to serve his lender for roughly two years, minimum! And the other one about two months. But because of technicalities, like the living expenses that were added to your debt, it often happened that even a small debt could turn into a life of servitude. And you did not get to choose the kind of work you did; and you and your family lost your social status and practically all of your public rights. When you couldn’t pay with your money, you literally owed your life.  So the lender in this story is exceedingly and extravagantly generous to forgive these two men, because they should have been his slaves.

            But instead he inexplicably forgives them both.  Then Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee, host of the party and asks: ‘Which of these two debtors will love the lender more?’

            Now, we have to pay very close attention here, because Jesus is doing something subtle, but very critical by asking this question at the end of the story. What he is doing is taking an economic circumstance –an issue about money, and he’s shifting the focus to love.  And in this way, he transforms what starts out as an impersonal transaction, into a personal relationship.

            So, he asks: ‘Which of these two debtors will love the lender more?’

            “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Simon says.

It then comes out that Simon was not a very hospitable host to Jesus: he didn’t do the things he was supposed to.  But yet, this sinner-woman literally prostrates herself at Jesus’s feet and pours out tears and oil and affection for him.  Simon is the publically recognized host –the proverbial man of the hour, and yet it is the unwelcomed guest who shows Jesus the greatest hospitality and respect.  Far from scandalizing or corrupting Jesus, the unnamed woman is showing him the greatest honor –and why?  It all culminates in this great line: “The one who is forgiven little loves little,” says Jesus.

One more super-quick word about the mechanics of the original biblical language here: word order doesn’t matter in Greek like it does in English.  So it would also be true to the text to read that sentence the opposite way: “the one who loves little is forgiven little.”  It means both at the same time. Forgiveness leads to loving; and loving leads to forgiveness. But if you don’t forgive, you will not receive love.  And if you don’t love, you’re not in a good place to be forgiven.

  So what’s going down is that Jesus is calling Simon out!  Simon, you like to think that you’re the man because you live in a big fancy house, and can afford to throw snooty soirees.  You think so highly of yourself that you’ll invite a rabbi over for dinner, but then don’t bother to show him the honor he’s due by custom at the door.  And then, on top of all of that, you have the nerve to judge Jesus as a false prophet because he lets a sinner touch and honor him? 

Simon, you’re invested in the wrong kind of economy.  You’re so interested in your status and your money that you’re missing out on the better blessing –the one that could set you free: love!

That’s the currency in God’s economy.  That’s why it’s at the heart of two big commandments: love God –with every living piece of yourself.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s all about love.

If we had more time together, we could talk a little more about Simon; but today I want to talk about us.  Jesus teaches us that “the one who is forgiven little loves little.”  And what I want to ask you all today is this: how is your accounting going? 

Have you been forgiven much? 

On Jesus’s ledger book, what matters most is not how many times you’ve been kind or done nice things, or abstained from breaking the obvious rules.  Your good deeds and reverent sentiments and good public standing don’t pay the statement balance, or entitle you to holier-than-thou privileges.  All the money in the world given to charity couldn’t buy your ticket to reconciliation with God.    What’s called for is your love.  And your gratitude. 

That’s what makes the story Jesus tells so powerful; because the lender is, in a limited way, like God: by giving us life and a body and companions and a great grand world to live in and the whole bundle of love that fuels it all –we have received a gift that we could never ever earn or pay back.  And instead of using our debt as a justification to keep us enslaved, God has set us free from it –free to be ourselves and to live our own lives –even free to screw things up from time to time, so that we can be enriched by the joy that comes with gratitude.  We –you and I- have been forgiven.  We’ve been released from the accounting system that uses debt to control people, by God –so that we’re free to love.  Not because we have to.  But because we get to

And here is the grand invitation: when we invest our lives and energy in loving people instead of trying to control them through baiting incentives and shame, then there’s more forgiveness in the world. And when there’s more forgiveness (and gratitude for it), then there’s more love –which just leads to more forgiveness…. And it goes on and on until it fills the world and transforms everything.

This is the central call of the living and risen Christ: be heralds of the new knowing of forgiveness, which leads to love.  And don’t forget: those who are forgiven little, love little.  Which means the biggest sinners have the potential to be the greatest lovers.  Let that transform our relationships: instead of being afraid of the sins in others, let it reveal the hidden sins in our own self-righteous hearts –so that we might share in this grand gift of grace, together.

Let’s pray.

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