The Math of the Kingdom
This is one of the best stories in the bible (I know, I always say that). It is great for all kinds of reasons – the way the characters mirror each other, irony, reversal, the way the story of the dinner party wraps around the parable, the powerful teaching about God’s lavish love and forgiveness – it’s all here.
So what? What does it mean to us? Or rather, where do we enter this story? This wonderful, sympathetic story can spring back on us and catch us like an old fashioned mouse-trap; but on the other hand, today, we need this story badly, so let’s look at it together.
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.
(Actually it doesn’t say “at table” – that’s supplied so that people in our culture will understand. It says Jesus went in and “reclined” – but that’s how they ate supper, reclining on one elbow, head towards the platter of food, feet pointing away).
This story leaves more unsaid than said: why did Jesus get this invitation? And if he was invited, why was he treated so in-hospitably – really even shamefully? Did Simon invite him when he considered Jesus just a young aspiring prophet, before he heard that Jesus had been hanging out with tax-collectors and sinners – but felt honor-bound not to withdraw the invitation?
Anyway, despite being disrespected, like a person who holds out a hand to shake and gets no reciprocal hand, Jesus went on into dinner without being offered a cool, customary foot washing, without the expected anointing oil or the standard-protocol cheek-kiss greeting, like they do in Eastern Europe. Certainly, after this intentionally insulting, faux pas, there is tension around the supper platter.
OMG! A Woman
Then suddenly, without any explanation, into this men’s world where women appear anddisappear only as waitresses to keep the wine glasses full, or else as the evening’s entertainment, a woman appears with no jug of wine to offer and no belly-dance band music player. How did she get in? Who let her in?
We first see her from Simon’s perspective. We don’t hear her name: she is not a person, she is just a member of a class: a “sinner” – and everybody knew it. What will she do there?
She takes out an alabaster jar of ointment and back where Jesus’ feet are, extending away from the the table, she starts bathing his feet in this ointment, weeping, letting her tears fall on them, and then undoing her hair and wiping his feet with her hair! This is completely embarrassing to everybody! Why such an extraordinary, extravagant expression of love? What has Jesus ever done for her?
Simon was probably ashamed for having let this known “sinner” crash his party, but he is quick with a comeback: perhaps he can put the shame on Jesus. He is thinking, “How could Jesus be a prophet if he is so blind that he doesn’t know this loose-haired lady’s reputation?”
But then the irony: Jesus isn’t as clueless as Simon thinks: in fact, he knows, not just this woman’s reputation, but also Simon’s thoughts! And he answers them with a parable.
A creditor, a Payday Loan operator, a man who makes money from the misery of others, has two customers. One of them owes him almost two years worth of income, the other nearly two months worth – neither are small sums of money, but one is much larger than the other. The loan-shark knows that they cannot pay so – so what does he do? Does he have them thrown into debtor’s prison? No, he just forgives both of them. Jesus’ question is, which debtor loves the forgiving loan-shark more?
“What a dumb story, who would do that” Simon is thinking? “It’s absurd. Forgiveness of debts is decidedly not how the world works. No one gets forgiven. You work it off – even if it takes your whole life – or else, yes, you go to prison. Simple math: if you owe, you pay or you go. It’s not just that this is how humans work, this is even how God works, right? Sin is like a debt – you owe, you better pay.”
How much is enough?
Now, let us pause right here. If this is indeed how God works, how much do you owe him? How do you pay? How can you ever be sure you have paid enough?
It is my responsibility as your pastor, to be the one to ask the question to people who may be facing death, “Are you ready?” I have actually heard some people say, “Well, I have lived a pretty good life….” as if that’s a kind of pay-back to God, which makes up for the other stuff.
There are two tragic mistakes in that sentence. One is the idea that my good deeds are like a pay-back to God that balances some kind of scale and gets me in his door. That is simply wrong. We are saved because God is a gracious, forgiving God – and we believe that, by faith; nobody earns it. Even notorious sinner-ladies can be forgiven, and can know it, and can feel the huge freedom of knowing that God loves them, as this one has just done.
Small pile people
But the second mistake is the idea that if I can pay it back by my good deeds, then really, my personal pile of bad deeds must not have been all that large. “There are people who owe a lot, right?: murders, embezzlers, people who abuse other people, sex offenders – but me? I’m a decent person, pay my taxes, and try not to swear in front of women and children. My debts to God are small.”
What’s wrong with that picture? It’s completely wrong. We are people who are caught up in evil; evil is evil – not that all evil is equal, but all of it is evil. There is no such thing as “cheap grace.” Every time we despise people made in the image of God we show how evil we are in our very hearts. And that is not all we do, is it?
Anyway, Jesus asked Simon who loved more, and Simon got the answer correct; who is forgiven more, loves more. Then Jesus does something odd and unexpected: he contrasts Simon’s shameful inhospitable treatment of him to this woman’s shameless outpouring of love. Simon, Jesus points out, did not treat him as an honored guest; no foot washing, no anointing oil nor a welcome kiss. She has done all three – in the extreme! Jesus sums up the situation this way:
47 Therefore, 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.”
Forgiven amount = Love amount
The math works like this: the amount of love you show to God equals the amount you believe you have been forgiven. The one who loves God just a bit, believes God didn’t have to spend much on him. Loving God to the extent that it never gets in the way of our lifestyles, or causes social embarrassment or inconvenience, or costs too much cash shows that we really think forgiving folks like us is cheap to him.
“to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
But wait a minute: what has poor Simon done that is so bad? He is a Pharisee – it’s like being a Presbyterian. He sings hymns from the red hymn book. He comes to church, he does his best to know the rules and keep the rules. He’s a good person, right?
What did Jesus identify as his issue? He failed to welcome Jesus as an honored guest. And why was that? Because Jesus was welcoming sinners: guilt by association.
So now we see the double consequence of not thinking you owe God very much: “Simon, not only do you love God cheaply, but you think you are better than the ones who owe him a lot. You think there are people who you are free to despise, reject, ignore and even insult. Simon, you are deeply mistaken.”
God ≠ Loan Shark
Actually the deepest irony is that there is no such thing as a loan-shark who forgives debts – he would go out of business faster than an oyster farmer in oil-soaked Louisiana. God is actually NOT like that creditor in the parable. Why? It’s not that he demands payment, it’s that he was never looking for a pay-off in the first place.
God is all about loving the humans he made in his image – all of them, even the broken ones, the damaged ones, the ones who have made mistakes and gotten themselves into trouble. Jesus came precisely to show us that God is not the Loan-Shark in heaven, he is the “Abba, dear Father” who longs to have his prodigal sinners like us come back to the family.
What does God want from us, and for us? Listen to the end of the story:
Going in peace
50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Go in the peace that comes from knowing you are forgiven.
Go in the peace that comes from knowing you don’t have any debts with God to pay off.
Go in peace because there is no such thing as a balance scale, weighing good deeds and bad.
Go in the peace that comes from knowing that God’s gracious gift to you of faith in Jesus Christ is what saves: faith that God has forgiven you.
Go in the peace that comes from knowing that the answer to the question, “If this is the end of this life for me, am I ready?” is “Yes, I am, because in Jesus Christ, I am forgiven.”
Go in peace to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Go in peace to love God extravagantly, shamelessly, publicly.
Go in peace to love other sinners too.
Go in peace to talk with sinners, welcome sinners, share meals with sinners and proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to fellow sinners.
Go in peace to love God’s world, God’s creation, God’s planet.
Go in peace to live a responsible lifestyle that treads lightly on the earth.
Go in peace to work for peace and reconciliation; in your family, in our nation, and in our world.
Go in peace to peace to tell your enemies that you have beaten your sword in to a garden tool.
Go in peace to love God, grow in faith, and share Christ’s love with everyone.