Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thank You (Luke 7.37-50)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
November 21, 2010
Some Music Used 
Good to me (Craig Musseau)
Choir - Look at the World (Rutter)
Now Thank We All our God (arr. R. Austell)
Thank You
Texts: Luke7:37-50

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today is the third Sunday in a row that we have looked at this same text and story. We looked at the first three verses of chapter eight to talk about the meaning of Christian stewardship. We looked at the actions of the woman in the story last week and saw a vivid, living picture of consecration – setting aside one’s self materially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually for God’s purpose and presence. And we return to the same story one more time today to look at the theme of thankfulness, mindful that many of us will gather with family or friends this week, and hopeful that all of us will take time to give thanks to God for our many blessings.

Prophet, Teacher, and More

While I want to focus on Jesus’ parable in verses 41-43 today, it is important to note the layers of things going on in the larger context. So let me mention those and then we will return to the specific teaching of that parable.

Remember that the host at this dinner party is Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader who has invited Jesus over for a public meal, presumably to either show him off or show him up to other religious leaders and to other listeners-in. I noted last week that this particular type of dinner party, characterized by the reclining-style eating and the open house was designed so that people could listen in to the table conversation without being invited guests. So it was that the woman was able to enter the party.

Based on Simon addressing Jesus several times as ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher,’ we understand that Jesus was at least viewed as that. Following on the public ministry of John the Baptist as a latter-day prophet (see earlier in chapter seven), and Simon’s interior or under-the-breath thoughts to himself, there was some talk or speculation about Jesus being a prophet. Certainly later, and maybe even this early, there was also talk about him being more – a king or even the Messiah. This is too early in Jesus’ public ministry for all that to have developed fully, but there was certainly a let’s-check-him-out aspect to this dinner party.

I mention all that to highlight that, over the course of the dinner, Jesus demonstrated just who he was with respect to all those possibilities. Let me explain.

Simon had invited Jesus to dinner as Rabbi or Teacher. The expectation would have been that they dialog about the Scripture or other theological matters, and those present could see for themselves what kind of teacher Jesus was.

In verse 39, we are privy to Simon’s thoughts or mutterings that if Jesus were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this crying mess was. Last week I mentioned the irony that Jesus did prove himself to be a prophet (or more!) because not only did he read the situation correctly, and know precisely who the woman was, but he also read Simon’s heart and thoughts and responded to them, though they are described in verse 39 as being said “to himself.” By the time Jesus was done, he had clearly demonstrated himself teacher and prophet.

But he was even more. At the end of the text, in verses 48-50, he forgives the woman’s sins, tells her that her faith has saved her, and tells her to go in peace. Here he is at least assuming the role of priest, and in fact is doing far more in forgiving sin – he is claiming to be God.

In the broader narrative of God’s plan, Jesus’ identity, and the unfolding story, this passage plays a major role in describing and defining early on who Jesus said and demonstrated himself to be: far more than a teacher.

That’s not the point of this sermon or the parable he told, but it is worth highlighting. Now, given all Jesus said and showed himself to be, let’s take all the more seriously his teaching in this text.

Not Missing the Point

If you’ll remember, I’ve talked before about parables being a certain art or story-form. While they are intended to make a serious and spiritual point, they are somewhat similar in form to the modern joke in that they have a “punch line” that creates a kind of ‘gotcha’ or ‘aha’ moment that makes the point all the more memorable and powerful. So let’s look out for that as we look at this parable.

The parable starts off simply enough: there are two people that owe a debt, and one’s debt was ten times as great as the other. For what it’s worth, even the smaller debt was significant. With a denarius equivalent to one day’s wage, 50 would be about ten weeks’ wages. Let’s get that out of ancient coinage. At a ballpark minimum today of $10/hour times 40 hours, ten weeks’ worth would be $4000. Not impossible, but not insignificant if you’re only making $400/week. Now ten times that is $40,000… on the same wages. Get it?

Now here’s the really insightful part of this parable. If you had two minimum wage earning friends and one had a $4000 credit card debt and another owed someone $40,000, what would you think? Wouldn’t be easy to judge the one with the big debt a little? What in the world did they do wrong to incur that kind of debt? And you might even have more debt than the $4000. Here’s one part of what is so insightful: if you were at the dinner party, without knowing the how’s and why’s of the Pharisee’s life or the woman’s life, it would be easy to assume that he was basically a “good guy” and she was a “bad girl.” Just look at the differences between them!

Now here’s where Jesus sets up the punch line. What if the one to whom they owed the debt graciously forgave them both? That was the brow-raising setup… sure, someone could forgive a typical debt for a “good guy.” It would be great, but not unthinkable. And how easy it would be to give the good guy some credit. Maybe the debt-forgiveness was partly in response to some good quality or thing he had done. It would be so easy for Simon to fit into that character. But the $400,000 debt? Who does that? No one could possibly deserve that kind of forgiveness. Now, I realize Jesus said the debt was “graciously” forgiven, but don’t we all just blow right past the idea of the free gift of grace? That’s why this parable so quickly gets to the heart of what’s going on at this dinner party. Simon has judged the relative merits and shortcomings of himself and this woman and, using the simplest of stories, Jesus gets right through the surface to the attitudes and motives underneath.

But here’s the punch line – here’s where all these dynamics, in and outside the story, come into focus. Jesus comes out of the parable and asks Simon, “So which of them will love him more?” Well the answer is obvious – the one with the greater debt, which is the answer Simon gives. But here’s the twist. The “normal debt good guy” may not even recognize the graciousness of the gift at all. Certainly, that’s the point Jesus goes on to make in real life. Simon has not shown him the kind of hospitality Jesus is worth. Rather, the focus of the evening really has been on Simon himself – in being seen hosting this up-and-coming Rabbi. And Simon has not recognized – and worse, judged – the woman’s correct show of appreciation and love.

Finally, as part of the punch line, notice Jesus’ word choice. You would expect, “Which one of the debtors was more grateful?” But Jesus asked which one LOVED him more. Think about that. What an odd and surprising ending to what sounds like a simple story. That’s the punch line and the twist. Not only is it unusual that such a large debt might be forgiven, with no possible trade-off with “deserving it,” but that kind of forgiveness results not just in gratitude, but in love.

In the shortest of stories, Jesus has moved – or challenged Simon to move – from judging another to recognizing love of God in another.

What is the Relationship between Debt, Forgiveness, and Love?

Finally, I would press a little bit more deeply into that punch line. The point for us is not just that those who have more to forgive will love God more. Sometimes they won’t, if they don’t recognize that God loves them. There is not an automatic link between spiritual (or any) poverty and love of God. In fact, there is a very specific link – Jesus. And Jesus is precisely who was in the middle of the story unfolding in Simon the Pharisee’s house.

The point is that in order to truly love God, we must first recognize our spiritual need – our debt – whether great or small. And honestly, we all need to see how great it is – there is only thinking it is small.

Second, when we hear of God’s gracious love and forgiveness, we must recognize it for what it is, no strings attached, profound and deep mercy and love, extended uniquely and specifically through Jesus Christ.

And the rest will follow! We don’t have to work to conjure up gratitude or love at that point. Rather, it is not recognizing our debt that gets in the way of gratitude and love. Or it is thinking that our debt is small and we are somehow deserving that makes us miss the kind of gratitude and love Jesus describes.

The questions I asked last week had to do with who we are before Jesus, and under what terms we have welcomed Jesus into “our house.” It is finally not about us at all, but about Jesus – who he is and what he has done.

If we can hear that and see ourselves truly and honestly with respect to our sin-debt, God’s grace, and Jesus’ work, then we will be left speaking from the position of the one Jesus praises in this story:

From those who know the debt and to the one who has forgiven it: thank you, Lord; we love you, Lord.

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