2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17, 26-27
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord…
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.”
So, King David is kind of a mess, right? He gets as much praise and prominence in the story of our faith as he does infamous notoriety for the transgressions we just heard about in 2nd Samuel. Not only is he lifted up and revered as the slayer of giants, as the composer of psalms, as the wise and faithful king during the Golden Age of Israel’s monarchy … but all of that is tarnished, not just by his selfish, misogynistic infidelity with Bathsheba (which might actually, fairly be considered rape, under the circumstances), all of his glory is stained, too, by his strategic, sneaky, underhanded, manipulative murder of Uriah, her husband and one of David’s own faithful soldiers. It’s another story that seems straight from the cutting room floor of “Game of Thrones.”
And all of that sin did more than just stain David’s legacy and the way we’re forced to remember and wrestle with what we know of his history. David’s sin impacted him and his reign in real time, too. The days and years following that transgression against Bathsheba and that tragedy for Uriah were filled with more of the same for David, for his family and for the kingdom under his rule, too. In spite of the forgiveness he is promised by the prophet Nathan, in the verses that follow what we just heard, David’s life and that of his family were filled with the consequences of his sinfulness … filled with even more shame and struggle, more rape and revenge, more deception and death, more trickery and tragedy, and so on. We just don’t have time to read or recount it all this morning.
Sin, for David – and for so many of us, it seems to me – can have a cumulative effect on our well-being, until we find a way to mitigate and mend its brokenness in our lives.
When I was a kid – maybe in the 2nd grade – old enough to know some bad words but young enough to get into lots of trouble for saying them. I was playing football with my brother and some friends one day. At some point during the game, I did a bad thing … I said a bad word … a word that’s bad by grown-up standards, never mind that I was in elementary school … and my older brother heard me. And I don’t remember how long exactly, but for a very long time it seemed, my brother would bribe me with his knowledge of my sin.
If he wanted me to do something for him, he’d threaten to tell my parents until I did it. If I was on his nerves, he’d promise to tell my mom or dad about that thing I’d said until I left him alone. If he wanted something from me, he’d hang my sin over my head until I gave in.
It was a miserable position to be in. I felt helpless and at my brothers’ mercy. I was frustrated and angry that he had that kind of power over me. I was scared to think of what kind of grounding I might get if my parents found out about their youngest son’s potty mouth. And, I think most of all, I was embarrassed to think about their reaction to what I had done.
Now, I don’t remember anything specific … I wasn’t the King of Israel, so my power and influence were limited … but it’s easy to see how my sin affected my every day life. It was intrusive and harmful and fear-inducing, like a little Scarlet Letter eating away at my conscience and my sweet, slightly less than innocent, pre-pre-pubescent soul.
Which is what the power of sin – what the consequences of sin – can do in our lives. And most of us don’t need a vindictive older brother’s help with this. Our sin eats at us. Sin nags and gnaws at us. Depending on how severe or shameful, how dramatic or damaging our sin might be, it can impact and influence, it can cloud and color every part of our existence, like it did for King David, in spite of his faithful desire to do and to be otherwise.
Well, I wish I’d have known my Bible better when I was a kid. Because if I’d known about this morning’s Gospel story – about this woman with her alabaster jar of ointment; about Jesus and the grace of God he offered – I might have handled things with my brother differently.
See, Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus over for dinner and this woman ‘from the city’ hears about it, shows up and has the nerve to anoint the feet of Jesus with a jar of ointment and her tears. Simon can hardly believe it and, had he had the chance, he likely would have told the woman to stay away – that she wasn’t worthy of his company, let alone the company of Jesus. He might even have threatened, like my brother, to tell Jesus all he knew about what made her so sinful.
But, there was something Simon didn’t know. Simon hadn’t heard all that the woman with the alabaster jar had heard about Jesus, this prophet from Galilee. And I don’t think we always hear it, or believe it, either.
See, this woman’s tears weren’t only – or even primarily – repentance for her sin. What I mean is, Jesus doesn’t offer her forgiveness because she showed up with that ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. If you look closely and use a little imagination, you’ll see that she must have known something about God’s grace and her own forgiveness before showing up to that dinner party. How else would she have had the nerve to invite herself into the home of a Pharisee, interrupt dinner and get so cozy with a stranger?
And besides that, Jesus says it plainly: “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” “Hence she has shown great love.” “Hence…!” Jesus seems to imply that the grace of God – the forgiveness she craved – had already come. And her anointing – her tears and her ointment – were a repentant, joy-filled response to the love of God and to the forgiveness she already knew and expected from Jesus.
But that’s a hard thing for us to swallow sometimes. No matter how much we talk about grace; no matter how often we remind ourselves that God’s love and forgiveness come with no strings attached – we still make room for our own guilt, for our own shame and for our own ability to point fingers and place blame and cast judgment on those who sin differently than we do. And we still let the shame of our sins do a number on our own lives, too.
But, as always, Jesus shows us a different way. Just like he knew the truth about the woman, God knows the truth about us, already. Just like Jesus had no illusions about her moral status in the eyes of her community, God has no illusions about our sin, either. And, what’s amazing is that none of it scares Jesus off. What’s amazing is, if anything, her sin – like our own – just gives Jesus a chance to reveal his tremendous capacity and desire to forgive.
One day, some time after that R-rated football game of my childhood, I couldn’t appease my brother any longer. I don’t remember the circumstances – if I was tired of trying or if my brother just got that mad about something – but he finally told my dad about the horrible thing I had said that day.
I remember that he warned me he was going to tell him. I remember him marching up to the kitchen while I listened in fear from the other room. And I remember, much to our surprise – and to my complete relief – that my dad said simply, “When your brother’s ready to talk to me about that, we will.”
And, in my little boy’s heart, I think I felt some measure of what that woman was feeling when she kissed the feet of Jesus. Surprise. Relief. Unburdened. Forgiveness. Grace.
I had a conversation with Rob Saler, our resident theologian, earlier this week, and he said something off-hand that caught me off-guard because it was surprisingly relevant to all of this for me. We were talking about the nature of sin and its impact on our lives and he said, “When you’re sick, you don’t get well again, just to please your doctor.”
“When you’re sick, you don’t get well again, just to please your doctor.”
If Sin is our sickness and God is our Great Physician, we don’t go about the work of repentance and forgiveness, of receiving God’s gift of grace, of changing our sinful ways, just to make God happy. We’re called to go about the work of repentance and forgiveness – of righteous, faithful living – because God knows our lives are blessed and better for doing so, as is the world around us.
God doesn’t demand our repentance, our obedience, our faithfulness or our love. God isn’t keeping score of our sins and indiscretions any more than God is keeping score of our good works and our acts of faithfulness.
God wants us to be well, because God loves us; because God knows what the power of sin can do in and to and through our lives. God wants us to be well, not because our sins ruin God’s day or because God can’t handle the burden of our brokenness – Jesus’ death and resurrection have proven otherwise.
No. What God wants for us is to live – on this side of heaven – in freedom from fear; liberated from our shame; set loose in the world to love like Jesus did: openly, generously, widely, courageously, without limits. King David couldn’t seem to do what that sinful woman from the city managed – and that to which each of us is called: to live with gratitude for the abundant forgiveness of all of our sins – forgivness which has already come – until the truth of that grace releases us and inspires us and moves us to love ourselves and the world because of it.