This sermon was delivered on June 16, 2013, at Wallace UMC.
Common English Bible (CEB)
36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. 37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. 38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. 39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.
40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, speak,” he said.
41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work.[a] The other owed enough money for fifty.[b] 42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. 47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
8 Soon afterward, Jesus traveled through the cities and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. The Twelve were with him, 2 along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out), 3 Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.
Over the past few years, probably starting about 10 years or so ago, there has been a trend that many people use now, for many reasons. It’s called a flash mob. A flash mob is when a group of people suddenly assemble in a public place and perform some kind of unusual or unexpected act as a group, and then quickly disperse. The purposes of this can vary from group to group; in some cases it’s an artistic expression, in others a political agenda, for others it’s simply for entertainment. The idea, though, is to spontaneously interrupt the way things are with the way things might be, or could be—something that can be both disturbing and delighting at the same time.
Some of the more prominent ones come to mind. I’ve heard of one where a mob decided, in the middle of a busy train station, to suddenly just freeze in position for about 5 minutes, and then resume movement. People were confused, to say the least; why did about a hundred people just suddenly stop moving, freezing in place? Something strange happened in the middle of an otherwise normal day, and people noticed. That’s entirely the point of a flash mob, to point something out as ordinary and in some way make it extraordinary.
Perhaps my favorite one, though, was a few years ago, where people in a crowded mall food court around the holidays had their lunches interrupted first by a single woman beginning to sing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Then, she was joined by a single man. As the song progressed, more and more people began singing, until the entire food court became a gigantic choir. Song swirled around the room, a room that had just minutes before been a thoroughly unremarkable space. In that moment, in that time, something unexpected, something holy, broke into what was moments before completely average and mundane. God broke into the lives of people who weren’t expecting it. Some were overjoyed, others were disturbed. What matters is that people reacted.
This is precisely where I want to home in on today; how do we react to the unexpected presence of God? God has a remarkable habit of doing completely unexpected things at thoroughly mundane times. Surprise is one of God’s favorite modes of action, really. God will show up at a house unannounced and tell the 90 year old owner that he and his wife will have a son. God will go out into the backwoods and find the 7th son of a shepherd and make him a king. God will take a farmer and vinedresser and send him to Jerusalem to make him a prophet. God will take a violent persecutor of faith and turn him into an apostle while he’s just walking down the road. God loves to surprise people. People, however, don’t often take God’s beautiful surprises very well at all.
People in general tend to like things to be boring. You may say to yourself, “Grant, I hate things being boring! I like to be surprised! I like the little wonderful exciting things of life!” To that, I say, no you don’t. Not really. Neither do I. We like surprises when we benefit from the surprise—and that’s not often how surprises work. We might like a surprise birthday party, or a surprise letter in the mail from an old friend, but most surprises aren’t like that. That’s a crucial distinction. Surprises, in and of themselves, disrupt the order of things, and remind us that we really aren’t in all that much control of our lives. A far more common surprise is waking up in the middle of the night to find your toilet overflowing. Or getting a call from the bank saying you overdrew your account when you had been keeping a very close eye on your money. Or going to the doctor for a routine checkup and finding out that there may be something more going on in your body than maybe you might realize, and there will be additional testing for something very serious. So I will say again, we don’t necessarily like surprises—just the surprises that benefit us, or ones were perhaps expecting. That’s not usually the kind of surprise that God works with, and that’s not the kind of surprise we actually look forward to in the Christian life. It sure as heck wasn’t something old Simon the Pharisee was looking forward to when he invited Jesus to dinner.
This dinner in Luke was, I’m sure, not meant to be a very surprising event at all. It was a party, held by a community bigwig, a Pharisee, a learned man in a time when education wasn’t necessarily available to a lot of people. The key thing to remember though, at this time, if you were educated, you were more than likely more financially affluent than others—in essence, you were rich. He’s holding a dinner party at his house, another fairly big expense at the time, or at any time for that matter. There were, in all honesty, probably quite a few big-name community figures there at this party, and because Jesus at this time was probably at his most famous point in his career, the invitation was offered to him as well, a choice made by the Pharisee for maybe no other reason than to cash in on Jesus’s celebrity. Given Jesus’s well known criticism of the Pharisee order, though, it probably was more of a social obligation to invite him rather than anything out of personal affection. A big name religious scholar is in town, and you yourself fancy as a religious enthusiast, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to have him at your party, if for nothing else but to start conversation. However, it wouldn’t be perhaps in your best interest to be too close to him; it might appear as if you endorse his words, something a political figure may not find it in their best interest to do. So Simon the Pharisee kept his distance. It may have not been the hospitable thing to do, but it was definitely what he felt he needed to protect himself. To keep things under control. To make sure there were no surprises, no unexpected incriminating things going on.
Right on cue, the unexpected happens.
God breaks in, and things go a very different way than planned. A woman shows up, a woman with a reputation, what it might be we cannot say because the text is unclear. What we do know is that this woman is notorious for something sinful, and that certainly doesn’t sit well with Simon. Before he can object though, she comes into the house and interrupts the party. She makes a beeline for Jesus. Out from this unexpected woman comes something even more unexpected: an extravagant act of worship. She is crying at the feet of Jesus. Her tears gush out, and fall onto the feet of Jesus. She washes his feet in her tears, scrubs them with her own hair. Out of nowhere, she produces a jar of fine perfume—expensive, extravagant, unexpected—and rubs the oil on Jesus. She shows her love to Jesus in a way that is in the eyes of finer society uncouth, perhaps even obscene. It certainly is not the way that this evening was supposed to go. She was a surprise, and for the Pharisee, she was not a good one.
That said, though she might be unexpected, this might work for his favor, Simon thinks. As the bearer of the brunt of Jesus’s prophetic criticism, this might be a perfect opportunity to discredit Jesus as a religious authority. Here he was, being touched, nay, bathed, worshiped by a notoriously sinful woman. Here is Jesus in a moment of pure scandal. Surely, the Pharisee wasn’t going to let this go without comment—and he didn’t. Indeed, he calls the entirety of Jesus’s ministry and authority into question because of it. If Jesus is supposed to be this great prophet, why doesn’t he know this woman, and why is he letting her touch him in the way that he is?
Jesus, of course, had a feeling it would go this way, and so he explains the situation away with this little parable of the debtors, one with a great amount of debt and one with lesser. The point of it all, as the Pharisee rightly guesses, is that the one with the greater amount of debt forgiven is more grateful than the one with lesser debt. Simple economics, simple lesson in gratitude. I imagine though that the Pharisee would have had no patience for this kind of teaching. He just caught a famous man in a scandalous situation with a known sinner, and Jesus is giving a lesson in economics? What is the deal? What is the point?
Jesus, not so subtly, gets to the point, right when the Pharisee had lost patience with him. Turns out, Jesus had lost patience with the Pharisee from the get-go. The moment Jesus walked into the party, he was not given any of the conventional acts of hospitality that would be expected by a host. There was no bowl offered to wash his feet. There was no act of greeting or welcome. There was nothing from Simon that indicated that any kind of respect was given to him, not even as a famous public figure, but even just basic decency and hospitality. That this woman would come in unannounced and shower Jesus with not only love, not only respect, but with a spontaneous, unexpected act of worship indeed exposed the Pharisee’s own lack of compassion and grace. The point for Jesus, and for us, is that for those who have been forgiven for a great deal of sin and dejection, they are all the more willing to show their love to others. For those who have no perceived need for forgiveness, there would be no perceived need to act like a gracious person.
I think the greater lesson for us though is in the act of this spontaneous, unexpected worship that erupts from seemingly out of nowhere. Like a flash mob of one, this woman breaks into the scene and showers Jesus with praise and with adoration. Like the spontaneous choir in the dining hall, something fairly ordinary and mundane as a dinner party became a place where the unexpected holiness of God broke in, and exposed the reality that with something so simple and yet so radical, God in all of God’s glory can be made more visible to us, even though we may think God might not be all that much involved in it.
The truth of it is, it’s in these dull, every day, mundane moments that God is all the more present. It’s so easy for us to go through life and not even notice the reality that we are children of God living in God’s world, and that though we may not even give a second though to it, God is present with us always. This scripture exposes us and convicts us of not recognizing God’s presence with us even in the average, boring points of life. God is not merely present with us on Sunday morning when we gather together for church. God is with us, be it on a mountaintop or be it in the doldrums of life. God is present, and God every once in a while will make something extraordinary happen, will grab your attention, and remind you that there is so much more to life than what we might perceive.
We are a people who have been forgiven much—though we may not recognize it. The danger is living like we aren’t forgiven much. It’s on you to remember that you are forgiven, and in that forgiveness, you’ve been given the opportunity to love like it. Forgiveness, gratitude, and worship all go hand in hand.
I want to encourage you to keep this in mind. Though it may be an average, uninteresting, maybe even boring time in your life, always remember that God is present, and in recognizing that presence of God, you are given an opportunity to worship as well. In forgiveness, we respond with love, and that has far more impact on this world when it may not be expected. In truth, an act of unexpected worship can truly change the world, even if it’s just for a moment, a brief instant. Take time to recognize that God is always present, and worship is not constrained to just an hour on Sunday. Trust me, if you forget that; don’t be surprised when God makes an unexpected arrival. Amen.