"4th Graders and Pharisees" - Luke 7:36 - 8:3
Luke 7:36 - 8:3
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to 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.' Jesus spoke up and said to him, 'Simon, I have something to say to you.' ‘Teacher,' he replied, 'Speak.'
'A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?' Simon answered, 'I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.' And Jesus said to him, 'You have judged rightly.' Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, 'Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.' Then he said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven.' But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?' And he said to the woman, 'Your faith has saved you; go in peace.'
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
I know a few of you have seen the article I shared on Facebook last week about the mother whose “worst nightmare” had come true in the life of her own daughter. That headline may be a bit extreme – as headlines and blogs and the world of social media are wont to be – but the piece is worth a read. When I read it the first time around, I didn’t think of it as the Gospel… until I read today’s Gospel, that is, from Luke, Chapter 7.
The short version of the blog’s story is that this mother’s little girl, a 4th grader, was subtly excluding another little girl at her school, named Bethany. Bethany was a new girl, a little bit awkward and a whole lot of curious and clingy, trying – as children are inclined to do – to get into the good graces of the cool girls on the playground, and at the cafeteria, and in the classroom, too. By all accounts, the cool kids weren’t being overtly mean or unkind in any obvious way. They weren’t name-calling or physically fighting. They were simply avoiding this little girl they preferred not to include… or welcome into the mix… or invite into their circle of friends. Which was this mother’s point, in the end.
All of this avoiding, denying, not inviting or including, while benign and harmless on the surface, is no less painful or hurtful or troublesome for the ones being excluded. In other words, we recognize the hot-button issue of bullying, she would say, when it looks like fist-fights or when it sounds like name-calling or when it results in bloody noses and falling tears. But we deny the power and the pain and the damage of what it means to exclude, to avoid, to leave out, to distance ourselves from those we’re convinced we’d rather not be near, or spend time with, or befriend, or whatever.
And this is where I found resonance with the Gospel for today. See, I’ve preached on this text a handful of times over the years. And I’ve considered the theme, and the pretty obvious message of it all, more times than I can count: that we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness, equally as broken and as lost as the next person; that God’s grace is for everyone, in spite of that; that Pharisees are fools, and that we’re all Pharisees, in our own ways too much of the time; that some of us are more aware of our need for God’s forgiveness than others, and yada, yada, yada. It’s almost become too easy to talk about our faith in these ways when we consider it all with the broad brush strokes of “grace” and “sin” and “forgiveness” and the “kingdom of God.”
It makes sense, theologically speaking, to see how the woman in today’s Gospel is no better or worse than the Pharisee who would exclude her or deny her the grace of God. We can see, because of the grace and mercy and forgiveness she already knew was hers, how she would extend her gratitude and worship to Jesus in the form of tears and footwashing and adoration and worship, like she did. Yada, yada, yada. (I don’t mean to blow it off. I just mean that I feel like I’ve been there and done that.)
What I don’t consider enough of the time, though, is that before any of that grace could happen…before any of this forgiveness could be received… before any of this mercy could be witnessed… before any of this love could really be experienced… Jesus had to let people in. Jesus had to draw near. Jesus had to make room; to spend time; Jesus had to do the work of making space for the children of God, in the first place. And Jesus had a knack for recognizing everyone – seeing every body – as children of God, in the first place, after all.
See, I wonder, frankly, if Jesus really wanted to be at that Pharisee’s house for dinner that night. I wonder if it felt like work for Jesus. He probably knew something about what he was getting into, something about the company he’d keep there. After all, these Pharisees were always the ones asking the hard questions and trying to trick him and trap him and test him and trip Jesus up where his theology was concerned. It doesn’t sound like all that much fun, if you ask me. My guess is, Jesus would much rather have spent time with his pals – the disciples – down the by lake, grilling some fish.
But there he was, right? Doing the work of sitting at the table with at least one Pharisee, breaking bread, spending time with this host, who wasn’t exactly the host with the most. And then, on top of it all, just like in that cartoon with the kids, or like an annoying/needy new kid on the playground, along comes this woman – a stranger to some degree, we can guess – who interrupts what may very well have already been an awkward situation, with all of those tears and the hair and the oil and the foot-kissing.
I think I might have declined the invitation, in the first place. I’m not sure what I would have done about the tears and the hair and the oil and the foot-kissing at the dinner table. But I’m guessing I might have avoided it; politely declined; pulled away; changed the subject; made other arrangements, met with my friends were doing down by the lake.
We aren’t always open to making the time for others who aren’t like us – or who don’t like us, are we? Like so many Pharisees – or 4th graders on the playground, perhaps – we know what we know; we like who we like; we are set in our ways, whether we admit it or like it or not.
Well, speaking of 4th graders on the playground, the hard news for the daughter of the mother who wrote the blog I mentioned, was that mom was the outsider in this equation, growing up. She was a freckle-faced, frizzy haired, Army brat as she put it, always the new girl clamoring for friends but struggling to find them. So she sympathized – not with her daughter – but with Bethany, the little girl who couldn’t find a friend.
And to remedy the situation, Mom sent Daughter to school with an assignment to learn three new things about Bethany, the little girl she didn’t want to know. And it worked. She learned about her. She grew to like her. They became friends and remain friends, to this day, as 20-something Sophomores in college. Mom’s point was, it’s not enough – like Pastor Aaron said last week – just to ‘be nice.’ I would add, living into the grace and mercy and call of Christ means it’s not enough to not be mean. And this isn’t just for 4th graders, either.
It’s not enough to hold this theology of grace and welcome and love for all if it doesn’t show up in our daily lives from time to time.
So, it means forgiving what others will not. It means loving who others will not. It means welcoming and making room for and learning about the ones others will not.
It means looking for that person in the entry after worship who’s pretending to check their cell phone or sipping their coffee at a table by themselves. And it means leaving your familiar friends to introduce yourself, even if you have no idea where the conversation might go from there.
It means getting to know that neighbor who doesn’t take care of their lawn or whose political signs don’t agree with yours.
It means ministry like ours with the Agape Alliance – serving and eating with those women once a month on Indy’s east side. (For those women, it means being served and eating with the likes of you and me.)
It means imagining what God sees in the likes of those we’d rather not even look at… wondering who we’d be surprised to see Jesus making room for at the dinner table… Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Brock Turner?
Anything that widens the circle of God’s love for the sake of the world – for the sake of the other… for the sake of the outsider… the lost… the lonely… the left-out… the sinner – this is what Jesus means to share and to inspire within us. All of this is about the rubber of our faith meeting the road of our lives in ways that take it out of the hypothetical and move it into the real, active, presence of God in our midst.
Like Jesus and those 4th grade girls have shown, it is life-giving, this kind of grace and faith. It is life-changing this way of being in the world. It takes courage and boldness and vulnerability and faith because it means when we invite Jesus over for dinner – or into our hearts – or into our worship – or into our midst in any way – he’s going to bring the world with him and we’re called to find out how and why we can love them, the way Jesus already does.