(Luke 7: 36-50)
As the saying goes, There are two sides to every story. Except when there are more than two. And one of the things that I find so intriguing and captivating about scriptures like the one we’re looking at today is that they beg to be told from more than one perspective, more than one vantage point. Because there’s not just one story we need to hear. The truth of the gospel is that, to paraphrase another cliché, one scripture can indeed speak a thousand words.
So with that in mind, I’ve decided to engage in something a little different with the next three sermons. All of them are going to focus on the same passage from the gospel of Luke – the story of the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears, the Pharisee who was offended by it, and the dinner guests around the table who witnessed it happen. Three stories, colliding together – and we’re going to hear them all. Because they each need to be heard.
Today, this Sunday, let us consider the story of the Pharisee. Listen to God’s word for us today: (Luke 7:36-50)
You know, I got to tell you that it’s hard to believe this really happened in my house. A Pharisee’s house, right?? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up! Me, Simon of Cyrene, a well-respected Pharisee in the community, zealous in his faith….. and it’s in my house where “that woman” washed Jesus’ feet. I can laugh about it now. Because time has a way of smoothing the rough edges and giving you the wonderful gift of perspective. At the time, though, I was thinking something quite different. I was thinking, I’m done. Stick a fork in me, as you people like to say. I was certain that one event would change my life forever. And you know what? I was right. I was just totally wrong with the way it’d change me.
And I probably ought to begin with a few words about the whole “Pharisee” thing. Because hey, I realize over the years, folks like me have gotten a pretty bad rap. And some of it we’ve deserved, I’ll grant you that. It’s just that people sometimes forget that Pharisees have been around a few centuries before Jesus was even born. Yes, we are sticklers for the written word of God – the Torah. Yes, we have our set of rules that guide us in living a faithful life – things like ritual purity and Sabbath observances and food tithes. And that all may sound silly to you today, but to us they are so important. They are what brings us closer to God.
Which leads to the “bad rap.” It’s no accident that we’re called “Pharisees” – the word actually means “separated.” And sometimes we are accused – and rightfully so – of being too separated, too rigid, too inflexible. Too worried about how everyone else is falling short and not always looking at ourselves. We could go on about that forever, but that’s not why I’m here today. The reason I’m here is to tell you about the day that Jesus came to my house for dinner.
And believe me, it was a big deal! Of course, word of Jesus had been spreading everywhere, and we Pharisees were taking note. Our “separateness” radar was in high gear! So part of the plan of having him over for dinner, frankly, was to scope him out; see what he was about, see if Jesus really was the threat that some of my Pharisee brothers were convinced he was. And I’ll admit, I had my guard up. It’s hard when you’ve been part of something you believe in for so long to know when it’s time to change and to grow. But at the same time, I knew that change and growth were inevitable. And that was where I was conflicted. I didn’t tell the others, of course. But deep inside me, I sensed in Jesus something special and unique, as if God’s hand was moving within him in a powerful and mighty way.
So I issued an invitation and asked that he join me for dinner; and he accepted. He came at the appointed time and took his place at my table. And we really hit it off, actually. Things were going so well!
And then….well, you know what happened. Everyone knows! This woman came out of nowhere, into my house – just walked right in! And immediately I recognized her; I had seen her out on the streets late at night and knew of her reputation. Suffice to say she was not one of our community’s most outstanding citizens!
With disbelieving eyes I watched as she walked straight towards Jesus and threw herself at his feet. And then to my horror she began crying, weeping these huge tears, all over the feet of my honored guest. The tears rolled down the sides of Jesus’ feet, leaving liquid tracks of dust collected from his long day’s journey. And she dried his feet with her hair, sweeping her head back and forth as her dark, parched locks brushed away the dirt and tears.
How did this make me feel, you ask? Imagine hosting an honored guest in your home, and this happens! I was mortified! I was mortified and embarrassed beyond words at the gall of this woman! Not only had she rudely interrupted our dinner, but her very presence defiled and desecrated this whole occasion. I mean, we’re talking about a man of God – and to be subjected to this kind of treatment with help ventolin by such an unworthy individual was completely unacceptable!
I had all these thoughts rolling around in my head; and that’s when I heard Jesus call my name. Trying to get my attention. I snapped out of my trance right as he said that he wanted to tell me something. Oh great, I could only imagine. Would he ask if I knew this woman? Would he blame me for her behavior?
This is where things got strange – I mean, stranger than they already were. See, at a time like this, what does Jesus decide to do but tell a story. He’s got this horrible woman groveling at his feet, and he segues into storytime! Well, I listened, of course. I listened to his tale about a man who had two others who owed him money. One owed a certain amount while the other owed much more. The man forgave both debts. And as I was wondering what in the world this had to do with anything, Jesus looked at me and asked which of the two would love more the man who had forgiven their debt.
Well, I had no clue where any of this was going, but I’m a Pharisee – I didn’t want to look stupid. And so I said that the one who had the greater debt cancelled would love him more. I never was that great at math, but this was a no-brainer.
Little did I know that Jesus wasn’t really talking about two random people. He was talking about that woman – and he was talking about me. ME. I gotta admit, I didn’t see it at first. We Pharisees aren’t used to others calling us on the carpet. And then he pointed out the fact that this woman had come into my house and had shown him tremendous gratitude and honor through her actions. Actions which are common among people in my culture, washing feet. Actions which I had failed to show him as the host. I was offended that he would say this out loud in my home in the presence of all my guests. But you know something else? I was convicted too. Because he was right.
Sometimes I do this little daydream thing where I imagine that evening differently than the way it happened. I imagine how things would have turned out if that woman hadn’t come. Jesus and I, we would have had a lovely dinner together, we would’ve engaged in a lively discussion about faith, looking out off my vista at a gorgeous red and orange sunset. And after our dinner I could have gone on living my life according to the rules and traditions shared by my fellow Pharisees. I could have kept things in my life the same, I wouldn’t be indebted.
But it didn’t happen that way, did it? That woman, she came. And like it or not, things changed for me after that. See, there’s something else that happened that night that I haven’t told you yet. The party, for all practical purposes, was over. Guests were starting to leave. But Jesus and this woman sat there in my house, talking. I hid on the fringes and listened. And just before she got up to leave, I heard Jesus say to her, “Woman, your sins are forgiven.” Your debt is cancelled. And it was then I realized – he did know who this woman was. He did know her story. And he released her from her debt anyway.
I’ve been haunted by that woman ever since. I wake up in the middle of the night, and she’s there, in my dreams, on her hands and knees, crying over the feet of Jesus. I think of her as I walk through town. For a while I pleaded with God to rid me of her presence. I didn’t like thinking of her; I didn’t like the way it made me feel inside.
And that’s when I realized that all of this was about much more than just one woman. I remembered the story Jesus told. And I started to think – could God’s love really be big enough for both of us? I honestly cannot think of two people more different than she and myself. We’re from two different set of circumstances, different ways of life, different upbringings. And at first it was so hard to imagine that God’s forgiveness could be for each one of us.
And then I realized that, as different as we were, there was one thing – one thing – that brought us together that day. And that was Jesus. Jesus, there in the shared presence of both a pious man AND this woman bearing so many burdens. I have spent many days and sleepless nights thinking about that. And I’ve come to understand that perhaps I’m not as pious as I thought. Perhaps the important thing is not the actual sins that need forgiveness, but that I recognize my need for forgiveness in the first place. I see now that that’s where I failed miserably. That woman knew her debt and knew it needed to be lifted. And despite how hard it must have been, she did something about it – she came to Jesus, she fell at his feet, she cried her tears, she dried them with her hair. I never even saw the need for God’s forgiveness in my life, and so I didn’t do a thing.
We all are children of God; and we all fall short of what God wants of us. There are some, I guess, who “fall more than others,” if you want to look at it that way. But when you get right down to it, it doesn’t really matter who is worse off – who has the “greater debt.” We’re all in the same boat. Me and that woman. You and that neighbor down the street you don’t get along with. You and that work colleague who constantly takes shortcuts and seems to be only concerned about himself. You and that individual in the next pew over who has some opinions and beliefs you don’t quite agree with. Anyone you’ve set yourself apart from by erecting walls – walls of racism, walls of bigotry, walls of indifference, walls of pride, or even just plain walls.
We all need Jesus. And when we seek Jesus out – or more accurately, when he seeks us out – we see our great debt. And Jesus relieves us of that debt: Woman your sins are forgiven. And he relieves it, not so we can go around telling people how great it is to be relieved of our debt, but so we can help others to get to Jesus to have theirs relieved too. And not through rules or regulations, but through relationship and through love. So we can take risks for the kingdom of God here on earth and dare to do great things together in the name of the one who heals us and makes us whole.
I tell you, it’s whole new way of thinking for a Pharisee like me. It’s kind of unsettling, tearing down the walls I’ve built around me over the years as one of the “separated.” But more and more I’m doing just that; and those walls are coming down and I’m taking in the beauty of God’s wonderful grace. And, you know something? I really like the view.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.