Sunday, May 13, 2018
Full Service Audio
A conversation with a stranger at the garage sale here last Saturday went as follows. “What brings you to this event?”
The person said, “Well frankly, I’m looking for bargains.”
I said, “It is also nice that it goes to a good cause.”
He said, “Yeah, whatever...”
The conversation ended quickly. He later found out I was the minister, but that is a whole other story for another day! I think he was being honest though. He was trying to find a gem, something precious. In fact, if people are honest, that is what they were all trying to do. Those who came to the jewellery table were looking for gems just that little extra special. Some came to the linens looking for that one beautiful pressed thing that they could now use and put on display. I went to the food table to get the ginger cookies that have been my gems for the last fifteen years… God bless Graham Boundy! We all went searching for gems, for something special, and that indeed is the great attraction of a garage or rummage sale.
Theologian, Robin Steinweg, suggests that the whole of Jesus’ ministry was trying to find gems in the midst of the rummage sale of life: to find people who needed to renew and rediscover their dignity, be given an opportunity to start again, and be lifted above the condition they found themselves. Steinweg wrote this glorious phrase: “Jesus doesn’t choose people who are gems; he makes gems out of the people he chooses.” The thrust of Jesus’ ministry, according to Steinweg, is that wherever he found people who were losing their shine, their sense of dignity, purpose or pride, who had been worn down by sin or avarice, to heal them, lift them up, and bring them back to where God intended them to be.
Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. The setting is simple – at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. Now, I want you for a moment to picture yourself at this event. Simon, a Pharisee, a well-known religious person, someone who is faithful in obeying the law of God, invites Jesus over for a meal. We don’t know whether it is lunch or dinner, but it’s probably lunch. Jesus had been an itinerant preacher, and we know from all the text around it that Jesus had been preaching in synagogues in different places around Palestine, mainly around Galilee, but also getting closer and closer to Jerusalem, and even up in the borderlands of Samaria. Jesus did most of his preaching from texts from the Scriptures in the synagogue. Chances are that Simon, the Pharisee would have heard him, and probably because he liked to hang out with celebrities, invited Jesus to his home for a meal – a very kind and gracious thing to do. But Simon also wanted to figure out who this Jesus of Nazareth really was: Was he really the authentic thing?
If you were to go into a house owned by a fairly prominent person at that time in history, you would enter a small place with probably four to six rooms, but the eating often took place on the patio al fresco and passersby would be able to see them. It was one of the ways that they kept the food and the life of eating separate from the life of the rest of the house, which of course was often dark and gloomy with its small rooms. So, you are now on the patio. Simon and Jesus are there: Jesus, is the guest preacher; Simon the religious leader. Rather than sitting at a table with chairs, they are reclining as was the custom in the Middle East at the time. They are having pomegranates, some wonderful bread probably wine. This is a beautiful moment. Guests that would have been invited, because Simon is showing off that he has Jesus of Nazareth, the big-name preacher, here visiting. But then, something remarkable happens.
Entering this idyllic scene comes a woman, and this is no ordinary woman. She comes up to Jesus, and starts to caress his feet. She takes an ointment, which was probably perfume in an alabaster vial that was worn around the neck by many women, but especially prostitutes, and anoints his feet. Then she starts to cry, and her tears fall on his feet. She uses her long hair to mop up the tears and kisses his feet. This is, as Dr. Craig Evans says, “One of the seminal moments in The New Testament.” Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, is being anointed by a woman from the streets. All the symbols of her need are there: the tears being shed because she is so overwhelmed to be in his presence; the loose hair that shows immodesty and humility, not something that a proper lady would do; that she anoints him with the one valuable thing that she probably has in the whole world that is hanging around her neck from her alabaster jar, which she places at Jesus’ feet; and she honours him in the most humble way.
Then, in this pregnant moment the crowd was muttering to one another: “Look at this guest preacher, having this woman come in here and allowing her to do these things to him. What kind of a man is he?” Simon, we are told, begins to question the authenticity of Jesus. By allowing this woman, who is clearly a sinner, has broken the law, and probably would not be allowed in the synagogue to hear Jesus’ message. She has the gall to come in to an exclusive luncheon hosted by a religious leader. Simon’s response is to question if this Jesus knew who this woman was. In other words, if he was really a prophet, would he allow this woman to touch him, to even go near him, for he would become religiously and ritually unclean? If this Jesus were really the Messiah, there is no way he is allowing such a thing to happen! Now of course, Simon is basing a lot of this on his belief that many of the prophets of The Old Testament were clairvoyant. The greats like Elisha and Elijah, often had foreknowledge of what would happen, understood people and knew what they thought. So Simon the Pharisee thinks, “Well, if Jesus is an authentic prophet, like Elijah or Elisha, he would know that this is a sinful woman and he would not allow such a thing to happen.”
Clearly Jesus either read his mind or heard him mumbling. I suspect, as some New Testament scholars have suggested, that Jesus would have heard the rumblings in the room. Maybe you, sitting there at the table, reclining, watching this go on are wondering, “Why would this man allow this woman to do this?” Jesus does not address him head-on. Jesus’ response is fantastic! He tells a story. The story is simply about two people who owe money. One who owes what in our equivalence would be twenty weeks wages; the other one two months’ wages. He calls these, debts. In Hebrew the word is “houba” meaning: “a debt or a sin” and that is one of the reasons why there are different translations of the Lord’s Prayer. “Father forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”, the Presbyterian approach. Then, there is “Forgive us our sins” or “Forgive us our trespasses”, a more Anglican or United way of dealing with it. But they are the same words. Debts and sins mean exactly the same thing. Jesus is playing with a word here. There is someone in this story who owes a lot because of their sins and another one who owes little because of their sins; one who has a lot of debt, one who has fewer debts. He asks Simon the Pharisee, “Which one of these is the most grateful when they are forgiven. When the slate is wiped clean, who is the one who is the most joyful?”
Simon says, “Well, the one who owes the most.”
In other words, it is the one with the greatest sin, the one who had the greatest debt, the one who had the greatest need.
You see, the woman’s response to Jesus was that she saw in him forgiveness. This woman, who had in society’s terms no dignity, no standing, understood that in Jesus her sins are forgiven, her debts are wiped clean. She knew who she was, she knew what she was, she knew her condition, and she knew that Jesus and his great love and forgiveness for her was so worthy of her affection that she kissed him, she anointed him, and she washed his feet, all the things that you do when you respect someone.
I love what John Calvin wrote in The Institutes: “We cannot seriously aspire to God before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.” This woman was clearly displeased with herself. Simon the Pharisee on the other hand, in haughtiness, arrogance and self-righteousness, even though he himself according to this parable was a sinner, just having smaller debts, was standing in judgement over her, questioning her dignity, and wanting her to leave the room. He is ashamed of her. Jesus, rather than being ashamed of her, transforms her.
There is a wonderful line by Scott Hoezee, a preacher, who was at the Lester Randall preaching series here in Toronto last year. He says, “In many ways, Jesus is like a conductor of a choir.” I have thought about that, because I watched very carefully Dr. Choi conducting our choir in a rehearsal two weeks ago. I was downstairs, and many of you don’t know this, I go downstairs and I have a prayer with the choir every Sunday. On this day, they needed me! Elaine was standing up there, and I watched her in all her majesty as she heard things that the choir was not hearing. She heard anomalies and pointed them out, quite clearly for all to hear? And she was right! When they finally got up and sang, it was beautiful, but the conductor had heard and knew the discordant notes, and managed to put them together in such a way that they made something beautiful.
Scott Hoezee says that Jesus’ life and his ministry was to do just that with people. To take a woman like the one at that luncheon, who was broken and see the discordant note and change it into something beautiful. The most dignified person in that room after that lunch was over was not Simon the Pharisee; it was the woman who had wiped Jesus’ feet. Jesus said to Simon, “Simon, when I came in here did you anoint my head with oil (as was often the custom when a dignitary arrives in your home)? No, you didn’t! But she anointed my feet. Did you greet me with a kiss, a sign of affection? No you did not! But she kissed my feet. Did you wash my feet when I came in (which was the custom in Israel)? No you didn’t! But she did it with her tears and dried them with her hair.” This woman was the gem in the rummage sale. This woman was the one renewed and restored by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.
Why do I mention her on Mother’s Day? This is as far from Mother’s Day as you could possibly get! I do so because it demonstrates precisely how Jesus Christ brings people into his family, and that the power of his Gospel and his message and his love is to take those who seem like they’re not gems and turn them into gems, to take those who seem like they are the outcasts and forgive them, renew them, to elevate the power of faith because faith saves. And, most of all, to demonstrate that in his household the gems are restored by him. If all families, if all churches, if all institutions in our society would embrace Christ’s vision, what a world we would have! Thanks be to God. Amen.