Shoes, stories & sinners [sermon 2.14.16, first Sunday in Lent]

by susan on February 15, 2016

annointingOne of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And 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. 38She 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. 39Now 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.” 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”    – Luke 7:36-48

1441A year or so ago, after parking downtown, I noticed this pair of shoes sitting on the curb beside my car. Well worn and weather damaged, I wondered about them.

Did they get left behind after a wild night on the town? Was someone waking up wondering where they left their shoes the night before? Or had they been left behind after becoming too uncomfortable, leaving their owner with no choice but to walk barefoot through our city streets?

I had no idea how these shoes got here, but I knew one thing: They have a story, just like the person who left them behind.

We all have a story. Instead of sharing and hearing one another’s stories, though, we are prone to evaluate, to make judgements and to label each other: Conservative. Liberal. Geek. Pothead. Cheater. Hypocrite. Freak.

We go by first or worst impressions.

Jesus, on the other hand, loved stories – not just telling them, but also uncovering them. He was a keen observer of what was happening below the surface. I think that’s one reason he told so many stories – he loved inviting people to see what they were unable to see. He loved inviting people to look deeply at their priorities, their economics and their relationships.

So, I have no doubt that Jesus knew when he accepted Simon’s dinner invitation that it would lend itself to some creative storytelling, especially considering who was and was not on the guest list.

The dinner is at the home of a pharisee, which is surprising because Luke was prone to talk about Jesus eating with sinners.

Let’s be clear. In Jesus’ day, pharisees were not labeled as sinners. They were labeled as the upright, the pure and the clean. They earned these labels by knowing and keeping the law and by maintaining their distance from sinners. They were waiting for a king and the kind of king they expected would never heal or eat with sinners. Sinners, in fact, would be destroyed by their king.

Groups of pharisees had already begun questioning Jesus, asking things like:
Why do you eat with sinners and tax collectors?
Why do you ignore the sacred law and do things like heal on the sabbath?

At this dinner though, Jesus is likely Simon the Pharisee’s guest of honor. He had likely delivered a teaching nearby and as was common, town pharisees invited the teacher of the day over for dinner for further conversation about his teaching.

That’s when an unnamed woman interrupts. She is out-of-place. She was not invited here and three times, she is labeled a sinner.

But, what does that label even mean?

Luke tells us nothing about her sin, except that her sins were many. Scholars have gone to great length to uncover the nature of them – some say she is Mary Magdalene, the town prostitute. Even if that were the case, does that make her sin a choice or does it make her a victim of a society that devalued single women? New Testament scholar, Greg Carey says “sinners” according to Jews in Jesus’ day could also be labeling anyone who did not live according to the law OR anyone who deviated from social norms (from Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, 2009).

Sin was not just disobeying God;
sin was also not conforming to the religious majority.
It was not doing what everyone else had decided you were supposed to do.

As if her intrusion was not enough, with her unclean hands she begins touching Jesus. Jesus is not breaking any laws here, but he is busting some expectations. By not turning her away, he is allowing himself to become a sinner by association and the other dinner guests are appalled. He must be a fraud.

Sensing their reactions (remember, Jesus is an insider – he is Jewish) and perhaps overhearing Simon’s grumbling, Jesus seizes the opportunity to tell a story of his own.

A certain creditor had two debtors;
one owed five hundred denarii (or a hundred weeks wages),
and the other fifty (or 10 weeks wages).
When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them.
Now which of them will love him more?

It’s like Jesus is saying:
Imagine a world where…
(1) debts are cancelled
(2) debts are canceled for no reason (nothing had been done on behalf of those who owed something) and,
(3) debtors who owed different sized debts are both labeled forgiven. No measurements taken. No comparisons made.

It’s a crazy thought for people consumed with keeping score and keeping clean. It blew their minds, and then that question:

Which debtor would love the creditor more?

Simon is not amused: I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.

As Jesus continues, it seems probable that he had already encountered this woman. Perhaps they met earlier that day or week and Jesus healed her or called her forgiven. Still in disbelief and overcome with gratitude, she finds him to show her deep gratitude.

The scent of the expensive oil she uses to bathe his feet would have filled the room. She had no need for comparisons – she was consumed with thanks.

All Simon could see was a sinner.
He was conditioned to see this way.

Jesus invites Simon, his friends and all of us to see something more:
a world where we are not defined by the worst thing we have ever done,
but instead where we all have a story and we all have equal access to God’s life-transfoming presence.

One more story [from Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers by Greg Carey].

Brian was 12 years old when he arrived at a youth home. Throughout his childhood he had observed his parents’ fights, and he had fought with his own siblings. Often his parents’ disputes ended this way: the father would walk over to the gun cabinet, pull out a pistol and place the barrel right under Brian’s mother’s chin. “If you say another word, I;ll blow your f-ing head off!” Brian had seen this many times.

One day, Brian and his sister fought over the last bowl of cereal in the house. She sat down at the table with the cereal and Brian’s protests achieved no effect. When she poured milk on the cereal, Brian headed for the gun cabinet. He put the gun on the back of his sister’s head, saying ‘If you take one bite of that cereal, I’ll blow your head off!’

No way his sister would give int to this, so she took the bite.

Now Brian was in the youth home. The staff determined not to mention why Brian was there until he brought up the subject himself…

One day a staff member took Brian over to a nearby pond to fish.
While they were fishing, this staff member said,
‘Brian, you’re a neat kid. I really enjoy being with you.’
Brian replied,’You wouldn’t say that if you knew why I’m here.’
His guard down, the staff member blurted, ‘I know why you’re here’.
Startled, Brian replied, ‘You do?’

‘Of course I do. We all know why you’re here.’

…Brian began to sob, letting his emotion come through for the first time in months. That moment proved a turning point in Brian’s life.

Brian had committed the unimaginable.
He had murdered his sister over a bowl of cereal.
His salvation came not through the condemnation of his behavior.
Brian could do that well enough on his own.
His salvation came through the accepting of his presence regardless of his history.


Lent practice 1We are prone to label.
God moves beyond labels.
What if we did, too?
What might happen if we fasted from labels and feasted on the gratitude that comes from knowing that we are loved, forgiven and included?

Previous post:

Next post: