Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Missional: Needy," Luke 7:36-50 (Proper 6C, Ordinary 11C)
We talk often about how Jesus goes out of his way to eat with sinners and tax collectors and other people who are on the fringes, who are disliked, who are rejected by well-mannered well-behaved folks. But Jesus also ate with people who were in the thick of it, right in the center of society. You have to give some credit to Pharisees who invited Jesus for a meal, because Jesus didn’t hesitate to say what he thought and stir things up, even if he was your guest for dinner! Would you want Jesus for a dinner guest? What might he say to you, to me I wonder?
Jesus is asked by Simon, a Pharisee, a religious scholar and leader in the community, to eat at his home, and he accepts. He takes his place at the table, and a woman, identified only as “a sinner,” learning where Jesus was, comes with an alabaster jar of ointment. We’re not told what her sin is. Although history has often called her a prostitute, there’s nothing in the text to suggest it. She stood behind Jesus, at his feet. He would have been reclining, almost on a sofa-type seat, the traditional manner of dining. And weeping, she begins to bathe his feet with her tears, kissing his feet, anointing them with ointment. Simon watches and thinks to himself, “If Jesus was really a prophet, he’d know that the woman he is letting touch him this way is a sinner.” Simon apparently knows her, knows her sins. Jesus speaks up. “Simon, I have something to say to you. A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answers, “I supposed the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” You can hear the reluctance as he answers, as he guesses he’s been trapped. Indeed, Jesus tells Simon he has judged rightly, and goes on to compare how he was welcomed by the woman versus how he was welcomed by Simon. Simon gave him no water for his feet, a courtesy for travelers on dusty roads, but the woman anointed his feet with tears, hair, ointment. Simon gave no kiss in greeting, but the woman is unrelenting in kissing Jesus’ feet, a sign of extreme humility. Jesus concludes, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her, and he sends her off in peace. Meanwhile, the rest of those at dinner grumble, wondering at a man who dares to offer forgiveness for sins.
“Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Does this mean that the worse we are, the greater sins we commit, the more potential to love Jesus we have? Can that possibly be what he means? How much forgiveness do we need? How much do we need from Jesus? Yes, forgiveness. But as much as the woman in this story, who is known as a sinner? Has a reputation for it? If we’ve managed to get through life without having a reputation for being a bad egg, we can’t need as much forgiven as this woman, right? So then how can we ever hope to love Jesus as she seems to?
I started thinking this week about what it means to be in need of something, and how we talk about neediness, and how it makes us feel. Would you consider yourself a needy person, or not? We might call someone needy if they have financial need. Poor people are needy, we might say. Is that a positive or negative term? If we apply the word needy to other situations, the results suggest neediness is not value-free: it’s has a negative connotation. If someone is needy in a relationship, generally we mean that in a bad way. We mean that they’re clingy. That they demand too much attention, time, energy. I think that there are few if any areas in our life where we’d like to be classified as needy. Do you like being needy? How comfortable are you being on the receiving end of assistance? The receiving end of a helping hand? The receiving end of gifts when it isn’t Christmas, or your birthday, or your party? How much would you like to be considered someone who always needs extra attention, extra help?
“I want to do it myself!” Any of you that have experience with young children probably know that small children reach a point in their development where they are experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of their independence. When Sam was about three, he went through this period when no matter what the task was, Sam would refuse help of any kind. If he was trying to get dressed, he didn’t want your help, even though it took him forever to get his clothing on the right direction the right side out. Particularly frustrating was his desire to get in and out of his car seat in the car on his own – it would take him several minutes, when you, the parent or aunt or grandma knew that you could just pick him up and put him in the seat in five seconds. Sam has long grown past this particular stage now, but I can still perfectly hear his voice and tone and picture his expression, “I just want to do it myself!”
Of course, adults aren’t much better, are they? Many of you know that my mom, who is slowly becoming a bionic woman, has been through many surgeries – rotator-cuff, two knee replacements, two ankle fusions. The ankle fusion, a surgery that failed the first time and had to be repeated, was particularly hard, as my mom was in a non-weight bearing cast for months, and with her previous shoulder injury, she also couldn’t use crutches. That meant she worked with a walker and a wheelchair. My mom, a nurse for 30 years, is a horrible patient, as folks who work in the medical field generally are in my experience! She wouldn’t let anyone help her up the stairs when she got home from the hospital, resulting in several of us hovering around her uselessly while she scooted up the stairs, sweating profusely with the effort. She fell in the bathroom the first morning after being home, because she was trying to do a little rearranging in one of the bathroom cupboards while balancing on one foot. And when I took her out to a craft show, and tried to push her through the crowd in a wheelchair, I realized it wasn’t working because she couldn’t stop trying to steer, even though I told her it was actually making it harder, not easier to navigate. Two people trying to steer one object works just about as well as it sounds. It doesn’t work. Mom, not unlike Sam, just wanted to do it herself.
I can’t claim that I’m much better. I much prefer to be the one helping than to be the one being helped. I’ve had times in my life, for example, when I’ve been able to offer financial support to others I care about, and times in my life when I’ve had to ask for financial help from others. I would much rather be able to be generous with my money than have to accept help from someone. I suspect it might be the same for you. I’ve tried to think about why that is. After all, when I give to others, I am not looking for their gratitude, although gratitude is nice. I’m not trying to make someone feel incompetent. I’m not giving with an expectation that I’ll get something back in return. I’m not giving so that I can hold it over them or have power over them. I’m giving because I love to give, I love them, giving because I can, giving because I have empathy for those who are struggling, or because I feel like I have the resources and I want to put them to good use, to do some good with what I have. So why is it so hard to be on the other side? To be the one receiving what is given in love? I think being needy makes us feel weak. Incapable. Small. It hits at our pride, our need to be self-sufficient. We can do it ourselves. We are self-reliant. Self-sufficient. It’s practically the American Dream. We make something of ourselves. Pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And not being able to do it - being needy - it’s failing.
When I did my doctoral work and the research project that followed it, I started my work in every congregation with an interview with each participant that would help me establish our starting point. And as I asked people about their understandings of charity and justice, what I found is that nearly every single person I interviewed spoke in terms of themselves as the giver, but never as the receiver. Charity and justice were described in terms of what we could give to them. What we might teach and offer them. The ones who are needy. Which is not us. The few exceptions were primarily from people who themselves had experienced significant periods of poverty as adults. We don’t like and don’t want to be needy.
Except...Jesus says that those of us who are self-sufficient and self-reliant and pulling-ourselves-up and making something of ourselves - those of us who are decidedly not needy - not needy of money, not needy of help, not needy of being lifted up, not needy of anything because we can Do. It. Ourselves. - Jesus says that we love little. Oof.
I preached on this very text at the Greenhouse in Rochester this past week, the small skilled nursing homes where I’ve served as chaplain. I talked about how hard it is to admit we need help and to let others help us, but of course, I was preaching to the choir. They are experts in experiencing what it is like to need to depend more and more on the assistance of others all the time, and I know it is challenging in ways that are beyond my experience or understanding. Folks there over time need help with going to the bathroom, help bathing themselves, help getting dressed, help feeding themselves, help remembering even who they are sometimes. So needy. And with such great capacity to love. One of my sweetest ladies there - every single day that I saw her would say, again and again: “I am so blessed. I am so blessed.”
Friends, we cannot serve God, we cannot serve Jesus, we cannot truly give to others if all we have to offer is our own strength, our own wisdom, our own stuff, the work of our own hands. Simon loved little not because he was not a sinner too, or because his sins were less than hers, but because he believed himself to be better than her, less of a sinner, less in need of grace. He was so full of himself that there was no need that he could see for forgiveness. And so he had room for none.
Being needy is humbling. Which, as it turns out, is an attitude Christ commends to us. But being needy is only humiliating if we give to others with a sense of our own superiority, and if we believe ourselves to be above it - above need. We all stand in need of God’s grace. And God is so eagerly offering it to us. Can you receive what God is offering? Can you admit your need? Jesus said, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Humble us, God. Amen.