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The Pharisee and the Harlot ~ Luke 7: 36-50

What would life be like if we didn’t have to think or talk about sin? Why don’t we just blithely live our lives and not burden ourselves with all that negative talk about sin? Because God wants to crack open the hard shells, resistances, and judgments that stand in the way of the abundant life for which we were created.

In her little book, Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of an Eskimo hunter who went to see the local missionary who had been preaching in his village.

“I want to ask you something,” the hunter said.

“What’s that?” asked the missionary.

“If I didn’t know about God and sin,” the hunter said, “would I go to hell?”

“No”, said the missionary, “not if you didn’t know.”

“Then why,” asked the hunter, “did you tell me?”

Have you ever thought along those lines? What would life be like if we didn’t have to think or talk about sin? We could be free to give into our whims, cravings, prejudices and knee-jerk reactions without having to exert much effort. We could effortlessly indulge ourselves in whatever appealed to us, whatever bolstered our own small little selves.

Now of course that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute! I don’t want to live that way! I know that selfishness and sinfulness never end well.”

But the fact of the matter is that despite our best intentions we frequently depart from the vision God holds of us and for us. If we are honest we have to admit that we frequently hurt ourselves and others in large ways and small.

In our defense we’ve all got our reasons for being cold-hearted, fearful, punitive, and unloving. Our genes, our environments, and the issues we’ve faced in life have shaped us so that, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, we do not understand our own actions. We do not do what we want, but we do the very thing that we hate.

Thankfully, God isn’t preoccupied with keeping score of our failures. God is concerned with our sins, and wants us to be concerned with them, only so we can embrace the forgiveness that restores us to life in community with God and one another. That said, we have to admit that forgiveness is a very difficult spiritual practice–one that we learn over and over and over again.

The good news is that there is no shortage of opportunities to practice because all the people we know are flawed and imperfect, just as we ourselves are flawed and imperfect. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced by people who love poorly,” and we all love poorly.

As we reflect on this morning’s Gospel teaching about forgiveness, I’d like to ask you a question. What difference would it make if we embraced our need for confession and forgiveness as a means to restoring communion rather than as a way of reactivating guilt and shame?

I love this morning’s Gospel story: Jesus has been invited to a prominent religious leader’s dinner party that is crashed by a woman—a sinner—who stands behind him weeping, then bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with expensive ointment. If the imagery in this narrative doesn’t stir something up in us, I don’t know what will. This is a richly drawn character study of two people and their radically different responses to Jesus.

Who are these people? Simon is a Pharisee who was probably important because he’s one of the few mentioned by name in the Gospels. Simon’s motivation for inviting Jesus to his home isn’t entirely clear. Some commentators offer the theory that he is curious about this young prophet who is the talk of the town. Others feel that he may want to show Jesus up. Truth be told, he is somewhat haughty when he says to himself in a stage whisper, “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.” In confronting Simon’s judgment of the woman, Jesus lets us know that he has not been a very gracious host, offering no welcoming kiss, or water for his feet, so we have to wonder– does he think himself better than this rogue rabbi? Is his heart cold or does he simply not know how to welcome Jesus?

And who is this woman? She is simply identified as a sinner. But for a woman to unbind her hair in public was, in those days, the trademark of a harlot, which would either imply that she was a prostitute or a promiscuous woman. To add insult to injury, this woman, this sinner, dares to touch the feet of a man who is not her husband. “For shame,” the onlookers must have muttered. As for me, I cannot contain my excitement about this woman. She must have had prior experience with Jesus and been forgiven by him because now she is passionately pouring out her gratitude and doesn’t give two hoots what people think of her! She crashes the party, for heaven’s sake, in order to lavish her love on Jesus. She knows he has set her free from the hell of self- hatred by forgiving her sins—whatever they may be. She can do nothing less than throw herself at his feet.

Meanwhile, Simon keeps himself aloof, judging the woman and judging Jesus for not judging her. So Jesus tells him the story of two debtors whose debts have been forgiven and asks him which of the debtors will love the creditor more. Simon replies, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt,” still showing a kind of tentativeness about the whole business. He is not, as the saying goes, “all in.” He seems frozen, stuck in his role and reputation, and unable to access either the repentance or the gratitude that could open his heart to greater joy.

As I marinated in this story I realized how easy it would be to dismiss Simon as a judgmental, self-righteous boor. In fact, we too often caricature the Pharisees in Christian Scripture, a fact that has tragically contributed to anti-Semitism through the ages. If we’re honest with ourselves there’s a good bit of Simon the Pharisee in all of us. I don’t know about you, but I am capable of sitting in judgment on others with very little awareness and a lot of self-justification. I can judge people close to home and I can judge national and world leaders. My judgment starts from a place of wanting life to be kind and fair and just, but rapidly devolves into an ugly self-righteousness that does not align with my faith or values.

One of my girlfriends gave me a refrigerator magnet that reminds me of my inner Simon. It depicts a woman practicing yoga in the lotus position and saying, “Here I sit, totally evolved and at one with all life…compassionately not judging stupid people.”

I suspect there’s also a good bit of the harlot in all of us, that person who feels deep shame and distance from God and others because of a sense of brokenness or failure. But let’s not forget that this very plucky woman took the risk to open herself to God’s forgiveness. Despite public condemnation she audaciously stepped out in faith to witness to Jesus’ gift of new life. I often think about how our refusal to receive forgiveness dishonors God. In condemning ourselves, we are playing God, rather than trusting God. This woman, courageous and passionate as she is, reminds me to keep my focus on Jesus, and not on my failures or the failures of others.

So what of the Eskimo hunter’s question to the missionary? Why don’t we just blithely live our lives and not burden ourselves with all that negative talk about sin? Because, dear friends, God wants to crack open the hard shells, resistances, and judgments– of ourselves and others– that stand in the way of the abundant life for which we were created.

I am struck by the fact that as we begin the long season of Sundays after Pentecost—a time when we focus on the church’s mission in the world—we are hearing a word about forgiveness. This world is hungry for a message of peace and reconciliation. It is tainted by viciousness and blame, reactivity and merciless retaliation. As we reflect on the divisions that seem so intractable, we need God’s word of forgiveness and hope. There is a better way than condemnation of ourselves and others. There is a better way than keeping account of wrongs. Only forgiveness can break through the wall of sin that separates us from each other and from God. Only forgiveness has that power.

I have an invitation for each one of us as we go leave this time of worship and go forth to face whatever challenges the days ahead will bring. I’m going to invite us to hold our inner Pharisees in a kind embrace and gently acknowledge that our drive for excellence can easily give way to its shadow side of self-righteousness. I’m also going to invite us to call upon our inner harlot, that part of us that knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are completely dependent upon God for redemption and hope.

As we embrace that broken, raw part of us may we weep with joy that we are so loved, and in turn love with the wildness and abandon of a redeemed child of God.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

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