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A tale of a dangerous boundary-crosser (a sermon)

June 11, 2010

Luke 7:38 – 8:3

Imagine the scene. Middle Eastern houses were more open than ours. You didn’t need to break in if you were not invited. Jesus has been invited. He sits, or rather reclines, with his feet stretched out, at a gathering in the house of a Pharisee – a serious man of religion and of the Law. This is not surprising. Jesus himself was a teacher of the law. I guess there were torches flaming in the warm evening air and smells of spices and food cooking. The conversation was no doubt an earnest one about matters of great consequence.

Into that gathering slides a woman, known to Simon the Pharisee (our host for tonight) as a prostitute. This was in the days before prostitution was legalized… In those days the punishment was to die by stoning. And yet the Pharisee knows her identity … and he holds back from saying anything or doing anything. What is he thinking?

One detail puzzles me. How do you stand behind someone, at their feet, if they are reclining?

Anyway at some point in the conversation they become aware of her dramatic presence. In those days prostitutes didn’t exactly dress the way they do these days, and yet they knew who she was, well covered no doubt, and all the more mysterious for it. And as they become aware of her they also become aware that she is weeping. It’s always a great conversation stopper. Weeping so much that she bathes her feet with tears and then starts to wipe them with her hair.

And once she has finished drying his feet, she starts to kiss them. And when she has finished kissing them, she anoints them with ointment perfumed to pervade the whole room. I guess the conversation had stopped by that point.

Maybe some of them were thinking of the text ‘How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of him who brings good news.’ But I guess most of them were on tenterhooks waiting to see Jesus’ response and I suspect you could cut the air with a knife.

Let’s try and do the impossible for a minute. Let’s put ourselves in Jesus shoes. Let’s imagine the pressure on him. Let’s imagine fears of embarrassment. Let’s imagine that he is really aware of the incredible provocation that this act is creating. The way it is so culturally offensive to all around him. Let’s imagine that he feels the sexual energy of it all, the enormous risk the woman has taken, the enormous risk he himself is in, the very real possibility of a stoning before the day is out.

If it were us in Jesus shoes, that’s how we might feel. But of course it’s not us, it’s Jesus. He seems to show no fear of embarrassment, and not fear of stoning.

Luke lets us in on the thoughts of Simon the Pharisee, who thinks “If this man were a prophet he would have known who and what kind of a woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner”

Everything Simon knows about religion and right-living is about keeping himself away from evil and impurity. Does that seem sensible to you?

Luke’s concern is to draw our attention to the contrast between the woman and Simon the Pharisee in their response to Jesus.

For Simon the Pharisee, sin creates a barrier, behind which, his security is his first priority. Everyone’s righteousness is their own responsibility and they will be held accountable. Forgiveness, when it comes, follows repentance.

For Jesus, sin creates an opportunity to reach out without the slightest concern for his own situation. Jesus tells Simon a little parable about forgiveness and the love that flows from it. Jesus makes it very clear that for him repentance follows forgiveness.

Then he turns back to the woman. Your sins are forgiven… Not only does Jesus claim to play God and forgive sins… but he forgives indiscriminately. It’s hard to say which is the more shocking. In his regime forgiveness creates repentance, and a new life of love. God does not wait for the righteous, God creates righteousness by reaching out.

His final word to the woman gets me thinking “Go in peace”. Go where? Fred Craddock says:

“The price of the woman’s way of life in the city has been removal from the very institutions that carried the resources to restore her. The one place where she is welcome is the street, among people like herself. What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners. The story screams the need for a church, not just any church but one that says, ‘You are welcome here’.”

 

Interesting thing is Luke goes on to insert a little summary of Jesus ministry in which he highlights the key roles played by women… perhaps a sign of the community this prostitute needed.

We have put ourself in Jesus shoes today. And the outcome, if we are honest, is the realization that we are very different from Jesus. Our Galatians reading suggests that the solution is something like Jesus getting into our shoes.

Gal 2: 19b-20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God.

 

The ‘me’ who is afraid of embarrassment, the ‘me’ who would do nearly anything to avoid a stoning, has been crucified with Christ. That ‘me’ doesn’t live here anymore, says Paul (in faith and hope). ‘It’s no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God.’ Jesus animates me!

What would it mean to be ‘possessed’ or animated by Jesus, to be so spiritually reshaped that this dangerous boundary crosser Jesus of Nazareth starts to walk in your shoes? Would it mean that you lose track of your own risk because all that matters is the life, the fullness of life, of the person in front of you?

If that’s what it means to be a Christian then we are all hypocrites for the most part… but hypocrites in hope and trust. Animated by Jesus and yet constantly finding ourselves alongside that grateful prostitute, just like her.

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