The Fellowship of Forgiven Debtors (a sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

When I was a teenager I remember hearing my dad say that he’d like to have a sign on the door of his church that said ‘This Church is for Sinners Only’. I think some people were shocked and surprised when they heard him say that; it sounds so strange and counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You tend to think of the church as a place where we learn not to sin, not as a place for sinners. But to Dad, these words were an important reminder of the gospel of grace, which tells us that we all fall short of God’s will for us – we’re all sinners, in other words, whether we should be or not – but that God reaches out to us in love whatever we’ve done, and invites us to turn to him and be forgiven.

This reminds me of the famous words of John Newton’s well-known hymn:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound),
that saved a wretch like me!’

To John Newton, this was his own story. He had spent the early years of his life as a sailor and a slave trader. He had lived in complete disregard for God’s commandments, not only abandoning his own faith but also trying to undermine the faith of others. But gradually the Gospel message had broken into his life. A two-week long storm at sea became the catalyst for the beginning of his conversion, and eventually in his late thirties he became a Church of England minister and a preacher of the very Gospel he had once tried to discredit. He felt that, like Saint Paul, he had been ‘the chief of sinners’, but God in his grace had forgiven him and made him a preacher of the Gospel to others.

Newton never forgot his early life of sin, and he never lost his sense of God’s continuing mercy toward him, despite his many failings. This gave him a tender attitude toward the sins and failings of others. He often said that when you know how much God has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you every day, you can’t help having the same forgiving attitude toward the people around you.

Our Gospel reading today has this same emphasis. We read that one of the Pharisees, named Simon, invited Jesus for a meal at his house. Dinner parties like this were very public. What we know today as ‘private life’ didn’t exist in those days; doors were left open all the time during the day and people wandered in and out at will. The dining table would have been in a U-shape, with guests not seated on chairs or the floor, but reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hands to reach for food and eat. The couches would have been angled away from the table so that the feet of the guests would be behind them.

There was a strict etiquette about these formal meals. As each guest came in, the host would greet him with a kiss of peace. As the feet of the guests would be dirty and tired from the dusty roads, the host would ensure that water was provided and the servants would wash their feet. Olive oil might also be given to anoint the heads of the guests. These were the unwritten laws of hospitality; these were the ways the hosts would show respect and honour for their guests. Luke does not let us in on the secret yet, but later on in the story he will tell us that none of this had been done for Jesus. Simon had invited Jesus to this meal, but had then given him a public snub by not honouring him as he would an ordinary guest.

The NRSV translates verse 37 ‘And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…’ One commentator thinks this should be translated as ‘a woman who was known in the city as a sinner’. ‘Sinner’ here would have meant at least that she had lived a promiscuous life, if not that she was actually a prostitute.

We can read between the lines that this woman had already had an encounter with Jesus which had transformed her life. Verses 40-47 explain that a person who has been forgiven a huge number of sins will respond to this forgiveness with great love. Jesus explains the woman’s acts of love by the fact that she has been – past tense – forgiven a great many sins. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (v.47). It seems reasonable to infer that Jesus has already met this woman and has declared God’s forgiveness to her, perhaps even that very day; she has come to Simon’s party to say thank you to Jesus for all he has done for her.

The woman seems to have been temporarily deflected from her original purpose; we read that she ‘brought an alabaster jar of ointment’ (37) to anoint Jesus’ feet, but she does not immediately use it. She stands behind Jesus – remember that he is reclining on a couch with his feet extended away from the table. She is overcome with emotion and begins to weep, bathing his feet with tears, wiping them with her hair and only then anointing them with the ointment. In those days, this would have been scandalous behaviour. Women in Israel at that time kept their hair covered and only let it down in the presence of their husbands in their own bedrooms. To let down your hair in public and use it to wipe the feet of a man you were not married to was shocking; in the eyes of the people at the feast, this woman would have been acting like a prostitute with one of her clients.

This is certainly the way Simon the Pharisee interprets her actions. He even questions Jesus’ status as a prophet; a true prophet would know what kind of person this woman was! The unspoken inference is that if Jesus knew she was a prostitute he would not allow her to touch him or even be near him. Evil was seen as highly contagious; the only way for good and holy people to preserve themselves from evil was to avoid evil people altogether. The woman had come into Simon’s house like a contagious disease; it was Jesus’ duty as a prophet to rebuke her and send her away, and he was not doing so.

Note that Simon did not voice this opinion to Jesus; Luke tells us that he ‘said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v.39). Prophets know things other people don’t know, and they use that knowledge, in Simon’s view, to declare God’s judgement. However, Jesus is about to demonstrate to Simon that he is indeed a prophet. Simon has not spoken out loud, but Jesus knows what he is thinking! And he uses that knowledge to rebuke Simon, not the woman, and to invite him into a different way of seeing reality. Simon is wrong; Jesus knows ‘what kind of woman this is’. He knows that she’s made in the image of God, she’s a forgiven sinner overcome with gratitude for the grace of God, and in her gratitude she is expressing her love for Jesus, who has made it possible for her to be forgiven.

So Jesus tells the little parable of the two debtors; one owes the creditor five hundred denarii – that is, about eighteen months’ wages for an ordinary labourer – the other fifty. Neither of them can pay, so the creditor cancels the debts of both. Which one will love the creditor more? Simon can’t avoid the conclusion: the one who was forgiven the greater debt will feel the most love for the creditor.

There is more to this little story than meets the eye. Let me ask you this: do you think Simon sees himself as a debtor to God? Probably not! In his view, the woman is a sinner; he is not. And even if he is, he certainly doesn’t see himself as someone who ‘can’t pay’; he’ll work harder, make the right sacrifices and ritual actions, obey the laws, and in time he’ll pay what he owes. Jesus is inviting Simon to see himself as being on a level with this woman; they’re both sinners owing a debt to God, and neither of them can pay the debt. Simon’s debt may be small and the woman’s may be great, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both bankrupt! As someone once said, if you line up a bunch of swimmers on the coast of California and ask them to swim to Hawaii, it won’t matter in the long run whether some of them are better swimmers than the rest! Some may drown after a mile, some after thirty miles, but none of them are going to reach Hawaii!

But how can this be? How can Simon be a sinner? After all, he’s a Pharisee! He’s been circumcised, he’s kept the Sabbath, he gives tithes of all he earns, he carefully observes the food laws and keeps away from bad company! He is an upright man!

Yes, but Jesus says the heart of the law is the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And on that very day, in his own house, Simon has offended against the second commandment. He has not loved his neighbour as himself; he’s snubbed his guest by refusing to extend the traditional courtesies to him. He didn’t give Jesus the kiss of peace when he came into the house – which is as if Jesus had come into your home today, extended his hand in greeting to you, and you had stubbornly kept your hand at your side. He hadn’t provided water for the foot washing or oil for the anointing of the guest. In this way Simon has not loved his neighbour as he loved himself; he has not done to others as he would have them do to him. So he too is a sinner, and he too stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So do I. I may be a churchgoer; I may have been faithful to my marriage partner, I may never have killed anyone or stolen anything or cheated on my taxes. But have I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, with nothing held back? Have I loved my neighbour as myself? Of course not, not perfectly. These commands are the debt I owe to God. I have not kept them perfectly; therefore I too am a sinner.

This is the first way in which Jesus’ story challenges Simon’s worldview; like the woman, he is a debtor who cannot pay what he owes. Like her, he’s entirely dependent on the mercy of God if he’s ever going to receive eternal life.

The second way the story challenges his worldview is in his interpretation of the woman’s actions. No, Simon, this is not a prostitute trying to allure Jesus into an inappropriate sexual liaison. This is a woman in the grip of God’s grace. She had always assumed that her sins barred her from coming into the presence of God. But the grace of God had invaded her life, bringing her the free forgiveness she had never dared to hope for. Of course she wasn’t in command of her rational faculties! She was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who had forgiven her and to the man who had spoken that word of forgiveness! And of course her actions were open to misinterpretation – just like the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and the bystanders said, “These men are drunk!”

The story ends before Simon has a chance to respond. We don’t know what he said or did. Jesus is challenging him: this woman whom you dismiss as a sinner is in fact your sister in God. Like you, she was made in the image of God. Like you, she had a debt of sin she could not pay. God has forgiven her sins and accepted her. Will you also accept her, despite her reputation? Luke leaves the story incomplete to challenge you and me; we’re invited to supply the ending in our own lives.

Let me close with these two final words of application.

God knows everything about me. There are embarrassing stories about my life which I have been brave enough to tell some of you, but you can be absolutely sure that there are others I would never dare tell you. If they were broadcast on a screen in front of you all, I would hang my head in shame. We all have those stories. I know you have them, and you know I have them. And God knows them all.

How does God respond? He comes among us in Jesus as one of us; Jesus is the walking embodiment of God’s love for all people. But what do we do with him? Through our political and religious leaders, we reject him, scourge him, mock him and kill him on a cross.

What comes next in this story? If this church is not for sinners only, surely the next act is an act of revenge and judgement. But no: the Gospel tells us that God is a God who loves his enemies, and so Jesus’ response is to pray for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, he models the unconditional love of God for all people. It’s nothing to do with how deserving we are. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you more than you can ask or imagine, and nothing can change that.

Do you believe that? The woman in our story believed it. Jesus said to her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. He wants you to go in peace this morning too. No matter what that sin is which is troubling you so much, he wants you to bring it to him this morning, leave it at his cross, and dare to believe that it is forgiven. We can do that this morning as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The broken bread speaks to us of Jesus’ body broken on the cross; the wine poured out speaks to us of his blood shed for us. To come to the Lord’s Table is to come to the cross; we come with faith, we hold out our hands, and we eat and drink the forgiveness that God offers us.

And having received this free forgiveness, he wants us to look at each other with different eyes. Simon looked at this woman and saw a despicable sinner; Jesus looked at her and saw a woman made in God’s image, overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace.

What do you see as you look around the church this morning? Christian congregations are like families, and like any family we accumulate resentments. Also, we express our love for God in different ways, and some of those ways look a little strange to others in the congregation! But Jesus is calling us to learn to see each other with his eyes. C.S. Lewis reminds us that, next to the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes, the holiest thing we will look at this week is our neighbour, and we should treat him or her accordingly.

You and I are debtors who couldn’t pay our bills, and we have been freely forgiven. What should be our response? Delirious joy, of course! Who cares what other people think of us? We just want to thank this Jesus who has brought such love into our lives! And then our second response is to have a gentle attitude toward our fellow debtors who have also been forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. How many times do we pray that prayer without thinking about it? Now’s the time to think about what it means, and to ask God’s help so that we can live by it.

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Don’t Rest Your Hope on Human Leaders (a sermon on Psalm 146)

In today’s psalm we have my favourite verses for an election year, whether in Canada or the United States:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV).

Eugene Peterson has a lovely paraphrase of these verses in ‘The Message’:

‘Don’t put your life in the hands of experts, who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them’.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’. Oh, but we love to put our trust in princes! We’re so tired of the gang that was ruling before, and then along comes a fresh new leader, with a bright vision about how it’s all going to be different this time! ‘Make America great again!’ ‘Change you can believe in!’ ‘Sunny ways!’ The slogans are so predictable, the rhetoric is so exaggerated, and maybe for a brief, bright honeymoon period, we can actually persuade ourselves to believe them. But then the first mistakes are made, and the first evidence of human sinfulness appears, and eventually we sigh and think to ourselves, “I guess he’s just a human being, like the last guy”. He’s not the Messiah, and the kingdom of God is not going to come on earth as a result of his election victory.

Psalm 146 explains to us why this is the case, so let’s take a closer look. The psalm falls pretty clearly into three sections. We have a brief introduction in verses 1-2, and then in verses 3-4 we get the command not to trust in human rulers, and the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Finally, in verses 5-10, we switch our attention to the Lord, the one true God, and the reasons why it’s much, much better to hope in him. The psalm ends as it began, with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah!’ – ‘Praise the Lord!’

I want to focus today on the second and third sections of the psalm. So let’s look again at verses 3-4:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’

In these verses our poet gives us two reasons why it’s a bad idea to put your trust in princes, or human leaders of any kind. First, because they’re not God. They’d like to think they are, but when push comes to shove, these folks can’t deliver on their exaggerated promises.

Verse 3 says ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’. The phrase ‘in whom there is no help’ could also be translated ‘in whom there is no deliverance’. When the Bible uses the word ‘deliverance’, it doesn’t just mean ‘giving people a little bit of extra help so that they can get the job done’; it means ‘saving people from something that had them totally in its power’. Think of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, totally under the power of Pharaoh. God didn’t look at them and say, “Well, they’re almost strong enough to set themselves free, and if I just give them a tiny bit of extra help, they’ll be able to finish the job!” No – the situation was desperate, the slaves had absolutely no hope of ever getting free, and when God intervened, it was a complete surprise to everyone involved.

So for a prince or earthly leader to claim to be a ‘deliverer’ was a claim to be God – rather like the Roman Emperor in the time of Jesus, who had as one of his official titles the Greek word ‘soter’ – Saviour. And it did look as if old Caesar Augustus had a good claim to that title – after all, if someone was condemned to die, he could pardon them (although he rarely did!). But while the Roman emperors were sitting on their thrones congratulating themselves on how powerful they were, an unknown village carpenter in Galilee was setting out on a ministry that would touch the lives of millions of people around the world, and would change the course of world history for the next two millennia. And now, two thousand years later, we only have a historical interest in the Roman emperors – but over a billion people around the world call Jesus their ‘Saviour’ – their ‘Deliverer’.

So the human rulers can’t provide ultimate help because they’re not God. A second reason they can’t provide that help is because they won’t be around long enough. Verse 4 says, ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ – or, in the lovely translation in ‘The Message’, ‘when they die, their projects die with them’.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament tell the stories of the people of Israel and Judah from the time of King David’s son Solomon until the time of the Babylonian exile – a period of several hundred years. Have you ever read them? There are some good stories in them, but on the whole they make for pretty depressing reading. The authors have two standard ways of describing the kings of Israel and Judah: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Two sad truths make these books depressing reading: First, there are a lot more kings who ‘did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Second, even in the case of the kings who did what was right, the good they achieved didn’t last; they tended to be followed by a bad king who undid all the good they’d done.

In a modern democracy, leaders have an even shorter time to do the good they want to do: one election cycle, or maybe two or even three if they’re lucky! But even twelve years isn’t long enough to solve some of the most difficult problems we face as modern human beings, never mind eight, or four. And of course when governments are defeated, they tend to be defeated by people who disagree with the key parts of their program – so the chances are that a lot of the things they’ve tried to achieve are going to be reversed by the ones who follow them.

Verse 10 says, ‘The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations’. In ancient times people sometimes said ‘May the king live forever!’ but they probably didn’t actually want him to live forever – and whether they wanted him to live forever or not, he wasn’t going to! No, God is the only one for whom the words ‘for ever’ and ‘for all generations’ can properly be used. No one else is going to be around long enough to get the job done.

So we shouldn’t trust in princes or politicians because they aren’t God, and because they aren’t going to be around long enough. There is, of course, a third reason; it’s not one that’s specifically mentioned in this psalm, but it’s assumed throughout the Bible. It’s the fact that princes and politicians and human leaders are all sinners just like the rest of us. And let’s remember what the word ‘sin’ means in the Bible. It’s a happy coincidence that in English, the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. When I’m at the centre of my own life – when I’m being selfish and self-centred and acting as if I was god of my own world – then, in biblical terms, I’m living like a sinner. We all do it – some of us do it more than others – but there is no one who doesn’t do it at all.

We all know the old saying, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In other words, it’s very hard for ordinary human sinners to resist the temptation toward empire-building, feathering their own nests, and ruling for their own benefit. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it’s very hard. It certainly shouldn’t surprise us when we discover evidence of corruption; after all, how confident are you that you’d be able to resist the temptation, if you were in their shoes? How many people get angry at politicians for sins that are identical to ones they’ve committed themselves, except that they weren’t in positions of public power and authority when they committed them?

So ‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says our poet. Does that mean we shouldn’t honour our political leaders, or do our best to elect people of character, people who’ve had some success in resisting the temptation toward corruption and feathering their own nests? Of course not; it’s right for us to get involved in the political process and try to get the best possible candidates into office.

But we shouldn’t pin our hopes for making a better country, or a better world, on the shoulders of those people. That’s a burden they can’t bear. They aren’t God, they aren’t going to be around long enough, and they just don’t have the ability to be perfect! So our poet counsels us to look somewhere else – to look for a better and much more capable Deliverer. Look at verses 5-10:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!’

What is it that makes God a worthy object for our hope and our trust? Well, first of all, it’s God’s creative power: God is the one ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ (v.6). The presidents of the United States and of Russia probably still have it in their power to use their nuclear launch codes to destroy the earth, or at least to make it completely uninhabitable for thousands of years. Neither of them, however, has the power to create ‘heaven and earth’. With our present technology they’d be dead long before they’d even completed the journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own – never mind trying to create it in the first place. And there are billions of star systems, most of them unimaginable distances from the Earth, all of them completely out of reach of our tin-pot dictators and earthly leaders. But God in his wisdom has created them all, and he knows them all intimately.

But this great creator God is also a God who has a special concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. He ‘executes justice for the oppressed (and) gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ (vv.7-9, excerpts).

This is the story of the God of the Bible. He’s the God who went down to Egypt to deliver the oppressed slaves and bring them home into their own land. He’s the God who used a little shepherd boy to defeat the mighty soldier Goliath and set his people free from the Philistine oppressors. He’s the God who cared for the widow of Zarapheth and sent Elijah down to help her and her son make it through the drought. He’s the God who came among us in Jesus to set people free from the power of evil spirits, to give blind people their sight again, and to reach out to marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, enemy soldiers, and Galilean fishermen with weird northern accents!

The fantastic thing about this story is that not only does God care for the poor and the humble – he tends to use the poor and the humble to help them, too! His way of changing the world isn’t usually to win a general or a president over to his cause! It’s to choose someone completely ordinary – someone who just goes humbly about their daily tasks, doing their best to serve God and love other people – and to use that person to start a movement that has an enormous effect on the world. He chose a little Albanian nun called Anjezë, and sent her to Calcutta to serve the poor and the lepers. Who ever thought that Mother Teresa would become a world figure? Or little Francesco Bernadone, who became St. Francis of Assisi? Or Dr. Paul Brand, who went as a medical missionary to India and ended up making some of the most important discoveries that helped us unravel the secrets of leprosy? Or a shy little Irish boy called Clive, who lost his mum to cancer at an early age, and who loved stories about the gods and goddesses of Asgard, but went on to become one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century – C.S. Lewis?

But it goes further than that. We’ve thought about people who became famous; what about the millions who didn’t? Philip Yancey has done thousands of interviews in his career as a writer. He says that in his mind he tends to divide the people he interviews into two groups: the ‘stars’, and the ‘servants’. It’s very clear to him that the ‘servants’ – mostly unknown men and women working faithfully in obscure places to improve the lives of ordinary people – are the ones who’ve discovered the real secret to contentment and happiness. As our poet says, ‘Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’ (v.5).

But what does this actually mean? It sounds pious and good and holy, but do we really think that a humble aid worker in South America is having more of an effect on the world than Donald Trump? Or that ordinary Christians like you and me can do more to advance the plan of God than Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper? Hoe does God actually help and deliver those who put their hope in him?

Well, let me answer that by asking you a question. Let’s suppose that we take the advice of this poet. Let’s suppose that we decide we’re not going to put our hope in Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton; we’re not going to rely on Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley or Brian Jean or whoever your favourite politician might be at this point in time. No, we’re going to put our hope in the Lord our God; we’re going to trust in the God who come to live among us in Jesus.

If we trust our doctor, what do we do? The answer is obvious – we do what she says. We put her advice into practice in our daily lives. And the same is true with God; if we put our hope and trust in God, we then offer ourselves to God as instruments in his hands. We ask him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us strength to do things we could never do by ourselves. And then we take the words and example of Jesus and try to put them into practice in our daily lives – loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, reaching out to the poor and needy and marginalized, spreading the news that there’s a God of love who cares about everyone he has made.

Do you not think that a movement like that will have a tremendous effect on the world? Imagine millions of people following Jesus together, learning to be his disciples, doing the things he told them to do. Would they be fooled by the incentives offered by marketers to buy all kinds of useless luxuries and look to possessions to make them happy? Of course not. Would they obey the instructions of their leaders to kill their fellow human beings who happen to wear the uniform of another country? No. Would they look for opportunities to – as John Wesley put it – ‘Do all the good they can, to all the people they can, in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as long as ever they can’? Of course they would.

That’s how God changes the world. Not by a larger-than-life politician with fake hair and feet of clay, but by his power at work in hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me. We don’t have to have everything together in our lives. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need a thankful trust in God, a determination not to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place, and a desire to hear God’s word and put it into practice in our daily lives. If we do that, God can work through us to execute justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free, open the eyes of the blind, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over the stranger, and uphold the orphan and widow. That’s what he will do through you and me, if we put our hope in him, and in no one else but him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.