Friday, June 29, 2012

Jesus and the Sinners

Preached at Eugene Friends Church
June 24, 2012

It makes me feel so much better that Jesus ends the episode about the woman taken in adultery by saying, “Go and sin no more.”  Whew, I think, thank God he didn’t get all gracious and forgiving without some accountability thrown in.  How awful if Jesus let a sinner get away with continued sinfulness.

Here’s the whole story:  Jesus was at the temple, and the Pharisees, et al., brought in a woman caught in the act of adultery.  They stood her before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery.  Moses commanded us to stone such women to death.  What do you say about that?” Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.  They hounded him with questions, until he stood up and said, “Whoever among you has no sin can throw the first stone.”  Then he wrote again on the ground.  Everyone drifted away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman.  He stood up and asked her, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied.  “Then neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

And then, sometime in the wee small hours of the night, I thought about this story:

Once upon a time, a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dinner.  They were lying on couches when in came a woman with an alabaster box.  She stood behind Jesus at his feet.  She could not stop crying, and as she wept on his feet, she dried them with her long hair, kissed his feet, and poured perfume on them.

We have to understand that washing a guest’s feet was a sign of hospitality for valued and respected guests.  And Simon, the good religious man, had not had a servant wash Jesus’s feet.  Further, when Simon saw the woman washing Jesus’s feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and pouring her perfume on them, he said, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know that this woman touching him is a sinner. He would never allow himself to be contaminated by her.”

Jesus answered Simon’s unspoken thought with a story.  “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

Simon replied, politely, “Tell me, teacher.” (“Teacher” was a name of honor, so Simon appeared to be honoring Jesus.)

Jesus went on.  “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.  One owed him $5,000 and one owed him $500.  Neither of them was able to pay anything, so the moneylender canceled both debts.  Now, which of them will love him more?”

Simon gave the obvious answer:  “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

“Exactly so,” said Jesus.  “You have judged the case correctly.”

“Now, Simon, do you see this woman?” (Obviously Simon could see little else but the woman.)  “When I came to your house, you did not give me any water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  You didn’t greet me with the customary kiss, but she has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not pour the customary oil of blessing on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. What do you think accounts for the difference?”

Awkward pause.

Jesus continued, “I’ll tell you.  Her many sins have been forgiven; you can tell by the extravagance of her love. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.”

A buzz began among the other guests. “Who is this guy who thinks he can forgive sins?”

Jesus said to the woman.  “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Why the different responses to these two sinners?

One possible answer is that each person needs an individualized response from Jesus.  Jesus meets each of us where we are and speaks directly to us what we need to hear.  Quakers call this “speaking to my condition.”  In that case, the first woman needed to hear that escaping death by stoning doesn’t mean a free pass to do anything.  Jesus doesn’t tell her that her sin is forgiven, just that he does not condemn her.  This might indicate that she hasn’t yet reached the place where she can accept forgiveness.  Therefore, Jesus makes a statement about himself, not about her.  

The second woman is in a different place with regard to Jesus.  She acts like someone who understands grace and graciousness.  Her tears combined with her actions speak to me about gratitude, and that’s what’s in the story Jesus tells.  Her gratitude and resulting graciousness are in contrast with Simon’s suspicious judgmentalism and resulting inhospitality.  Jesus speaks to her words that reinforce her gratitude and build up her faith.

Jesus also talks with Simon.  He points out directly the contrast between Simon’s inhospitality and the woman’s hospitality born out of gratitude.  He points out indirectly that Simon doesn’t love much because Simon believes God hasn’t needed to forgive him for much.

Probably one conclusion to draw is that neither of these shows the moment of conversion. The first woman is free to go and Jesus lifts off her the burden of condemnation.  But the possibility is opened for her to think about changing through Jesus’s words about sin.  (And the impossibility of “sinning no more.”  That alone would drive a penitent person to recognize the need for God’s forgiveness and grace, just as it later did the apostle Paul—the Law was a schoolmaster, he said, to bring him to acknowledge his need for grace through Jesus Christ. See Romans 7:7 and Galatians 3:24.)

The second woman appears to have already recognized and accepted grace.  That’s what Jesus's story to Simon implies.  And her gratitude is uncontainable and directed exactly at the person who extended grace.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if these two women were the same one, with the “conversion experience” left out of the narrative? (I don't, of course, insist on this.)

And, lest you think this is all about “bad women,” let’s look at someone else whose sins are forgiven, who experiences God’s grace (Matthew 9).  The four men who lower their paralyzed friend through the roof to where Jesus is teaching have the astonishing experience of hearing Jesus first say to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Wait, they must have said to themselves, we wanted him to walk.  The religious folks standing around are shocked and affronted by Jesus forgiving sins as if he were God, and they think this to themselves.  So Jesus addresses them directly: “Why are you thinking these things?  Do you think it is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’? But, since you need to know that I have authority to forgive sins,” here he turns to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Which happens. 

So which is easier to say?  I think it’s easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because I have said it, whereas I have never had the assurance to say “Get up and walk.”  But it feels odd to tell people their sins are forgiven, even though it’s true.  Yet Jesus told us, “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged; don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).  So what if we approach people who don’t know about God’s graciousness and forgiveness like Jesus did:  I don't condemn you; always try to hit the mark of goodness.  And then their turning to Jesus can take place in the privacy of their hearts in dialogue with Jesus himself.  

Sort of like this private conversion story (John 4). And a weird riddling story it is, a fact which we almost always ignore.

Jesus traveled through Samaria and took a break by Jacob’s well. His disciples went into town to buy food. A Samaritan woman came to draw water around noon, and Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”  She replied, “Are you talking to me? How can you ask me for a drink, as if a Jew would drink a Samaritan’s water?”

Jesus replied, “If you knew what God offers you and who is asking you for a drink, you’d have asked me for living water, and I’d have given it to you.”

She said, “You have no bucket to let down into the well.  Where might you get this ‘living water’? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it himself and gave it to his family and livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks from Jacob’s well will be thirsty again, but anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst.  The truth is, the water I give will become a spring of water in those who drink, gushing up toward eternal life.”

The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t have to come to this well and draw water ever again.”

Jesus told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I don’t have a husband,” she said. 
“That’s right,” Jesus said. “You’ve had five and the one you are now living with has not married you.  So you’ve told the truth.”

“I see you are a prophet,” she said, “and therefore you can settle this problem; you Jews say we have to worship in Jerusalem, but we Samaritans worship here, where our fathers worshiped.”

Jesus responded, “Trust me on this, Ma’am.  You Samaritans worship a God you don’t know; we Jews worship a God we know, for salvation comes through the Jews. But a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem; true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; these are the worshipers the Father is looking for.  God is spirit, and God’s worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”  (She looks back to her fathers; Jesus points her to his Father. The God she doesn’t know will be the Father.  What a change!)

She says, “I do know that the Anointed One is coming and when he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus says, “I am that Anointed One.”

She runs back to town, leaving her water jar, and says to her neighbors, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Anointed One?” And, amazingly, they come to see him, and many believe in him, first because of her testimony, and then because they hear for themselves and know that “this man really is the Savior of the world.”

What an interesting story of convincement and conversion.  Nowhere does Jesus mention sin directly, nowhere does she repent directly.  She admits the truth of what he says about her life and finds that in itself worth sharing with others.  “He told me everything I’ve ever done,” she says, and that compels others to believe.  Why? Why is it so helpful to admit that what Jesus says about us is true? And why is there not more guilt and shame?  Jesus points out her pitiful marital history without condemnation, and she becomes an apostle of the good news.  Huh.

 This reminds me of a man I knew who was bathing when an earthquake struck.  He leaped from the tub, grabbed a garment from the coat closet and ran out of the house.  When he looked down, he was wearing a transparent raincoat.  That's what it's like to be in a conversation with Jesus--all our hidden stuff is just obvious to him.  And when he sees it, he isn't shocked and he doesn't shame us.  He just lets us know he knows.  C.S. Lewis suggests that heaven may be where we are truly known and that may take some getting used to.

Sin is error, straying from the path, missing the mark, wandering from God’s way.  In Greek drama, it is the tragic flaw that brings down the hero—hamartia.  And Jesus tells the adulterous woman to stay on the path, hit the mark, follow God’s way.  She knows now how sin can cause a person’s downfall, can lead to tragedy.  But Jesus knows that without help she cannot do what he tells her to do.

Jesus tells the second woman that her errors, her mistakes, her wanderings are all sent away, dead, disregarded, remitted, not under discussion, left behind—in a word, forgiven.  She is not obliged to think of them ever again.  She believes and has faith and can go in peace. Jesus tells the paralyzed man the same thing about his sins. Then he sends him home on foot.  Perhaps this is exactly the same in a visualized form as is true for the forgiven woman.  Both are set free from what paralyzes them, both are given the freedom to move, both get to go home.

The actual conversion of the Samaritan woman is a dance between Jesus and her.  He asks for something he needs, she deflects his request with a discussion of social standing; he says he has something she needs, she deflects his offer with a discussion of history; he says he can give her eternal life, she deflects his offer with the hope for earthly ease; he challenges her to tell the truth; she deflects with a partial truth; he confronts her with the whole truth; she deflects with discussion of theology; he tells her God is her Father and she can be a worshipper in spirit and truth; she says, wistfully, I wish I knew for sure from the Messiah; and Jesus says to her, you can.  I’m the guy who explains everything.

This is why we lean on the Holy Spirit of Jesus to do the drawing, the convicting, the convincing, and the conversion of every individual soul.  Jesus knows just the step to take, just the thing to say to the heart.  Our biggest challenge is to get out of the way, to clear the barriers of judgment and condemnation out from between the lost, the wandering, the erring and the One who will explain everything.  Neither do I condemn you; I see you just as you are; your sins are forgiven; Jesus will bring you into the light, introduce you to the Father and teach you how to worship in spirit and truth.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I really appreciate this post, Becky! I've been thinking a lot about some of these stories from John the past few months, and about our sin and Jesus' responses to people just like us. Thanks for sharing your reflections.