The scandal of grace: a sermon for 12 June 2016, Proper 6 (Year C, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Galatians 2:15-21

Luke 7:36-50

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

My name is Simon, and I’m a Pharisee.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You think you know what a Pharisee is. One of strongly religious types. Someone who lives by rules and regulations, who enjoys pernickitiness, who claims that ancient rituals are everything. Someone all-too-happy to avoid people I’d call a sinner. Someone proud to say he’s never broken the rules.

But let me defend myself and my fellow Pharisees. I’m doing my best to keep our faith alive in difficult times. Our country has been conquered by heathen Romans, so there is not much support from the state for the ancient religion of our ancestors. We have people coming into the country bringing all kinds of religion- not just the Romans, but Greeks, and people from the East- people from nations from all over the Roman Empire get to come into our country now, bringing their religions with them. We Jews sometimes feel like a minority in our own nation.

So who can blame us if we batten want to batten down the hatches, and hunker around our old religion and traditions? We Pharisees are trying to keep the old ways alive. You might not think that ritually washing your hands before you eat is important. But it’s what is commanded in the Law (as we interpret it). So if you do that kind of thing, you help keep the old traditions alive. You mark yourself out as a proper Jew- a true member of the people of God. You are witnessing to the truth of the religion of Moses.

That’s why I like tradition. It helps keep us distinct. It is continuity in a changing world. I’m proud to be a Pharisee, because I want to keep the faith, and to help others maintain their God-given identity in a changing world. I’m a Pharisee because I want our faith to survive.

So when I heard that there was a brilliant new teacher in Galilee, I thought I would invite him to dinner. This Jesus, son of Joseph, was getting quite a reputation. His teaching seemed to move the people. I was even hearing that he performed miracles. Perhaps God was a work in this young man? So even although I had heard be could be controversial, I had to invite him to my house when he came to our town.

Barcelona Courtyard FountainFolk are always welcome to come and hear me teach at my house. I will often share a meal in the courtyard around which my house is built with my disciples and any locals who wish to join us. They’ll listen to my words as the fountain splashes in the middle of my garden.

But it was a bigger crowd than usual who came with Jesus. He came with his entourage- disciples, the curious, the hangers-on. He’s quite a celebrity, it seemed- a good catch for one of my dinner parties.

But something happened that day which has left me uncomfortable.

Among the crowd that day was a woman, whom you may have heard described as ‘a woman [of the town] who lived a sinful life’. That’s a polite way of saying that she was a prostitute. We all knew who she was, and what she was. She was perfectly entitled to be in the crowd- it was a public event at my house. I could hardly object to her being there if she wanted to meet this new celebrity, for anyone can come along to this kind of semi-public occasion.

As she approached Jesus, she seems to have been overcome with emotion. Tears came to her eyes, and fell on his feet as he reclined at the table. She dried his feet with her hair, and then took the alabaster of perfume (which many Jewish women wear around their neck) and anointed his feet. It was an extravagant, expensive, and, frankly embarrassing display of emotion- and it encapsulated my doubts about Jesus. I thought to myself, ‘If he really was a prophet, this Jesus would know what kind of a woman was touching him here. He would send her away, for she is a sinner, and a religious teacher can have nothing to do with such a person’.

But Jesus seemed to read my mind. He began to tell me a story, about two men who owed money to a money lender. One owed the moneylender five hundred coins, the other, just fifty. But neither man could pay their debts, to the moneylender cancelled both men’s debts. And Jesus asked me, ‘Which one, Simon, will love that moneylender more?’

‘The one who was forgiven more, of course’ I replied.

‘You’re right, Simon’, came the reply. ‘This woman has treated me with more honour than you did when I can to your house. Her great love for me proves that she feels she has had many sins forgiven. But anyone who has been forgiven little shows only a little love’.

Scandalously, he then said that this notorious woman had had her sins forgiven- that got everyone talking. Who was this young teacher to be going around forgiving sins? Lots of gossip and controversy in our town since then.

But I am left wondering- why did he talk to me like that? How can he have honoured a prostitute more than me? Did he really mean that I thought I didn’t have some many sins needing forgiven, so that I wasn’t grateful to God?

I have always tried to honour God. I try to keep the Law of Moses, and avoid sinful people and sinful actions. But Jesus seems to be turning religion on its head. He’s claiming that sinners have more to be thankful for than respectable people like me who have always been good. I thought he wasn’t a prophet- but he read my mind like a prophet. It was as if he treated the woman’s actions in showing him love as prophesy. Is the prophecy that love will overcome rules? Does God value gratitude over keeping the rules? Is his Kingdom open to people like this prostitute? Does all my religion over the years count for nothing?

And so I am left wondering…

*                 *                 *                 *

Simon was a good man, really- moral, religious, upright, a pillar of the community. St. Paul wrote the Galatians about people who were proud of being ‘Jews by birth, and not “Gentile sinners” as they are called’; and no doubt Simon thought of himself in that way. His fault was that he thought he wasn’t really a sinner, so he couldn’t experience grace.

However, the prostitute in the story recognized her need. She must have heard Jesus earlier, speaking of how God can forgive and accept anyone. For Jesus turned religion on its head. Too often, religions tell us that we need to do something to fix our relationship with God. Simon did it all. He kept the Law of Moses. He encouraged others in their faith. He was involved in the local synagogue. He had never put a foot wrong. But he had forgotten to be grateful. It took a repentant prostitute to show him how to really love God.

St Paul had been a Pharisee, too. Like Simon, he was a dyed-in-the-wool true believer. In his letter to the Philippians, he writes of how he was brought up in the faith since childhood:

I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the church [of Christ]. As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault.

Many of us could identify with that kind of statement. I was baptized when I was three months old. I’m a cradle Presbyterian, descendant of generations who live in a Christian country. Today I stand in this pulpit as successor to St Columba, founder of our congregation. We all of us are proud to belong to the oldest congregation in Inverness. We have given much to the Church over the years, we have much to be proud of. We have a noble history. And if we cannot say, as Paul said, that we are without fault- well, we did our best. Surely that counts for something?

But listen to how the passage from Philippians continues:

I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. As far as keeping the Jewish Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the church [of Christ]. As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault.

 

But all those things that I might count as profit I now reckon as loss for Christ’s sake. Not only those things; I reckon everything as complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have thrown everything away; I consider it all as mere refuse, so that I may gain Christ and be completely united with him.[i]

Paul had to leave his pride behind him when he met Christ. He had to learn that God’s grace is not dependent on his religiosity, or his ancestry, or how much effort he had put into his faith down through the years. He may have been a Jew by birth, one of the chosen people, and may have been zealous in practicing his religion over the years. But all of that was refuse, rubbish, garbage when it came to his relationship to God. He discovered that all that mattered was Christ, and Christ alone. Nothing he could do could fix his relationship with God. It was all God’s doing, in Jesus Christ.

So, for all of us, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that we humans can be so sure of ourselves that we are no longer open to grace. If we think that because we have been a member of the church for years, God will be especially good to us, we are mistaken. If we are so sure of ourselves that we cannot imagine we need anything, then God cannot work in our lives. If our religion is all about trying to be good and zealous, then we can miss out on grace. Do we get so caught up in matters of religion, that we forget to show love? Nothing about us, nothing we can do, nothing in our noble ancestry or our notable history can ever be enough to make us right with God. It is, in Paul’s striking phrase, ‘mere refuse’: a big huge stinking pile of rubbish to be thrown away. ‘For no one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires’ said St Paul to the Galatians.

I think that part of the problem with the Church today is that we have let our religion inoculate us against God. Jesus accused the Pharisees of obsessing over details like ritual handwashing and Sabbath observance, so that you ended up with people like Simon who was so self-righteous he’d forgotten how to love God and their neighbour. And that leaves us asking the question- are there things in our religion which are really garbage, rubbish, refuse which blinds us to God. Has the church, has your religion, vaccinated you against God? Are there things about our religion which we obsess over, so that we forget to show love?

But the good news is much more important. The good news is that God’s grace is available to us all. God’s grace walked into Simon the Pharisee’s house, and he never noticed until it was too late. But a nameless woman, a well-known sinner, a prostitute- she recognized God’s grace in Jesus Christ. She was no theological expert, she probably hadn’t darkened the door of the synagogue for years, she was the sort of person a decent religious person wouldn’t want to been seen with. But she knew who Jesus was, what he represented, and she overflowed in love for him. And to her, Jesus said, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’.

There’s a song that was popular when I was a teenager which said,

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.[ii]

The Bible can be a mirror for us- we can see ourselves in the characters and stories of Scripture. So- do you see yourself in either of the characters of Simon or the prostitute? Do you see yourself in Simon, unable to see that you really need to be forgiven, and stinting in your love for Christ? Or do you recognize, as the woman did, that you really do need God’s grace, so that you are willing to be extravagant in showing your love for Christ? Will they know we are a Christians by our love?

I entitled this sermon, ‘The scandal of grace’. But the scandal is not that Jesus forgave the prostitute. Deep down, I know that the real scandal is that Jesus forgives me.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all

to his eternal glory in Christ

restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[i] Philippians 3.5-9a

[ii] We are one in the Spirit (Peter Scholtes; Songs of God’s People 111)