Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-14
Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-14
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.
Sometimes it is the most seemingly insignificant words that help us understand the meaning of a text. Unfortunately, those seemingly insignificant words can often be understood in a way that makes the text say something it does not. We can find that in today's Gospel lesson. Jesus says of the woman, "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." What does Jesus mean when He says, "Öfor she loved much."
Some interpret that to mean that Jesus was showing that her forgiveness came in response to her loving attitude. They interpret the word "for" to mean "because" as it might. We can't come to that understanding if we hear the words of Jesus in context, but for those who want to have some control over their own salvation, this is a comforting text. There are those who want to be able to say, "I am forgiven because..." That understanding is upside down. We know that we love because God first loved us. Even the Pharisee in today's story understands that the love came as a response to the forgiveness.
This is one of the times when a less literal translation is better because it helps us to see the intent of the statement, wording it in the context of the whole text. Most translations have chosen to stick with "for she loved much," but there are a few that record the statement more clearly. NIV says, "Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgivenóas her great love has shown." Common English Bible says, "This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love." While the Message is not usually a good choice for Biblical studies, I like the way Peterson has translated this particular sentence, "She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful."
This is not a story about a woman who has loved herself into salvation, but about a woman who heard Jesus' Word and experienced God's love, a love so great that she responded with a great love. She humbled herself, anointed His feet with expensive ointment and her tears of repentance and joy.
We usually focus on repentance during Advent and Lent. During these seasons we are focused on the coming of the Lord Jesus and the fulfillment of His work for our sake. The calls to repentance are meant to prepare us for what is to come so that we will be ready to receive the One who was born and who died for the forgiveness of sin. The focus during the "green days" or the ordinary days throughout the Church year tends to be the work we are called to do in response to God's grace. The "green days" teach us what it is meant to be the Church, to be Christians, to share the love and mercy of God in this world.
We are reminded, however, that repentance is an ongoing process. We are saints, made clean by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are also still sinners, looking inwardly when we should look to God. We still pursue the food that will satisfy our bellies and the opportunities that will fulfill our desires. We still sin against our neighbors, disobeying God in our thoughts, words and deeds by what we do and what we do not do. That's why we continue to make confession together during worship each time we gather. Sometimes we are plagued by new ways of sinning, but most of the time we continue to do the things we for which we know we have already been forgiven. Transformation happens, but it is sometimes a very, very slow process.
We have to wonder what happened to the woman in today's story after she left Simon's house. Jesus said, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace." Did she go in peace to live a new and different life? Or did she end up returning to the kind of woman who experienced the disdain of the Pharisee? We don't really hear what sin she had committed, although it is generally understood to mean that she was a prostitute. "This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what kind of woman this is who touches him, that she is a sinner." Some assume that this is Mary of Magdalene, but this is probably a different woman. This is also not Mary of Bethany, who also anointed Jesus.
We assume she was a prostitute, but she could have been simply an abandoned woman. Men were able to divorce their wives without just cause, leaving them unable to support themselves. She may, like the woman at the well, have taken a new husband out of desperation deeming her a sinner according to the Law. She may, like the bleeding woman, have had a physical ailment deeming her a sinner according to the Law. She may have been assumed to be a sinner simply because she had run of terrible luck, after all, God would never allow bad things to happen to those who were virtuous, right?
The word translated "sinner" in the Greek means, "one who deviates from the path of virtue, a sinner." What does that mean? We all must admit that we have our own favorite sins, things that we deem harmless to others even though we know they deviate from the path of virtue. We look at others and consider them terrible sinners because they deviate from the path of virtue in a way that we call immoral, yet we forget our own sinfulness.
Sometimes we have to look in the mirror so that we can see ourselves as we really are. Youíve heard it said that if you point a finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at you. We are quick to make judgments about the actions and behaviors of others, but all too often we are doing exactly the same thing. We might think that we are justified, or that we are doing it differently, but the reality is that we are all sinners. We just have to see it. We just have to look in the mirror when we are casting judgment on another and realize that we too are imperfect sinners in need of a Savior.
Thatís what we see going on in both our Old Testament and Gospel lesson. In the passage from 2 Samuel, David is faced with the reality of his own sinfulness. In the lesson from Luke, Simon is the one who is invited to look into the mirror. Unfortunately, one of the two never really see themselves as a sinner.
Today's Old Testament lesson begins at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11. David saw Bathsheba and wanted her. Her husband Uriah was on the battlefield, fighting for David's kingdom and so he invited Bathsheba into his bed. Bathsheba was called by the king and she willingly went to him. Unfortunately, the dalliance ended with a pregnancy. David tried to manipulate Uriah so that he would have intercourse with his wife so that the child would appear to be his. When that did not work, David had Uriah placed in the front lines. He was killed. Bathsheba went to the palace and became one of David's many wives.
In our story today, Nathan the prophet approached David with a story about a rich man who stole the only sheep of a poor man. David was infuriated. "That man deserves to die!" That's when Nathan held up the mirror. "You are that man." David saw the reality of this judgment; David confessed his sin against God and accepted God's punishment. Nathan answered, "Jehovah also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die." Isn't it interesting that God forgave David even before David confessed his sinfulness? It is not our confession that brings mercy but God's love.
The woman in the Gospel lesson had a reputation, and it is likely that it had to do with a lack of chastity, but she is not the important character in today's story. I suppose despite her reputation, we wouldn't mind being identified with her because we see how Jesus responds to her humility and faith. However, aren't we more like Simon? Don't we tend to hold ourselves higher than others, ignoring our own sin while we point out the sins of our neighbors? The woman may have been wanton, but she had faith in Jesus. Simon did not even give his Lord the simple hospitable respect of water for His feet. Simon was so busy looking for a reason not to believe that he didn't even act as a decent host.
Here's where we start stacking sins in order of magnitude. Surely it must be worse to be unchaste than to be bad host, right? That's not the point of this story. The difference between the woman and Simon has nothing to do with what they have done or not done; the difference here is between faith and unbelief. The woman believed in Jesus and her faith saved her.
It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer our own. We belong to Jesus Christ. He lives within us and everything we do we do in faith. Even when we fail -- David most certainly sinned again and I am sure the woman did, too -- God's grace holds firm and forgiveness remains. We can't earn God's love or keep it ours by our works. God's grace is ours through faith, not works. He says to us, "I have put away your sin; you shall not die."
Forgiveness comes first, even before we know we are sinners. David was forgiven before he confessed his sinfulness. The same is true of the woman in the Gospel story. Nathan told David a story that helped him see in the mirror. Jesus told a similar story to Simon in the hope that he might see more clearly, too. He talked about one debtor owing much and another owing little. "Which of them therefore will love him most?" Simon answered, "He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most." Jesus pointed to the woman who honoring Him in a most beautiful way and says, "Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn't anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little."
Did Simon see himself in the story? Did he recognize his own sinfulness? Jesus did not directly judge Simon for any specific action, and it even seems as though Jesus is agreeing that Simon is not as great a sinner as the woman; it is probably true if we stack the sins in order of magnitude. But again, that's not the point. We are all sinners in need of the Savior; none of us by our work or words can we ever experience the forgiveness of God. God has mercy on us even before we know we need His mercy; and by the faith He we have by His Word, we are saved.
I donít think Simon gets it. I don't think he sees himself in the mirror. We see no act of humility or confession. Though there are other stories about men named Simon, this seems to be this Pharisee's only appearance in the biblical record. If his purpose for the dinner was to entrap Jesus, it didn't work. Instead, the woman experienced the incredible grace of God, was forgiven and is held up as a paragon of faith. He is remembered as the one who did not honor Jesus in even the most customary ways.
The Pharisee thought his worthiness was dependent on his good works. The woman knew her good works were worthless without the grace of God. That is the difference between the messages of Peter and Paul at the time of the writing of the letter to the Galatians. Though Peter knew and accepted that salvation was dependent on God's grace, he was convinced that real fellowship between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles was dependent on traditional practices and regulations. Paul, the newcomer, saw God's grace as not only the foundation, but the substance of the Christian life. Salvation was not just dependent on God's grace; God's grace made living the Christian life possible. He knew that if this was true, then nothing could, or should, stand in the way of Christian fellowship. He also knew that if there were requirements for membership, then none were worthy and Christís death was in vain.
David writes, "When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long." Silence about our sin means torment. But acknowledgement of our sin before God brings joy, because it brings forgiveness and freedom. Though we are sinners, we are given the grace to stand before our God to confess our sin. It is there we find joy and peace because God has promised to forgive our sin. The woman did not care what the people at the dinner thought of her. She only wanted to be near Jesus, to give Him herself in a very real and loving way.
What do you see when you are looking in the mirror? Do you see a person who is better than your neighbor because your sins, if they exist, are less than theirs or that they are justifiable? Or do you see your own need daily for God's grace? Are you like Simon who based his righteousness on good deeds and obedience to the Law, or are you like the woman who humbly approached the Throne of Grace with tears of repentance and joy?
Your sins, which are many, are forgiven. God forgives and forgets; it might seem impossible to believe, but there exists such an incredible and life-changing love. Whatever your sin, whatever your failure, whatever your indiscretion, it is finished. Faith in this great promise is what has saved you.
Now, how do you respond? Will you be like David upon hearing the accusation "You are that man," willingly confessing that you have sinned against God? Will you be like the woman and believe, humbly worshiping the One who saved you? There is nothing we can do to earn God's forgiveness, but God's love changes us into people who humbly and willingly love God much and live our faith in this world.
Look in that mirror and see the Christ who dwells in you. See how His love has changed you. Will you go now in peace to love and serve the Lord? Will you see your neighbor as one who does not need your pointing finger but rather your outstretched hands? How will you love as God first loved you, forgive as you were forgiven? How will you show that you are very, very grateful for God's amazing grace?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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