Getting to the Heart of Luke
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
June 23, 2019
He thought it was just a parlor game. That’s what Simon thought. When he invited the travelling preacher to his home for dinner it was planned to be a night of food and stories. It was popular at dinners like this to share riddles or parables. The inner room of the house would have been set up for the invited guests but the home’s outer courtyard would have been full of other people: curious neighbors, servants, even the hungry waiting for the night’s scraps. And all of these people would have expected a night of elaborate tales, jokes shared and even a few thought puzzles offered by the invited guests.
So when Jesus began his tale to Simon, the one about two debtors and the denarii they owed, Simon heard it for what he thought it was: just another of the night’s parlor games. Like a 3rd grade word problem of ancient times: if debtor A owes a denarii each day and debtor B owes ten denarii each day, how many days will it take to reach twenty denarii?
Each of the gospels has this story. Well, each gospel has a story that has similarities to this one. But in all the other gospels, this event with the anonymous woman comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry. In those gospels, the writers make it clear the woman is anointing Jesus for burial. But that is not what is happening here. In those gospels, the woman who anoints Jesus is not labeled as a sinner at all. In fact, in John’s gospel, she is identified as Mary, Lazarus’ sister and Jesus’ good and righteous friend.
But, again, that is not what is happening here. Luke is clear the woman is a sinner. History has deemed her a prostitute but we don’t know that. We just know she has sinned and her sin is very public. Everybody in town knows about it. When we take this closer look, it turns out that Luke is offering us a completely different story than the other gospels. He is introducing us to a different woman. And she does not believe this dinner conversation is just a parlor game.
At first glance it seems what Luke is trying to describe to us is two different people’s reactions to her, this unnamed woman, their differing reactions to her sin. Simon, the religious leader’s reaction is to back away, distance himself and remain pure. Jesus’ reaction is to lean forward, get close and engage. But this story’s focus is not between Simon and Jesus. It is between Simon and this woman. Luke is contrasting the two. He is drawing a stark line between the religious person and the faithful person.
This hits close to home. For I have been religious all my life. Baptized within a month of coming home from the hospital, I doubt I have missed more than 5 Sunday services a year in any year of my life. I have more childhood memories set in the church than I do ones set in school, in piano lessons and in vacations combined. I am a religious person. One of my good friends is the same way. She was raised in the church; serves a church as a pastor now. Like me, she cannot remember a time when she did not know the ebb and flow of the church calendar, of the worship service, of her favorite hymns.
A few years ago this friend called me on the phone and, out of the blue, she said, “I’m kind of done confessing.” That is what she said. “I’ve been doing it for years and, honestly, I don’t really think I’m that bad a person. So I think I’m going to give confessing up for a little while.” I am ashamed to admit to you that, in that moment, I think I offered some kind of joke, made light of it and told her to get over herself. I wish I’d thought of Luke 7 instead. I wish I would have told her: Please, please be careful my good religious friend! I fear you have made this into a parlor game!
Luke’s story is about the religious and the faithful. Simon is religious. To have become a Pharisee means he would not remember the time when he did not know the architecture of the Temple or the tempo of the songs sung there. He has followed the rules. He has served God as best he could. He doesn’t have that much to confess. But faith, deep and dizzying faith, that is not what he had in mind. So when this woman arrives, with her weeping and her kissing and her love, his religion is shocked by her faith.
For those of us who have been raised in the church, we should be honest about the great gifts which come with lifelong membership: having important truths imbedded within your bones, that would be one. Feeling the strength and embrace of a community who knows us so deeply, that would be another. But we must also be honest that danger lurks within this longevity too.
As my friend showed, we can become familiar with church and that familiarity can trick us into thinking we are also close to Jesus when, as Simon found out, it may be we have never been further from him. What Simon had forgotten, even with all his learning, what he’d forgotten was that the amount of the debt owed only matters if you’re playing some parlor game. In reality, the amount is not important. What is important is it is a debt we cannot pay on our own. No matter the amount, we cannot pay it. Simon, the religious teacher, he had forgotten this. And it took a sinner woman to show him that, what he had forgotten, was the only thing that matters.
Many of you, like me, are religious people. You can relate to that long history within the church which I’ve described. And that is a wonderful gift. May we who are the religious ones, though, never quit striving to also be the faithful ones. Phil and I just got back from serving as chaplains at Ferncliff Camp near Little Rock. One of our jobs there was to lead a devotional time with the counselors. On about day two one of them confessed that when she hears the word “church” she wants to run away. She believes that the church is not a place where anything real can be talked about, where she would never find a home because of her background. She is very interested in spiritual things and even wants to have faith but she doesn’t think the church is the place that wants those things too.
Here is this person giving up her summer to be a counselor at a church camp and yet she feels such antipathy toward the church. It was brave of her to confess. It also broke my heart. For we are supposed to be exactly the place where we are more real than any other place. We are supposed to be the place where background doesn’t matter. But we well know that we can sometimes forget and we can go from faithful to just religious. The difference, of course, between the two is that the faithful person recognizes the depths of forgiveness she has received and the other has forgotten. For the love of God, may we remember.
That is why it is important, you see. It is not important to feel the absolute depth and breadth of our sin so we can suffer and scrape. It is important because it is the only way to the love of God. At least, that’s what Jesus says. He says, “Simon, this woman knows she was forgiven much and so she is filled with love. Those who only feel they have been forgiven little, well, little is how much love they’ll have.” We recognize our unpayable debt SO we can be filled with love. And that overflowing love IS our faithfulness. That love, that deep and overflowing and even embarrassing love, is the proof, the only proof we have to offer to the world, that we are not just a church but the church of Jesus where faith is more important than religion. That love pouring out of our lives is the only proof we have that we know this is far from a parlor game. Amen.