Two hundred four years ago this month, Napoleon marshalled an army to invade Moscow and subdue his former ally, Czar Alexander 1. As he marched against Russia, however, it was typhus-carrying lice rather than Russian soldiers that resisted his advance. Nevertheless, by September 14, after three months of marching and despite typhus and trench fever, the French army entered Russia and declared victory. On the return trip, however, the temperatures plummeted to 30 degrees below zero, freezing lips together and killing most of the horses. After starting out with 600,000 troops, a “victorious” Napoleon returned to France with fewer than 10,000. His miscalculation of the challenges facing him and a misguided focus on the wrong indicators had disastrous effects on this crucial campaign. Making assumptions with insufficient data is dangerous.
The Pharisee in Luke’s gospel is, by definition, a righteous man whose daily hope was to live to see the Messiah of God on earth. We must understand who he is in the light of his day and not as we have characterized him some 2000 years later. This man invited Jesus into his home surely in the hope that Jesus was the one. He was not looking to discredit Jesus’ claims, but to be the man in whose home the Messiah of God entered! He had to be disappointed when he decided that, based upon Jesus’ response to the woman known to be a sinner Jesus was not “the one.” How sad that he missed the moment he’d been waiting for because he focused his attention on the wrong indicators and miscalculated the grace of God.
This particular story offers a teaching moment as timely today as it was 2000 years ago. When I consulted one of the best biblical commentaries about this text in preparing the sermon the writer automatically shifted from referring to the woman as a “known sinner” to referring to her as a “prostitute.” This, in spite of the obvious use of the word “hamartolas” – sinner – rather than “porne” – prostitute. Space and time this morning do not allow for a full discussion about why some preachers and scholars insist upon characterizing as prostitutes women who the biblical text does not. But also because I would rather focus on an even more sinister miscalculation here that Jesus appears to support, but in truth I think he is making a point to his host by using hyperbole. And that is that, at least by our human accounting, somehow God’s grace is greater when our sin is greater, as if something less than Jesus’ atoning death might have served to save some folks who were just a little bit in need of being saved, who were mostly saved already. Perhaps suffering the flue or losing sleep could have sufficed to save some. What silliness!
Besides all this, however, there is an even more subtle point easily overlooked. The text says, “And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…”. That phrase “learned” – epiginosko – is used only one other time in the Christian testament and it is when Peter, released from prison, returns to the house where the other disciples are staying and the housemaid Rhoda hears his voice, and recognizes it – epiginosko – and throws open the door to welcome him back!
The woman with the alabaster jar of ointment recognized the sound of Jesus’ voice from outside the house and entered the Pharisee’s house with all the confidence of an invited guest or at the very least without any fear of being censored. Commentators have suggested that, in this story, we have a situation where Jesus extends forgiveness without the forgiven person confessing her sins. But I think that the conversation about her notorious sin – whether it was prostitution or gossip – happened much earlier and apparently lasted for some time, long enough for the woman to learn the sound of Jesus’ voice. When he said to the woman “Your faith has saved you” he was announcing it to the Pharisee, as well as assuring her.
And so the man whose very job as a Pharisee was to live righteously in anticipation of welcoming the Messiah of God missed it entirely. He may have been able to boast of hosting Jesus, the popular personality, in his home, but like Napoleon’s Pyrrhic victory in Moscow, he never recovered what he lost in the bargain.
So, what is the incident calling out to us today? What do we risk by engaging this story?
I find that, for me, labeling people – whether that means hearing someone referred to as a sinner or an evangelical or a racist — doesn’t actually communicate information as much as it triggers deep fears and anxieties inside me. When I hear about a situation and someone in the situation is labeled, I imagine that I am responding rationally, when in truth, I am responding unconsciously and irrationally; which means that, if I was hearing about the situation so that I could make a wise decision about the situation, then I am not actually able to do that.
It also means that my indicators for looking for God’s presence and activity in the world around me – a task our baptismal covenant insists that we do — are too limited and basically inaccurate. The Pharisee thought that a true prophet from God would have scorned a sinner. Whereas, the truth is that sinners are prophets’ bread and butter in terms of receiving the good news of God’s salvation.
A woman from Rabbi Biller’s synagogue was recently working in an African country with women in a rural setting. The women wanted to know what it meant that she described herself as being “a Jew.” The label wasn’t communicating any real information. So, she thought for a moment about what it really meant that she was a Jew and she thought about the context in which she found herself and then answered, “I come from a tribe that is 3500 years old that follows the teachings of the one true God.”
Perhaps a valuable practice for us all as we enter the heart of this time between now and let’s just say November is to use as few labels as possible and try to actually articulate whatever we are hoping to communicate, even if we risk betraying our own sense of fear or anxiety or, even worse, our contempt for another. I think we cannot really know God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives until we practice this level of self-disclosing confessional discourse. And I wouldn’t want any of us to miss the presence of God in our lives or in the world around us by misjudging a situation or looking at the wrong indicators that point to where God’s grace is being poured out, like so much expensive ointment from an alabaster jar.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 12, 2016