|Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary|
At the Table with Jesus: At Simon’s House
At our Lenten Study this week, we spent some time thinking about whether or not we had ever been in debt, and had our debt forgiven, or whether or not we’d ever had someone in debt to us, and then forgiven their debt. We talked about parents and children - children are often in debt to their parents, aren’t they? Sometimes this happens in specific ways - a parent steps in to help with bills or help with a surprise expense. But often, parents give a little here, a little there in so many uncounted ways. Thankfully, most parents aren’t keeping track - they are constantly forgiving these debts, constantly making what would be debts into gifts instead. They act out of love, not counting what is owed. I shared with the group that that is not always the case - as I was sorting through my late Aunt Joyce’s papers, I came across a legal contract between her and her parents. She borrowed money from them for a down payment on her home, and my Great Uncle Lloyd was known for being - well, I’ll keep it nice and say “careful” with his money. He wasn’t about to lend money without a contract, terms, even to his only child. But I’d say his approach wasn’t typical. Parents are endlessly forgiving debts large and small for their children, not even really counting them as debts in the first place, as they act out of love.
We also talked a bit about the costs, the debt of higher education, both in the broader sense of getting more than we pay for through our education, and in the specific sense - tuition and room and board and student loans. Anyone still paying on student loans in here? I can still remember my first year in undergrad all of us taking out student loans had to come to a meeting where we would sign our promissory notes. And the folks leading this time - they were so serious. The message I left that meeting with was: “You are making a promise, and if you default on your debt, we will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will make you pay, or we will throw you in jail.” At 18, and about to take out several thousands of dollars in loans so I could go to college, the weight of that debt felt enormous.
I had good scholarships that covered most of my undergrad tuition. But I still found myself in the last weeks before I was to graduate with a remaining bill of about $1500. It might as well have been $15,000 for the ability I had to pay it, me or my family. There was no extra money. And if I couldn’t pay, I wouldn’t graduate. And if I didn’t get my diploma, I couldn’t start seminary a few months later. I was overwrought. Thankfully, my academic advisor was also the university chaplain. I shared with him my dilemma, and shortly thereafter he told me simply that my bill was no longer an issue. My balance was paid in full. I could graduate. When I look back on it now, I’m not sure that in my relief I expressed my gratitude as fully as I meant to - but the weight that had been lifted off of me was enormous. Have you ever had a significant debt forgiven? Have you ever been able to offer the gift of forgiving someone’s debt to you? How did that feel?
We’re continuing our journey through the Gospel of Luke today, as we focus in on the meals Jesus shares with people, who he eats with, and what he does when he comes to the table with folks. This week, Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While folks are at the table, a woman appears at the house. Houses weren’t private in the way ours are today, so this in itself is not unusual. The woman is known as a sinner. We don’t know more specifically what that means, what sins she’s committed, but as I mentioned last week, someone with this label was someone thought of having a blatant disregard for God’s law. So, this woman, a sinner, appears at the dinner, and situates herself near Jesus. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and weeping, she bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet, and anoints them with the ointment - a more costly item than oil, which would have been regularly used as part of folks’ hygiene rituals. Her actions are intimate. It would often be slaves or folks of low station who were responsible for such tasks, or something you would do for yourself. She’s making herself extremely vulnerable. She must know what people think of her.
Indeed, when Simon sees the woman anointing Jesus, he says to himself that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have known about this woman and her reputation. In response, Jesus tells a short parable. “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?” Seemingly reluctant, Simon answers, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.” Jesus tells him he’s judged rightly. Jesus points out that this woman, a known sinner, has demonstrated much more hospitality - a highly cherished value in their society - than Simon, the actual host did. Simon didn’t even provide water for Jesus’s dusty feet, didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss, and didn’t anoint his head with oil. But the woman offered Jesus ointment, tears, and kisses to his feet. Jesus concludes that her many sins have been forgiven, and feeling the assurance of that deep in her heart, she responds with great love. But, Jesus concludes, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That seems like such a weird statement for Jesus to make, when we take it apart. Jesus seems to be saying that if we live a life that is as blameless as possible, we have less capacity to love than those who have racked up a great many sins? Can that be what Jesus means? And if that’s the case, why would we bother to try to be good? If we can love better if we’re sinning so much that we need lots of forgiveness, why are we working so hard to avoid breaking God’s law?
As usual, though, our questions for God reveal things about the thoughts of our hearts that need attention. It seems like we think that if we could, we’d rather disobey God’s law. Like we’re only trying to follow God’s plans and walk in Jesus’s footsteps because of the rewards we thought we might get out of it, not because we actually believe that living in the way of Jesus brings us life abundant, a deeper contentment than we could ever get by living without regard for others. And if that’s the only reason why we’re “following the rules,” whatever that means to us, then our hearts aren’t actually so pure as we’d like to think! And also, our questions assume that we don’t have a lifetime of racking up debts, that we don’t have a lifetime of ways that we’ve sinned against God and neighbor, that we haven’t hurt others, let people down, ignored people in need, been selfish, caused pain. I hope, of course, that we’ve tried hard to minimize the hurt we cause, that we are trying earnestly to follow Jesus in all that we do. But, like we talked about last Sunday, if our trying hard to follow God leads us to feel superior to others, like we’re not in need of a savior, or at least not as in need as the one we call a sinner, we’re missing the mark. The debt that we “owe,” if God were keeping track, is pretty big! We like to think we’re doing so great, compared to others. But it’s like we’re bragging about only owing $1 million dollars to someone else’s $2 million. If we’re counting sins, we aren’t debt-free. I think of the prayer of confession that is a part of our full communion liturgy in our hymnals. Would you read it with me? : “Merciful God, We confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I’ve been reading a book called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales. Maybe Gouverneur isn’t exactly the suburbs, but I resonate with a lot of what Hales says anyway. She says that when we buy into the myth of self-sufficiency - this idea that we don’t need anyone, that we can do it all ourselves, we become people who are unable to receive. We can’t truly receive from God and we can’t receive from one another. She writes, “We’ll take our house, our talent, and our well-paying job with a side of Jesus - provided he works within our schedule. But our inner lives are stunted ... We repay every offer of help and every cup of sugar borrowed. When we grasp tightly onto our own self-sufficiency, we turn our backs on the rich, generous, openhanded life [of God]. We cannot be generous people until we first learn to be joyful receivers.” She continues, “We must receive God’s kingdom … with open hands, with tears in our eyes, and a desire not to earn the Giver’s favor, but as a response to all we’ve been given.” (119-121) “A life of generosity is the natural overflow of a repentant and grateful heart. As our lives are increasingly shaped by generosity … We give things away. We value people. We sacrifice for others. We look to meet needs. We bring others along. This is how we live with open hearts.” (123)
We aren’t debt free, not in the spiritual sense. God has given us immeasurably more than we could ever pay back. But thankfully, mercifully, God is not a parent who has written a legally binding contract with us so that God can make sure we pay God back for every sin we’ve committed, for every debt we’ve incurred, for every infraction we’ve accrued. Thankfully, God is constantly transforming debts we owe into gifts God has given. God forgives us. Forgives everything. Cancels everything we owe. And Jesus embodies that forgiveness in the world, and calls us to live in the same way with each other - seeking reconciliation. When I think about it like this, and I feel the weight and the strength and the constancy of God’s love, this woman who is a “sinner” - her actions no longer seem so strange to me. Of course she wants to lay at Jesus’ feet and anoint them with kisses and tears of love. How can she feel anything but overwhelmed in the presence of this one who embodies God’s grace in a tangible form, who is the forgiveness she experiences personified, who has turned her debt owed into a gift given? Of course she wants to do anything she can to show Jesus how thankful she is for the gift of forgiveness that God has given her.
Don’t we want to do the same? Hasn’t God transformed your debt owed into a gift given? After the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy, we share in this assurance - will you join in these responsive words? “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen.”
We are not ones to whom little has been forgiven. We are ones to whom everything has been forgiven. So let us respond with great love. Amen.