Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Galatians 2:15-21 and Luke 7:36-8:3
In the 2003 movie Luther, there’s a scene which portrays the young 16th century German priest future-reformer agonizing over the character and actions of God: “Have you ever dared to think that God is not just?” Luther asks his mentor, an elder monk. “He has us born tainted by sin, then He’s angry with us all our lives for our faults, this righteous Judge who damns us, threatening us with the fires of hell!” “Martin, what is it you seek?” the old monk asks. “A merciful God! A God whom I can love. A God who loves me.”
It’s a fictional, but powerful scene that gets at the importance of faith and the question, “In what God are we putting our faith?” I invite you to consider Jesus as the One who reveals a merciful God, a God who loves you and whom you can love! And I think both of our texts today reveal this God, and the way in which this God saves us: not through the works of the law, but through faith…
"Simon, do you see this woman?" Jesus asks. It's an interesting question, really. Jesus notes that when he arrived at his home, Simon performed no act of hospitality for him - no washing of feet, a sign of near Eastern graciousness and hospitality. Yet this woman received Jesus, not into her home, but into her life, with extravagant, effusive gratitude and hospitality, anointing his feet with oil.
"Simon, do you see this woman?" Jesus asks. Well, not really. Simon fits neatly into the category of religious legalist, if you will. He believes that one is saved; one is made righteous by meticulous works of the law. Religious legalists are those who find it easy to criticize and judge others based on how many rules and regulations are observed. But just be aware that religious people are not the only kind of legalists. There are political legalists, insisting that you’re only OK if you are aligned with their particular political views. There are educational, cultural and nationalistic legalists. The list is as long as there are different types of human groups. Legalists are people who insist on submission to the letter of the laws or codes of the organization, whatever the organization may be!
In our story today, Simon's dismissal of the woman was not so much because of her act of touching Jesus in and of itself, but because of his a priori categorization and judgment of who she was. She was a “woman in the city,” a prostitute. End of story for Simon. Prostitutes are sinners, ergo the woman doesn’t deserve his attention. Legalism is a cold and efficient way of dealing with people, of putting them in their place and dismissing them accordingly…
"Simon, do you see this woman?" could just as easily be re-phrased, "Christian, do you see your neighbor?” or perhaps today as we celebrate Father’s Day, “Father, do you see your child?" Do you really see that person who is created and loved by God - not based on the way they measure up to your expectations or standards, but based on the unconditional love of God? Do you see the people in your family and the people around you at school or at work as God sees them, worthy of your attention, love and care? Do you see through the fears and layers of defenses built up over years of having to jump through all of the hoops of life? Do you see behind the façade of self-assurance and self-confidence the same vulnerable, mortal creature that we all are, desiring affirmation and confirmation? Whenever you see through the lens of the law others will come up short; they will be found wanting, lacking in perfection or righteousness… But through the eyes of grace, we will see that our neighbor, even a prostitute, is more like us than we might first think. By God’s grace, we are all beloved children of God…
Jesus looks at the woman with eyes of grace. Even though she may have been a lost soul for most of her life, Jesus looks a her with compassion and unconditional love. He forgives her… When she came to him, he interrupted the important business of discussing theology with the important people of the city, and took her seriously. He forgave her without having to go back over it all, and teach her exactly how she went wrong. He accepted her contrite heart and the tears of her repentance. He forgave her unconditionally.
At this point in the text, actually, we stumble upon a small grammatical point that has been argued by scholars since the 16th century in how to translate verse 47. It’s a small word in the Greek: “`oti” can either mean “because” or “hence.” The issue hinges on this simple question: Does Jesus forgive the woman because she shows such loving devotion to Jesus, or does she show such loving devotion to Jesus because she is forgiven? There is an interesting ambiguity in the text, and I think in fact both sides of the argument have merit, but grace surely leads to love. And either way, it seems clear that the point of the story Jesus tells is simple: whoever is forgiven much loves much! The irony of the situation is that Simon who is the religious leader is busy judging both Jesus and the woman, while Jesus is loving both Simon and the woman. He loves Simon enough to confront his calculating legalism and point him toward grace. He loves the woman in that he forgives her and welcomes her expression of love and devotion…
Our epistle lesson perhaps gets at this same issue in another way. Paul makes it clear that we are justified not through the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. This is important for us to remember and hold fast: It’s all about Jesus. Salvation is never a matter of Jesus plus something else! We are not justified, or made righteous before God by Jesus plus the works of the law. We are justified through faith in Jesus Christ. Period. We are not saved by Jesus plus certain cultural practices; not Jesus plus certain spiritual practices or theological perspectives; not Jesus plus a particular income level; not Jesus plus a specific denominational brand; not Jesus plus one political party or another; not Jesus plus being good enough… Just Jesus! Paul makes it very clear that if you add anything to the gospel about what justifies the sinner, then Paul concludes abruptly, “Christ died for nothing!”
What may seem like a non-sequitur is what Paul says next: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” You see, Paul is going to die to other ways of justification, to other systems of self-righteousness. Paradoxically, in order to live, you have to die to certain things in life. As Christians we are respectful and even committed to learning more about the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Buddhist eightfold path, Islam’s five pillars or the Jewish Levitical Code, but these will not be our way of life. While we all need some form of power and some money to live life, these will not be our way of life. “Grace alone” is the lens through which we live into the Kingdom of God, seeing ourselves and others not through the interpretive grid of law, but by God’s grace revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Having said that, our epistle lesson has another interesting ambiguity. Recently scholars from the “new perspective on Paul” argue the Greek grammar needs to be re-examined. On the one hand, Paul could be saying, “that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ.” Or he could be saying, “that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Christ.” You see the difference? One is about the object of faith, and the other is about the subject of faith. Faith in Christ, or the faith of Christ! I rather like the ambiguity. Perhaps God intends for us to interpret this less either/or and more both/and?
It begs the question, what is the faith of Christ? Surely, the faith of Jesus Christ is in a merciful God, a God who forgives, a God who loves the outsider, and a God who empties himself in order to show grace and love to all creation.
Perhaps a practical way to understand this idea of “faith of Christ” is the act of “letting go” or self-emptying” that some of us learned on the centering prayer retreat this past weekend. In a sense, it is a way of dying to the need for control and dominance that causes so much anxiety and fear in us:
Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it's for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions. I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God's action within. Amen.
Try this prayer in the coming week. See if it doesn’t change how you see the situations and people around you? And perhaps we might rest more easily in this amazing truth of the gospel, that like the woman who has received so much forgiveness, we are able to live and love more from a heart of gratitude. Perhaps like Paul, we will be able to live more not by trying to measure up to the works of the law, but live through faith in Jesus Christ, seeing with the eyes of grace. More could be said about these two amazing texts, but I think I’ll let it go for now, and simply pray that you will put your faith in Jesus and the good news he is for us! And that you will have the faith of Jesus; faith in a merciful God, a God who loves us and a God whom we can love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.