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CENTRE STAGE 2 SAM 11:26-12:10,13-15; LUKE 7:36-8.3

I wonder what you would say was the best thing you ever did in your life? Perhaps marry your spouse followed very closely by having children. That’s all very well for many of us who have had such privileges but for others it might be a very different story. Some whose marriages or other intimate relationships have come unstuck may say it was the worst thing they ever did (marry, I mean, not have their children!) Of course, it may be other things – a career choice or success; moving somewhere, or some other personal achievement like a memorable trip or a spectacular charity action. Spare thoughts for those who feel that their life looks nothing like that and it just seems to have gone from one disaster to the next. Health has broken down, jobs have dried up, family has fallen apart, age has taken its toll perhaps physically or mentally. We live in a culture where success is celebrated to such an extent that anything less can make us feel a failure. Even those who think of themselves as ordinary can have inferiority complex! It is also possible to fall spectacularly from public grace.

Success and failure
You could say that King David was both a spectacular success and an abysmal failure. He had proven a great king, in fact looked back on by the Jews as a model king – the best of times in the Kingdom of Israel. But as we know, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. He wanted another man’s wife and plotted to get her, a plot which included arranging for her husband to be bumped off in the heat of battle. It wasn’t a bad cover-up if it all worked. But his most loyal supporter and fiercest critic was the prophet Nathan. He was a loyal supporter. When David wanted to build a temple in Jerusalem Nathan’s gut response was, “Go for it!” But now Nathan had to confront David with his theft of another man’s wife and taking a life in order to achieve it. Like Jesus with Simon the Pharisee, Nathan puts his point across effectively with a parable – a story that makes you think. David’s sense of justice was keen where it judged others’ actions. His reaction about the bully who stole a poor neighbour’s lamb and the way Nathan was able to turn back onto David is one of the most dramatic moments in the OT: “You are that man!”

If this man were a prophet
Simon the Pharisee was in two minds about Jesus – at least before he heard the parable that Jesus told him. You can tell he was ambivalent because of the contradictory ways in which he treated Jesus. On the one hand, he wanted to entertain someone who was obviously making an impact on the public. The Pharisees get a bad press in the Bible but they were trying to find ways of being good Jews that had grown out of the failure of the Exile. They might have gone overboard on minute regulations, but they were the ones behind the idea of a local meeting house to study the scriptures and offer prayers. We get the whole idea of church from the idea of synagogue. So Simon wanted to give Jesus some credit and perhaps looked forward to a theological debate with him. But he had not extended the customary hospitality to Jesus when his guest arrived: foot-washing, a formal and proper greeting kiss and something to refresh the face. These things were all provided for guests who came hot and sweaty in a Mediterranean climate to share a meal. Perhaps Simon felt he needed to keep some distance from Jesus whilst trying to give him space – maybe he had an eye on his public standing. But he was not prepared either for Jesus’ reaction to him nor the package deal that Jesus brought with him. Simon had not reckoned with what kind of prophet Jesus was.

She has not stopped
The package that came with Jesus was his compassion which knew no boundaries. Middle eastern houses were much more open in Jesus’ culture than our closed, private and heated spaces. There was a great deal of coming and going when a formal, extended meal was on – the kind that Simon invited Jesus to. The courtyard was open to the street and that’s when a woman, whom Luke describes as a sinner, found her way to Jesus and started behaving in a way which seemed bizarre, even to Simon and his guests. She had not let anything stop her coming to Jesus, and then had not stopped showing her devotion to him. Simon’s response is uncovered. Perhaps his thoughts were only semi-private as somehow Jesus knew what he was thinking. Didn’t his guest realise that a)this woman is unclean because of her way of life and b) she is making him – and thereby us also – unclean touching him. If he really were the prophet that he thinks he is, then he wouldn’t let this go on!
Story that reveals
Like Nathan the prophet before him, this prophet-rabbi, prophet- teacher tells a parable that has the power to unmask those who hear it. Two men owed money, one ten times as much as the other. As debtors they were in a vulnerable position – there were nothing like consumer protection laws in those days or a financial services authority. They were entirely dependent on their creditor’s good will when it turned out neither could repay. They were both fortunate enough to have their debts written off regardless of the size. “Which would love him more?” asks Jesus. In a way Jesus is inviting Simon to continue with his habit of judging people. Unlike David who is quick to accept his guilt, Simon is grudging. “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” Jesus’ response is quick and cuts right to the heart of the matter. “Being judgmental about people seems to be a habit of yours,” might be one way of interpreting Jesus’ response to Simon. He had mixed motives for inviting Jesus in the first place, judging him not worthy of the normal provisions of hospitality. He had judged rightly about the debtors in the parable but had failed to make any connection with how he should judge the woman. She is like the debtor who knows she is entirely dependent on God’s good will and grace. Can’t you see that her response to me is a sign that her attitude to God is just right? But Simon simply sees her as a source of uncleanness and not worthy to have any connection to them or to his half-esteemed guest. She is a number, a thing, simply a sinner. Jesus’ conclusion is sarcastic in one sense: “I suppose if you’ve not got much to be forgiven then you don’t really need to love God very much!”

Your faith has saved you.
The muttered grumblings continue. “Who is this who has the audacity to tell this sinner that she is forgiven?” In a sense Luke is asking us to ask the same question, but with a different feeling behind it. Who indeed is this who responds to Simon and the sinful woman in such completely different ways? What are you to make of him? How do you judge him? Luke, as do the other gospel writers, is gradually leading us to a conclusion about Jesus and who he really is. In this particular situation the answer might be: he is one who judges no-one unless they themselves are judgemental. He is one whose prophetic sharpness and insight comes down heavily on the self-righteous and sets the lowly free.

Those who show faith in Jesus, who stop at nothing to give of themselves to him, go away forgiven and healed. Those who respond to Jesus lavishly come away realising they have just been given the greatest gift ever: the gift of eternal life. This is one who delights in lifting up the lowliest of the low and sending the rich away empty – to borrow the words from the lips of Mary near the beginning of Luke’s gospel. As well as having to make a living from a sinful way of life (Luke doesn’t specify and we needn’t either), the one who showed such grateful devotion to Jesus was a woman. Luke is specially at pains throughout his gospel to show how God was lifting up the lowly in and through Jesus. Luke takes the opportunity to list the other women, low and high, who served Jesus in different and practical ways. They were just as important and significant as the male disciples who followed him. Mary Magdalene seemed to have had mental health problems; Joanna was the wife of a highly placed civil servant; Susanna we don’t know much about apart from her standing as a named example of the other women who supported Jesus from their own means.

So what is the best thing you ever did in your life? Perhaps this unnamed woman would have said: overcome all the barriers and show Jesus how much he meant to me. She made a costly offering but it was a sign of paying Jesus proper attention. The Pharisees were known for taking the tithe laws to the nth degree. 10% of everything was set aside for God. But if their hearts weren’t in it, Jesus came with the message that God wasn’t interested. This woman gave far more than a 10th but even the costly perfume didn’t match the way in which she poured her heart out for Jesus. Where would we find ourselves in this scene? What kind of attention do we pay Jesus? I admit it finds me out. Last week in an evening service I went to we were all invited to spend 8 minutes in quiet chatting with God. I tell you, it did me so much good – and prayer is supposed to be part of what I am called to do a lot! A small tithe of our precious commodity which is time offered to God is like pouring out costly perfume over the feet of Jesus. Pay attention to God for 10 minutes each day and he will give his full attention to you the whole of your life. That’s the best thing you could ever do with your life!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith