Monday, June 14, 2010

Sermon on Luke 7:36-8:3, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, "Greater Gift, Greater Gratitude!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel lesson contrasts two sinners, and their response to Jesus’ message of forgiveness. The first, Simon, was a Pharisee and doubtless a well-respected, righteous man in the community. The second, a nameless woman, was known through the city to be a great sinner. As we can see in their example and the parable that Jesus teaches, the greater the gift someone receives, the greater their gratitude is toward the giver. I want us to reflect today on how great a gift we have received, so that we might show gratitude for it. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The stage for this encounter between Jesus and these two sinners was in all likelihood, literally staged. I mean that whenever the Pharisees arranged to meet Jesus, there was usually a setup, a hidden agenda. Test Him out, trip Him up in His words. A couple of things tip us off. First is that when the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet, Simon the Pharisee scornfully thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Apparently part of the reason for this invite was to feel out whether Jesus was really a prophet or not. Apparently Simon was considering the possibility that Jesus was a prophet, until this sinful woman came and touched Him. Then Simon’s mind quickly changed—showing that he had a fundamental problem with God’s plan—that it involved sinners.

Do we sometimes have that “problem” or resentment with God’s plan? That it includes “sinners”? That maybe we secretly think that the church should be filled only with people pretty much like ourselves? Someone who’s responsible enough, mature enough, clean enough, or respectable enough? Of course when we use our own measuring stick to measure ourselves, we usually conclude that we’re pretty good on average. We may admit we don’t do a perfect job of worshipping and obeying God, but we’re still above average…or so we think. But if we were to measure ourselves by God’s measuring stick—by His Law—then we’d quickly find that our own sins leave us just as guilty before God as anyone else. As Jesus said, “for with the measure you use, it shall be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38). Instead, we should humble ourselves before God and welcome repentant sinners of all types and sizes among us, just as Jesus did.

So when people enter our house of worship, will they fear they’re entering the house of the Pharisee? Hopefully they’ll know that they come to stand among fellow sinners who offer the same warm welcome and mercy that Christ showed to all who were broken and sorrowful for their sins. How can we show such a welcome? Simple things like a welcoming smile, a friendly greeting and offer for any assistance. “Is this your first time here? Could I explain anything to you about our worship service to help? Is there anything that I can pray for you about? I hope you’ll join us again. God’s peace go with you!” Do we carry God’s peace on our lips? Are we speaking it often to each other and to strangers? When Jesus forgave her sins, He said to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith latched onto that saving force of His forgiveness. He sent her with peace—the peace of sins forgiven and reconciled with God. Any and every one of us can be bold enough to speak God’s peace to a stranger. God’s peace be with you! A broken and troubled heart just might reach out for that peace of God, like a thirsty person reaching for a cold glass of water.

The lack of proper welcome was a second clue that Simon’s dinner invite was a setup to catch Jesus. Simon neglected, possibly even on purpose, the most basic courtesies and hospitality offered to any guest in a Jewish home. It was standard that a servant would wash off the dusty feet of a traveler as they entered for a meal. A kiss of greeting was a standard sign of welcome similar to our handshake or a hug for a close friend. Offering olive oil to anoint the head or was the hands was a special courtesy extended for a guest of honor, such as a prophet, rabbi, or teacher. Since Simon had invited Jesus as just such an honored guest, neglecting these courtesies was more than mere forgetfulness—it was an insult. Jesus could easily have stood up and said, “I see that I’m not welcome here!” and left.

But a most astonishing thing took place. This sinful woman had found that Jesus would be dining here, and had to see Him and express her gratitude. She must have heard Jesus’ preaching of forgiveness, as Simon and the rest had, and knew that He was a merciful man of God, whom she could approach. She had bought an expensive bottle of myrrh, a rich and fragrant ointment to pour on Him. A costly expression of her thanks—knowing Jesus had given her the far more costly gift of forgiveness. But to her amazement, the host of this feast had rudely neglected to give Jesus the customary foot-washing. So this uninvited guest, not even a member of the household, took what she had and shocked Simon and the other guests by supplying her own lavish hospitality to make up for the lack of theirs. With no basin or water to clean His feet, she wet them with her tears. With no towel to dry them she lowered her own hair to dry them. With costly myrrh she anointed and kissed His feet. All of her focus was on Jesus.

Here was a person who truly was grateful for what she’d received. Jesus used this opportunity to teach Simon the meaning of forgiveness and gratitude. A simple parable of a moneylender who is clearly supposed to be God. Two debtors owed different amounts, but they held in common that neither one could repay him. A denarius was about a day’s wage—so 500 denarii was well over a year’s pay, while 50 denarii was nearly two months’ pay. Substantial sums, but neither could pay. Then the moneylender, who the listeners begin to realize is Jesus, forgives both debts. The debt was canceled. When Simon answered Jesus’ question, “which debtor will love him more” by saying the one with the larger debt, he was hooked by his own words. Suddenly the situation was reversed, and he was no longer judging Jesus and her, he was the one being “measured by his own measure.” Suddenly he couldn’t escape his lack of love, gratitude and hospitality, when even this uninvited guest showed greater courtesy to Jesus.

Rather than being shocked or offended by this woman’s actions, like He was expected to, Jesus approved them. “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” She was the debtor in the parable who owed the greater debt, and so loved God more gratefully. We probably can’t imagine the shame and embarrassment a woman like her risked by showing up at this Pharisee’s house, just to show Jesus her thankfulness. But there are many people today who fear to enter a church, because they’re ashamed of their sins and what people might think of them. It’s a reminder to all of us to look again at that person, one whom you might have written off. Take a second look at that person through the eyes of Jesus, and see a sinner for whom Christ died, just like yourself. The problem is that if we measure our sins to be small, then it will be no surprise if we look down on other sinners. But beware! Judge not lest you be judged, or we may end up like Simon, as the one judged by the same scrutiny we used.

So why is it that we need to hear the same message of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for sin, again and again? Why is it that we need constant reminders in preaching, and why is it that we should grow in the depth of our knowledge about what God has done for us? We need it so we’re always increasing in our knowledge of the depth of love that God has shown to us in forgiving the debt of our sin, and so that our gratitude will also grow. So we aren’t estimating the size of our personal debt compared to someone else. It’s easy to become complacent and think that our lives are well-ordered and pleasing to God, and that we’re the “righteous ones” and look down on “sinners” around us. It’s easy to feel as though you’re a pretty good person and are well-deserving of God’s forgiveness. We feel as though our debts to God are only small and trifling—nothing in comparison to how some people live.

But the more we study and grow in God’s Word, especially through hearing regular preaching, by studying the Bible together with other Christians and in our family, and by our personal study of Scripture—the more we learn how desperately we’re in need of God’s love. The more we learn that however much our “personal debt” before God is, that we’re hopelessly unable to repay it on our own. The more we put the cross of Jesus front and center before our eyes. That is to say that we need to constantly hear, read, and study God’s Word centered in Christ Jesus, so that we can begin to know the height and the depth and breadth of Christ’s love (Eph. 3:18). To see what it meant for Jesus to give up everything to repay our debts. The more we’re filled with that knowledge, and understand how great a gift we’ve received through Jesus’ forgiveness, the more and more that we’ll grow in our love, gratitude, and appreciation of that gift. The more we’ll be transformed from the judgmental self-righteousness of Simon the Pharisee to the overwhelmed and heartfelt love and thanksgiving of the sinful woman.

Actually the response of the sinful woman to Jesus is a neat parallel to what happens in our worship. She came in tearful repentance over her many sins, and fell at the feet of Jesus for mercy. We gather in worship and first approach God through humble repentance of our sins in the confession. Some churches even kneel at this point, as a sign of humbling ourselves before God. Then she worshipped Jesus with her tears and act of loving service, washing His feet and anointing them. So also we worship Jesus with sacrificial acts of love and praise, as we sing songs of thanksgiving for all that He has done. All our worship and focus should be on Him—just as the woman gave no thought to the embarrassment she faced, or the snickers that people may have scornfully made at her. Our focus is on Jesus, as the one who’s shown us God’s mercy. She received the words of absolution—“her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much”; and again, “Your sins are forgiven.” Let those words ring in your ears: “Your sins, which are many, are forgiven. Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” Consider yourself (you! Not someone else!) to be the chief of sinners, and rejoice in the unmatched love of God for you in Jesus Christ, that He died even for your sins, to have you as His own.

In the worship service we hear of the forgiveness of our sins again and again. The absolution I proclaim by the command and authority of Christ, that upon your confession, your sins are forgiven. The preaching of the sermon announces to you the great depth of God’s love, and how He’s redeemed you from all sin to be His own. The creeds and prayers that confess our forgiveness in baptism and the promised resurrection. The forgiving words of Christ spoken in the Lord’s Supper: “This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Dear forgiven sinners, we are surrounded on all sides by forgiveness! We can then respond like the sinful woman, who joyfully went in peace. Now whether she was one of the three women mentioned right at the end of our reading, Mary, Joanna, or Susanna, or whether she was another of the women disciples of Christ, she went on into joyful service of her Lord. Those three women provided for Jesus and His ministry out of their own means. Their thankfulness was transformed into gratitude and joyful service. And so also in our worship, our response for all the gifts of salvation that have been given to us, is to joyfully give back to God in love and service. To go out each week between Sundays, and carry His good news and His peace on our lips. May Christ always strengthen and enable you to do so. In His name we pray, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What clues are there that Jesus was being “set-up” at this dinner? Cf. Luke 5:20-26; 5:30-32; 6:1-11, esp. verse 7; What was the response that the Pharisees expected Jesus to have toward this sinful woman?

2. Who do we identify with in the story? Do we sometimes resent the fact that God’s plan of salvation involves sinners? Do we look down on certain people because of their sin? Or are we completely thankful that we as sinners are spared from God’s punishment?

3. What is the “measuring stick” by which we evaluate ourselves and others? Read Luke 6:37-38; Rom. 2:1-5; Gal. 3:10-14.

4. What was standard courtesy or hospitality for a guest such as Jesus? How did the sinful woman make up for the neglect of the host, Simon the Pharisee? Does our gratitude compare with his or hers? How can we show our gratitude and love to Jesus for all that He has done? How did Jesus accept and approve her actions?

5. What is our personal debt to God? Does it matter how great someone else’s is if we couldn’t even pay ours? Psalm 49:7-9, 15.

6. How can we increase in our gratitude? Eph. 3:18. Describe how great God’s love for you is, and all the wonderful things He has done for you through Christ Jesus. Reflect and pray a prayer of thanksgiving. How can we share that same warm welcome of Jesus with other sinners?

7. Draw some parallels between the woman’s acts and Jesus’ response, to what happens in a worship service. How does it feel to know that your sins, which are many, are forgiven, and that you can go in God’s peace?

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