A sermon by
Dr. Robert R. Laha, Jr.
Old Presbyterian Meeting House
Alexandria, Virginia
June 13, 2010

Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Meal time has always been important to me – and not just because I love good food! It is important to me because of the enjoyment that comes with sharing a meal with other people. Like some of you, I feed off of the energy of others and there is simply no better way of sharing with them than over a meal.

But sometimes, around holidays with family for instance, I tend to expect too much at meal time. At such times, I tend to suffer from what might be called the “Normal Rockwell Syndrome.”  I think you know what I am talking about. It is a terribly frustrating syndrome because it leads one to expect that everything will go according to plan –which it never seems to do! So, as Simon’s dinner party disintegrates right before  his very eyes, well – suffice it to say, I can feel his pain.

Scholars tell us that meals like Simon’s would most likely be served in an open area visible from, and accessible to, the street.  Invited guests would recline on pillows or couches of some sort while they ate and enjoyed one another’s company. Others, watching from the street could, and often would, approach members of the dinner party to ask for a handout of some kind. So we can see how easy it is for a person off of the street to wreak havoc on Simon’s party.

As Luke tells the story, an unnamed but obviously well known woman in the city slips into the dinner party – weeping.  Surprisingly, she uses her tears to wash Jesus’ feet and then she uses her hair to dry them. Afterwards, she pulls out an alabaster jar of ointment and  begins to kiss his feet and anoint them with the ointment. It is a shocking, and some say even a seductive, development in the story.

Simon is understandably outraged by this outlandish act. This is not the kind of thing he envisioned for his party. This woman’s actions are an embarrassment to him. Everyone knows that this sort of public behavior between women and men is strictly forbidden by Jewish law. So, to have something like this happen in his home, in front of his guests, and in full view of the public, is simply unacceptable.

But it is Jesus – not the woman – who most upsets Simon. Any self-respecting Rabbi would have put an immediate stop to such an outrageous act. Jesus, however, seems encourage it.

In an effort to distance himself from this shocking and sinful behavior, Simon says:  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner!”

The problem, of course, for Simon and for us, is that Jesus knows more than we would like for him to know. He knows how sinful we are!

Rather than chastise us, Jesus, in good rabbinic fashion, tells a story about two debtors, one who owes a large amount of money and the other only a small amount. The creditor cancels both of their debts. “Now which one, do you suppose, will love the creditor more?” asks Jesus. “The one with the greater debt,” Simon answers. “You are right,” says Jesus.

With this simple story, Jesus helps Simon and us to better understand the unique nature of God’s kingdom.  It is a kingdom based upon grace, not merit. As the Bible makes clear over and over again, we are saved not by anything we do or fail to do; we are saved only by grace, freely given by a loving God.

Luke, being a first-class story teller, hides for awhile Simon’s failure to extend the basics of hospitality to Jesus. In Biblical times, a guest in one’s home could expect to be greeted with a kiss and to have his feet washed and, on occasion, even to be anointed. So it is an interesting twist in the tale that is this unnamed, sinful woman turns out to be the better host. As Luke tells the story, it is this woman – not Simon – who practices true hospitality.

Here is how one commentator speaks to the stark contrast between Simon and this woman:

At his dinner for Jesus, Simon is cautious, while the woman is expressive, giving Jesus the hospitality Simon failed to give.  While Simon gives no water for cleansing, she gives Jesus the water of her tears.  While Simon gives Jesus no kiss of greeting, the woman continually kisses his feet.  While he gives Jesus no oil for anointing, she extensively anoints his feet with ointment.

After reading this, I think the bumper sticker I’ve seen around town is on to something:  “Well-behaved women seldom make history!”

I don’t know about you, but I find it a bit ironic that Simon would rather point out the speck in someone else’s eye than to acknowledge the log in his own eye.

You see, Simon knows that nothing is more basic to Jewish law than the practice of hospitality. He knows that he is obligated to welcome into his home not just invited guests but strangers and aliens as well. He knows that he is obligated to wash their feet, to feed them and care for their needs as if they were members of his own family.

Yet, for some reason, Simon chooses not to practice hospitality for either Jesus or this strange, uninvited woman.  Like many in Christ’s church today, Simon would rather point out the shortcomings of others than to deal with his own. Sadly, there seems to be very little room in his life for grace.

In our Epistle lesson for today, Peter and Paul are debating the relationship between law and grace. It is a debate that sheds some more light on Luke’s story.

If you read the whole story, you will discover that, in Peter’s mind, if non-Jews are to be seen and accepted as full and equal partners in the Christian community, then they must agree to uphold the laws of the Jews. So he is naturally concerned that Paul might be watering down the faith in order to make the church more appealing to outsiders.

Paul, on the other hand, does not think that non-Jews have to believe and act like Jews in order to be full and equal members of the church. In his mind, one’s membership in Christ’s church cannot be based on works or adherence to certain laws; it can only be based on the grace of God. So he is naturally concerned that Peter might, knowingly or unknowingly, be limiting God’s love and grace by  tacking on unnecessary requirements in order  to appease the Jews and other early supporters of the church.   Thankfully, Paul’s argument wins the day, opening the way for you and me to become full and equal members of Christ’s church.

I like the way one commentator sums up Paul’s argument:

For Paul, salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else: not Jesus and certain cultural practices; not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective; not Jesus and a particular income level; not Jesus and one political party; not Jesus and being good enough.  Just Jesus.  If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died for nothing!”

As some of you know, in about three weeks, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church  will meet to deal with some very difficult issues. The most contentious, of course, will be the ongoing debate about whether or not to ordain people of differing sexual orientations to the offices of deacon, elder, and minister of word and sacrament. Given our scripture lesson for today, it is interesting to note that our commissioners will be asked to debate this thorny question at the same time they will be debating the possibility of shortening  the Book of Order. If that were to happen, it would reduce the number of rules and regulations we impose on members of the church.

It is safe to say that the Simons and Peters of the world will be out in full force, pointing out the perceived sins of others while ignoring their own, and laying down the law in an effort to preserve their notion of church.

It is also safe to say that the Pauls of the world will be out as well, pointing to the sins of the whole church, and lifting up again the free, unmerited grace of God, without which, none of us could be ordained to service in Christ’s church.

Having been to a number of General Assemblies, I can assure you that, somewhere in the midst of this assembly, there will be a table set with bread and wine, because meal time is important to the church. I can also assure you that a lot of planning and hard work will be done in order to prepare that table for the worship of the commissioners and guests.

But in light of today’s scripture lesson, I can’t help but wonder what might happen, and how it might affect the work of the assembly, if some unexpected person were to show up with some tears for washing away the dirt of the church and some ointment for healing its members.   Maybe then, Jesus could say to each and every member of the church:

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace!”