June 16, 2013
Church people claim many names and titles for Jesus—Messiah, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, and so on—but I seldom hear Christian folks referring to Jesus as a prophet. That identification tends to be one that none-Christians, such as our Muslim or Jewish sisters and brothers make about him. But last week’s Gospel lesson—a story about Jesus raising a widow’s dead son, leaving the townspeople of Nain in awe—concluded with them saying to one another, “A great prophet has risen among us!” And word about Jesus spreads through the countryside.
What is a prophet anyway? We tend to use that word about someone who predicts the future like Nostradamus or even John the Baptist, pointing toward Jesus’ coming with a baptism of fire. But no one is predicting the future in either our Gospel lesson or in the story about Nathan in today’s Old Testament reading, yet both discuss prophets. In both these stories—and I would suggest throughout the Bible—a prophet is primarily a person who sees deeply and profoundly what is going on right now, and calls other people to notice it too.
In our story from 2 Samuel, Nathan sees how David’s action of sending Uriah the Hittite to die on the front line so David could marry his widow leads to terrible consequences for him and everyone around him. Though it is life-threatening to challenge the king, he speaks the truth about it. In Luke’s story, too, Jesus sees what’s going on in Simon’s dining room in a clear-eyed way, and tells a story about it too, hoping that the truth will compel a sinner to confess and reform.
Which leads us back to the question: is Jesus a prophet or not? I wonder if that question is what leads Simon the Pharisee to invite Jesus over to dinner in today’s Gospel lesson? Has he heard about Jesus, the great prophet, and now wants to see for himself whether this wandering preacher and healer really is, in fact, a prophet? I don’t know what his conclusion is, but his initial response is “no, Jesus is not a prophet.” When a woman with a bad reputation crashes Simon’s dinner party and begins to kiss and anoint Jesus’ feet, Simon’s response is, “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.” He seems to think that Jesus cannot be a prophet because he doesn’t see clearly what is happening. He doesn’t seem to know this woman’s reputation. Or maybe he does, but he still lets her touch him, which would also exclude Jesus from the rank of prophet in this strictly religious man’s mind. (Isn’t it funny how we religious people always want to decide who gets to be near Jesus and who doesn’t? Why can’t we seem to figure out that Jesus himself gets to make that call, and it’s pretty much never what we would expect)?
Anyway, Jesus, whom Simon the Pharisee has just determined can’t be a prophet because he isn’t responding appropriately to the sinner at hand, turns to Simon and says, “Simon, I have something to say to you,” mirroring the Samuel story when Nathan says to David, “You are the man!”
We should start to get nervous when we decide who God should disapprove of. It almost always leads to hearing a story about ourselves. Both Simon and David listen to the stories of the prophets. Both are called to consider their own sinfulness, rather than passing judgment on someone else. But here’s where the stories begin to differ. Nathan indicates David’s sin and calls him to repent and reform. Jesus does the same. But he also does something Nathan did not, and could not do. He forgives. This is what elevates Jesus beyond the status of simply prophet. Yes, like Nathan he can tell a story that reveals the deep truth. But unlike Nathan, unlike Simon or David or the nameless woman, Jesus also has the power to change that truth. He can make a dead boy come alive, and he can make a sinful person clean. He alone has the power to release us from the debts we owe.
The Gospel of Luke uses the noun hamartia, sin, 11 times, and each time it is in the context of Jesus forgiving it. What if every time we spoke about sin we spoke about it in the context of Jesus forgiving it? How would that change us? How would that change the church? How would that change the world?
We don’t know what sin or sins the woman in Luke’s story has committed, though tradition is quick to assume they are sexual in nature—isn’t that food for thought?! Jesus doesn’t talk about her sin at all. Which is another thing the church might learn. The point is not which sins need to be forgiven, just that sins do need to be forgiven. Every sin in every person. There are no venial or mortal sins. Just sins. And in this case, forgiven sins.
Jesus begins speaking of the woman’s sins and the fact that they are forgiven first to SIMON, not the woman, and he speaks of forgiveness as something that happened in the past–”her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.” When? When did that happen? Sometime before this dinner party? Did she know that? Why is she crying then? Are these tears of gratitude because she knows that she’s been forgiven? Or are these tears of repentance that she thinks will bring about his forgiveness? Maybe, like many of us, she heard Jesus tell her that she was forgiven before, but she needs to hear it again. And again. Maybe, like many of us, she is still beating herself up about something God has already washed away.
Whatever is going on with her, it is something real and important. It is so important that she risks humiliation and judgment from the good religious people. Whatever their previous connection was, it is clear that she knows who Jesus is and what he can do. She doesn’t just believe that Jesus is a prophet. She trusts in his mercy and in his power. She allows herself to be completely vulnerable in his presence. She doesn’t have to know the right words to say–in this story, she actually never says anything at all. She doesn’t have to. She literally lets her hair down in his presence–revealing her total self, the good, the bad and the ugly. We could learn a lot from her about really being in relationship with Jesus. It’s clear that whatever has gone on between Jesus and this woman in the past, it was so powerful that she will do anything to show him what it meant to her. Do you have that kind of relationship with Jesus?
“Simon, do you see this woman?” That’s Jesus’ question. Well, of course he sees her! How could he not? She’s making a spectacle of herself in his dining room. But does he see her? King David didn’t recognize himself in Nathan’s story. Did Simon see himself in Jesus’ story? Do we see ourselves in these stories? Do we see this woman? Do we see how she presents herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them, which is the sort of thing a slave would do? Jesus sees her and loves her, which empowers her to see him and love him too.
Love works like that. She’s not the only one. At the end of today’s reading we hear about a whole contingent of forgiven women who are staking their money and their lives on Jesus’ ministry. They believe in him and in his work so much that they uproot their lives to travel around with him, supporting his ministry financially. They are willing to pour their whole selves into showing Jesus (and the people around them) that he is worth all that they have and all that they are. He has seen them and loved them.
Are we doing that? Are we examining our consciences, knowing Jesus’ forgiveness and acceptance of us, and committing our whole selves to spreading that good news? Or are we sitting around the table in Simon’s dining room complaining about how young people today have no morality, and poor people don’t value hard work, and so on? Have we determined who should and should not present themselves for service in Jesus’ ministry? Do we talk behind closed doors about who is worthy of respect and who is not? Are we like David, calling for justice, as long as it’s someone else who has to pay for it? Are we praying “God’s will be done” until it means we’d have to give up something we don’t want to give up?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. The big debtor and the small debtor are both in debt. And all are absolved of that debt by a gracious and merciful lord. Lutherans are big on talking about how God’s grace means that we are accepted just as we are. And it’s true, of course. Jesus sees us, really sees us, sins and all. Jesus knows who we are and what we have done and left undone, and Jesus loves us still. That really is grace. But grace is more than that. It isn’t just, “God loves me just as I am.” It is Jesus seeing us where we are, loving us where we are, AND not leaving us where we are!
Every week we begin worship by remembering our sinfulness, confessing it, and hearing again that God forgives us. It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. But how deep does that message go? Do we forget? Does it go into us so deeply that it changes our lives? Does the knowledge of God’s acceptance of us lead us to abandon old prejudices and judgment and embrace other people with renewed compassion for their fragility and hurt?
I hope that at the end of the meal, Jesus also tells Simon and his guests to go in peace as he does the woman. Who knows what that means for Simon? What will it mean for you, when you hear it at the end of today’s worship service? Maybe it means, “Wake up tomorrow and go out there and really see people. Really recognize the enormous struggles that everyone is dealing with. Learn from the people you don’t respect. Don’t decide who can and cannot come near God.”
God’s forgiveness is not something that God takes back again every time you disappoint God. It is not a scarce commodity. It’s being poured out over and over, washing over us like the water in a shower. It is so thick and deep and strong that it gives us the power to change our lives. It is complete and unconditional. Otherwise it’s not really forgiveness, is it? We do not have to make any kind of response. But we get to. We get to learn from the teachers around us. We get to eat with self-righteous religious people and blatant sinners of all stripes. We get to call them sisters and brothers. We get to hear the same words of forgiveness and hope. We get to follow Jesus, and provide for his ministry with our funds. We get to live new lives. We get to go in peace. We get to serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider