2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
All three of today’s scripture lessons present us with a rather complex knot in which are wound together the dynamics of forgiveness, gratitude, and morality. In both the story from II Samuel in which the Prophet Nathan confronts David and the gospel story in which the woman anoints the feet of Jesus the themes of sex and love are at least a prominent part of the background. The paragraph from Galatians that we heard in between these stories is the sharp attempt of Paul to place the center of our relationship with God in Christ, not in the morality of law-keeping.
Get ready for some surprises here. These three things taken together are likely to shatter what you imagine the purpose of Christian religion is—indeed perhaps the purpose of any religion—and quite possibly your self-understanding as well.
Let’s begin with the compelling masterpiece that is today’s Good News from Luke. To start off, it is a distinctly different story from a couple you might have heard not long ago in Lent and Holy Week. There are at least three different stories and four separate accounts of a woman anointing Jesus. Those in Matthew, Mark, and John take place not in Galilee, as today’s story does, but in Bethany, a little village not far from Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark place the anointing by an anonymous woman in the house of Simon who is not a Pharisee but a leper. In both their versions the woman anoints Jesus’ head, not his feet. In both stories, the onlookers—disciples in one case—fuss at the woman because she has wasted expensive ointment, which could more appropriately have been converted into cash for the poor. In both stories, Jesus takes the side of the woman saying that she has anointed his body beforehand for burial. John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. All of this takes place the week before the Passover during which time Jesus was crucified. The voice that objects to the profligate love of Mary is that of Judas Iscariot who was to betray Jesus. And Jesus’ response is an order to let Mary alone, to let her “keep it [the perfume] for the day of my burial.”
Luke’s story, as you can see, is very different from any of the others. Simon, a Pharisee, has invited Rabbi Jesus to his house for dinner. It is a particularly festive meal, because contrary to everyday custom, dinner guests are reclining at table on couches. In what seems to us a bizarre occurrence but which in those days was apparently common, a woman, probably one of many people hanging around the outside of the house peering in at the guests, comes into the house and starts what is clearly an extravagant show of affection for Jesus. The woman is a harlot. Everybody apparently knows this. Simon, somewhat surprisingly, does not upbraid the woman but is in fact scandalized that Jesus, reputed to be a prophet, apparently does not know who and what the woman is. He also reasons silently that if Jesus did know, he would certainly put a stop to it. Thus, Simon figures, this man is no prophet. Jesus in fact knows Simon’s thoughts. Perhaps they are not that hard to discern. At any rate, in the fashion of the day he poses a little riddle about the two debtors with greatly different debts, both forgiven. Who will love the more? When Simon says he supposes the one who was forgiven more, Jesus says that he has answered rightly.
Ah! The trap is laid. “Do you see this woman?” That is the real question. Simon not only does not see her as anything beyond a street harlot, nor does he see himself. And because he does not see his need for forgiveness, he has no earthly idea why one would carry on so in gratitude for forgiveness. How could he? Jesus contrasts the woman’s profligate outpouring of love with Simon’s rather reserved—to say the least—display of hospitality. Underneath is the issue of the way Jesus himself is treated. And that in turn reflects the way he is or is not understood to have anything to do with forgiveness. Luke does not tell us directly but suggests that something has transpired before between Jesus and the woman. Now the interesting thing, frequently ignored by readers and commentators, is that the woman is still a harlot. Nothing in the story or the text suggests otherwise. Surprise Number One. Most people would argue, along with Simon the Pharisee, that Jesus would in no way knowingly put up with an active prostitute cavorting with him in public in a scene that has obvious sexual overtones (think: feet and the letting down of one’s hair, an obvious sign of intimacy).
The question is whether Jesus has already forgiven the sins of the woman (which the story implies), or whether he forgives her sins after this display of love. It might seem of little importance, but the way we answer this question perhaps tells us something valuable about what forgiveness is. From the point of view of morality, the woman is clearly a sinner and thus an outsider. Yet Jesus has reached out to her, apparently not for the purpose of bringing her to the rank and status of insider, but simply to affirm her. His pronouncement at the end of the story that her faith has saved her most likely means that her faith has not been nullified by her work as a prostitute. And “saved” means to be made whole, to be made right, to be justified, not “saved from damnation” the way it later became distorted to mean.
Now the faith that justifies intersects with Paul’s point to the Galatians. Like Simon, Paul had been a Pharisee. And Pharisees were deeply committed to keeping the Torah, the Law, as meticulously as possible. But Paul’s transformation into a follower of Christ had brought him to understand that it is not keeping the Law that makes us right with God, saves us, makes us whole. Rather, it is faith in Christ—putting our whole trust in Christ’s grace and love—that justifies us, makes us “just” or “right” with God. He even goes so far as to say that he has been crucified with Christ. He is obviously talking about a mystical experience, but it has very practical outcomes. It is no longer “Paul” who lives, but Christ who lives in him.
What if the woman that came into Simon’s house were to have said that? What would it have meant for her? It might have meant that she had almost literally been melted by the love of Jesus to the point that her whole life took on a different meaning. Did she cease working as a prostitute, if that is what she was? Maybe. But it possibly would have meant that what mattered to her was not what she did or who she was but rather that her whole life might now be overflowing with the kind of love that Christ showed her, the sort of acceptance that she experienced from him. Might it have been that in all of her relationships she now was as extravagantly loving to everyone, pimp and client and competitor and alienated family member, as she was towards the Christ who loved her and would give himself for her? Do you suppose that the fundamental change in her was that rather than selling love she now broke herself open as if she were a very alabaster jar, pouring herself out without reservation to accept others as she herself had been accepted and affirmed?
Be honest. What bothers us about all this is that, as good as it sounds, it veers perilously towards what Paul himself saw, namely the likelihood that Christ is an agent of sin! On some level we fear that if God and his Christ are not moral police officers either pulling us from immorality or punishing us for willfully staying in it, somehow the whole system is going to capsize and we will find ourselves awash in corruption and savagery. Well, that is something to ponder all right. Where does morality fit in with all this? Is there any such thing as a moral imperative?
Listen to Nathan the prophet, whose story about a little pet lamb nailed David much as Jesus’ riddle grabbed Simon the Pharisee. “You are the man!” says Nathan. David’s sexual desire for Bathsheba had led him not only to commit adultery with her, in effect stealing her from her husband Uriah. And when Uriah foiled the plan, David had him killed. Yes you are the man, David. And there are consequences. Sickness, death, sorrow, and ultimately the division of your own family will result from what you have done. “I have sinned,” David admits. Before David’s story ends, we see unfolding layer by layer the very human, flawed character that was indeed Israel’s hero and model king. Through it all, however, he was a man “after God’s own heart.” He was not the darling of God because he was morally upright, or because he was talented, or because he was successful, or any of those things. He simply was David. We don’t need to justify David. He needs no justification. And this is the wonderful and mysterious thing that Paul finally sees: it is not by keeping the Law even perfectly that makes us right with God. We are forgiven and free simply because God loves us lavishly.
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote in The Shaking of the Foundations, “…Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”* That is Good News to beat the band. Sure, there is accountability, suffering, even despair at various points along the way. And there is plenty of room and reason for confession. But the overwhelming Word of God is not a word of condemnation, but a word of consolation. And it is, “You are accepted. I love you.” Can you imagine a response to that Good News that does not begin with profound gratitude? Can you think of anything you want to do other than kick up your heels and dance as you have never danced before, belt out a song or a cheer, hug someone, or maybe even take a prized bottle of something precious and break it open and pour it out like all the tears of joy your soul could squeeze out of you, and hug and kiss the one who loves you so?
The community of Jesus has no better model than the harlot in Simon’s house as to how to respond to God’s grace. Because she does exactly what Jesus himself does: she pours herself out without counting the cost. It is, in the end, a far better way to live than the pinched and narrow morality of Simon the Pharisee. And only those who have been forgiven much will ever understand why.
* Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), 163.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013