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First Impressions: Luke 7:36-8:3

June 10, 2010

This week’s story about the sinful woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet is one of those gospel texts where the various versions run together and blur into one story.  It is difficult to get the details straight from one gospel to the next.  I was horrified to discover an old sermon on Luke’s telling of the event in which my message used the image of an extravagant, wasteful gift.  Luke, of course, is not at all concerned with the cost of the ointment.  He has something different in mind, and I missed it completely (and thus, so did the congregation) by mindlessly preaching from the other gospels.

7:36 I often use opportunities like those found in this verse to emphasize that Jesus did not have a completely negative relationship with the Pharisees.  This, in part, is an attempt to counter the message we have all heard about the ignorance and foolishness of the Pharisees.  It also, I think, makes the story more helpful in our lives.  You don’t have to be a rigid, legalistic (as in the stereotype of the Pharisee) human being to have difficulty with issues of love and forgiveness for those “others” who are sinful.  If the Pharisee is always imagined as a blind, almost evil, character, I will never willingly put myself in his shoes.

7:37-38 When I preached this story from John 12 in Lent (check out the First Impression and the sermon, “Love Does Not Make Sense”), I did a fairly comprehensive comparison among the versions.  Perhaps the most interesting fact is that none of them give the woman the name Mary Magdalene or label her a prostitute.  In fact, only John gives her any name at all, that of Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  What we can say about the woman from Luke’s version is that she was emotionally moved.  She acted boldly and lovingly toward Jesus.  In fact, that love is what separates the Luke story from the others.  I will discuss that further in the section on verse 47.

7:39 The Pharisee’s comment (to himself) is a foil for Jesus’ teaching moment, but it expresses the kind of superior snap judgment we are all prone to make.  This could be preached just as long as the preacher is sure not to condemn the congregation in the same way the Pharisee dismissed both the woman and Jesus.

7:40-43 Jesus’ story about the two debtors makes sense for the purpose of his message, but true gratitude and love is a little more complex.  In our Lectionary study group, we discussed the idea that sometimes if people are forgiven much, they can become angry and resentful at the one who has forgiven.  Sometimes the debt of forgiveness feels heavier to bear than any monetary debt.  That attitude of gratefulness often depends upon the one who forgives.  Forgiveness can be offered in a way that his haughty and superior, and thus, may not be true forgiveness.  A sermon could be made on the mode of our forgiveness of others, though this line strays a little from the text because the forgiver here is God, and we are all debtors.

There will be people in the sanctuary who feel more like the one forgiven 50 denarii, and some who feel that their debt may even exceed 500.  A tactful sermon could be preached on the joy and relief we can all feel knowing that our sins have been discharged.  Many hearers, though, will need much more than a sermon to feel truly forgiven.  For some, it will be a lifetime project, even though God has already accomplished the task.  A preacher could acknowledge that fact.

Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, in their People’s New Testament Commentary ([Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 207), note that just as the prophet Nathan told a story in which King David pronounced judgment on himself (2 Samuel 12:1-15), Jesus told a parable that caused the Pharisee to pass judgment on his own attitude toward the woman.

7:44-46 Jesus lists the actions that woman performed and contrasted them with the amenities the host had failed to provide for the guest.  This fills out the picture of the more forgiven sinner’s greater love as Jesus’ chided his host.  I do not, however, think it does my sermon or my listeners any good to emphasize the latter.  For most of us, it will be more helpful for us to sit in the place of the Pharisee rather than that of the woman.

William Willimon proposes a fruitful line by concentrating on verse 44.: “Do you see this woman?”  He suggests that Simon never really saw the woman, but simply discounted her.  Jesus sees her and knows her best, and he refused to reject her, but pronounced forgiveness.  How is this like the ways we fail to see people around us, from homeless people we pass by every day to co-workers and even to spouses and children?  (“Do You See?” Pulpit Resource, vol. 38, no. 2, 49-52.)

7:47-48 Boring and Craddock (also on p.207) write that verse 47 is ambiguous with respect to whether the forgiveness precedes the love or vice versa, or whether they are simultaneous.  They do say, however, that forgiveness and love are inextricably linked.  They go together.  I would assert that both must reside within the forgiver for the act of forgiveness to have any real meaning.  The forgiver must have love (in the sense of having the best interest of the other at heart, perhaps even over the interest of the self) or the exercise is incomplete.  The love that flows from the one forgiven is natural and spontaneous (or so it seems from the example of the woman in this text), and cannot be coerced.  People who are forgiven do not always feel gratitude, let alone love.  My sermon will fall along these lines, the intertwining of love and forgiveness.  Where I go from here, I do not yet know!

8:1-3 We will not be reading these verses in worship, even though they are part of the assigned reading.  Luke seems to include these words immediately following the preceding story in order to show how women played an important role in the ministry of Jesus.  They are potentially edifying verses, and a sermon could be crafted using them as the primary focus, but since they do not form a direct part of the prior story, we will not read them.

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