Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, 16 June 2013
Readings for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Lectionary Year C: 1 Kings 21: 1-10, Psalm 32, Galatians 2: 15-21, Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Imagine that you were standing in front of a door. Behind that door is a room in which God is present. You can open that door and go inside to meet God. How would you do it? What would your manner be? Would you be shy and respectful, as if you were visiting Buckingham Palace? Would you be breezy and friendly, as if you going into a coffee shop to meet a friend? Would you be hesitant and fearful, as if you were going before a judge in a courtroom?
Certainly your manner would depend on your image of God, and on your idea of what behaviour would be appropriate for that image. Recently a friend and I had an exchange on this blog as to the devotional practice among some evangelical Christians of seeing God as a friend and conversation partner, with whom one could share a cup of coffee.
My friend had some difficulty with seeing God as a friend one might meet at Starbucks. He shares my fondness for formal worship traditions such as choral evensong, where a greater degree of reserve and an attempt to to justice to the dignity of the divine are called for. If I were to put my question of the first paragraph to him, I could imagine my friend saying that he could, see himself entering the presence of God as if entering a cathedral, with piety and reverence.
How one answers my question would not just depend on our images of God. It would also depend on our images of ourselves. My friend put this quite well when he wrote that “Ours is a relationship has no equality in it, just endless grace on one side and a sort stumbling aspiration on the other”. What my friend was getting at was the idea that theologians sometimes divine condescension, the willingness of God to set aside the obstacles of inequality to be in relationship with us.
Luke’s story of the anointing woman from today’s gospel is a story of someone who dared to open the door and go into God’s presence, despite her unequal relationship with God. All Luke tells us about her unequal relationship with God is that she is a sinner, and we would do well, as Jeannine Brown notes in her commentary, to resist the obvious conclusion that as a woman her sin must be sexual. Certainly she is not the only sinner in the room.
Simon, Jesus’ host, does not think that the woman should have crashed his party, and he is scandalized by her behaviour when she goes before Jesus, kissing his feet, wiping them with her hair, and perfuming them from her jar of ointment. It is shockingly intimate behaviour, inappropriate for the house of a righteous man entertaining a supposedly godly prophet, and Simon is quite happy to judge both of them. If Jesus knew what sort of woman she was, he thinks, well then, he obviously isn’t much of a prophet.
Simon is fairly easy for us to figure out. The point of the parable of the two debtors that Jesus tells to his host, Simon, is that he too has an unequal relationship with God. Whether the debt of his sin is small, as he thinks it obviously is, or great, as the woman obviously thinks her is, both are still debtors, and God, she says, is their creditor. Furthermore, Simon’s worthiness, as seen by his lack of hospitality and love to Jesus in comparison to that of the woman before him, suggests, to extend the parable, that he is more in God’s debt than he thinks he is.
The woman is a greater puzzle. It’s tempting to assume that her behaviour is what the Catholic tradition would call contrition, behaviour born of remorse and a sign that one is sincerely asking God’s forgiveness. If so, then Luke is telling a story about how we have to earn the forgiveness of God through extravagant behaviour, but that interpretation is not born out by the parable which Jesus tells to Simon. In that parable, all that we are told about the two debtors is that neither could make repayment. We are not told that the creditor’s decision to forgive their debt is motivated by their behaviour. The love that they show comes after the debt is forgiven, not before.
If the woman’s behaviour is motivated by love for a debt already forgiven, then an intriguing way to read Luke 7 is opened up. What if, as David Lose has suggested, the woman came to Simon’s house to thank Jesus for a previous meeting where he forgave her sins? What if, when Jesus tells her before Simon and his guests that her sins are forgiven, he is reminding her of something that has already happened, something so good that she can scarce believe it? If so, then the story is, as Lose suggests,
“about forgiveness. And it’s about the gratitude that forgiveness creates. And it’s about the extravagant acts of love and devotion that gratitude prompts.”
If Lose is right, and I think he is, then we have an invitation to rethink the way we approach God, both in worship and in our lives. Perhaps, as my friend suggested, our relationship with God is indeed “endless grace on one side and a sort stumbling aspiration on the other”, but if so, then our aspiration is not that should please God extravagantly enough that he might someday forgive us, but rather that we might show the love and gratitude that comes from already having our debts forgiven. The complex interrelationship of forgiveness, gratitude, and love, is one of the great themes of Luke’s gospel and of the Christian life in general, and effects not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with others, as Simon is made to see.
So there you are, at the door to God’s presence, or, if you prefer, to Jesus’ presence. You’re welcome to enter. You may go in facing the divine Other or the good friend, but either way, Luke’s anointing woman shows us that there is more room for intimacy in this relationship than we might think.
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