06.12.2016 Preaching Text: “[Jesus] said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” (Luke 7:50)
Our story from Luke this morning certainly is a colorful one. The town harlot crashes a dinner party hosted by one of society’s high profile muckety-mucks, a Pharisee. The reason she does so is that she wants to approach a particular guest, Jesus, to praise and honor him.
In so doing she makes a complete spectacle of herself. She “bathes” Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them away with her wild, fallen hair! She even kisses his feet and anoints them with expensive perfume! One can easily imagine the cacophony of tut-tutting among the high society party-goers.
The Pharisee is offended in particular. Doesn’t Jesus know what kind of woman this is? Has he no shame? And he calls himself a prophet of God? Scandalous! And how many of us, observing such an outrage, would disagree?
But then Jesus throws him, and us, a curveball, by way of an illustration. If two men owe a creditor money, one owing 500 denarii and the other only 50, which of the two ought to be most grateful for the cancellation of his debt?
Clearly the woman is understood to be a dishonorable sinner. Her “debts,” in other words, are great. But so is her gratitude. She humbles, even humiliates, herself before the Pharisee’s well-heeled, morally up-standing guests. Such takes immense courage and humility.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is upbraided for showing Jesus very little in the way of hospitality. He offers nothing of what the disgraced woman gives in abundance.
The message is clear. Those who have the most to be forgiven for are often those most grateful when forgiveness is offered. Of course, the opposite is also true. Those who seem to have it “all together” often fail to see just how much they are in need of forgiveness, so don’t seek it.
There’s another way to look at this as well. Those who possess much in this life often fail to appreciate what they have. Put slightly differently, those whom God has blessed may actually have less gratitude than those who have nothing!
Here a woman with little in the way of social or economic capital proves herself to be far more grateful than the man who has everything.
One reason may be that those of certain social and economic rank often believe themselves to have earned all they possess – money, position, education, a stable family even. Such a perspective leaves God out of the equation.
Not so with those who depend on God for life’s security, comfort, and strength. If we think all we have is due to our own efforts, we’re less likely to be grateful. For those who cannot depend on earthly supports and comforts, such help is far more readily acknowledged and sought.
Yet another interpretation of this story, a variation of which is found in Matthew 26 and John 12, has to do with the sheer waste of expensive perfume when it could have been sold and given to the poor (the latter account places these words in the mouth of none other than Judas Iscariot!).
This approach commits a fundamental error about the meaning of the Christian life. Material blessings, to wit, cannot overcome or solve humanity’s greatest challenge. For it is the heart, the soul, which is broken and in need of healing. Material “progress,” while solving some of life’s problems (though often creating others), cannot wholly satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.
Better social planning, jobs, security, technological advances, diminished poverty, improved housing, and a cleaner environment, to name but a few, are things we all wish for. I would add to this list the desire for justice and a secure peace. In all these, however, a far deeper question remains unanswered: do such admitted goods truly satisfy the human soul?
From a Christian point of view, our confidence in materialistic progress fails to adequately account for the fact that we are spiritual beings. The problem with “natural man,” in other words, is that we are destined for a “supernatural” ending. This life is not all there is, our soul is eternal, and one day we shall stand in the presence of our divine Maker.
At such a moment, will our lives reflect God’s holiness? Or will our hearts be focused still on the things of this world? Will our affinity be shown to be one born of God or on the lesser things of this world?
Today we had the joy of witnessing the baptism of Susan and Emerson Smith. Before this font we cannot but help consider the vast expanse of human life stretching before them. At such times we are granted the opportunity to contemplate anew the meaning of life.
The hopes and dreams we hold for these two precious children are called forth. What exactly do we wish for them? How specifically do we hope their lives will turn out? In short, what do we want them to know and experience of life?
The Christian answer to these questions boils down to one simple fact. The purpose of the Christian life is to take what God has given and to return it, multiplied, back to God. We are to take the precious gift of this life and use it in ways that bring honor and goodness, in ways that glorify God. And when our earthly life is complete, we hope to stand before our Maker offering our very lives, a gift greater than at birth.
The irony, of course, is that if everybody chose to use their lives in this way, our world would be a far better place. It would be, in fact, a far better world than the one our social engineering feverishly seeks to build.
For with hearts and souls focused on heavenly, godly purposes, we would necessarily build a far more generous and peaceful world than one achieved by even our greatest materialistic hopes and dreams.
When the woman bathes Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, she is showing us the truest expression of Christian sacrifice – she is offering herself completely, and at great personal expense, to the God who is not only the Giver of all that is, but its Sustainer and Redeemer. Hers is the quest for eternity itself.
My hope and dream for Susan and Emerson, therefore, is that they, too, might dedicate their lives to their Lord and Savior, and that their lives may prove to be a faithful quest in offering themselves completely to the Source of all that is, and ever shall be. Amen.