Sunday, June 13, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 2

13 June 2004 at Holy Trinity L.C., Columbia, SC (Vicarage)
Text: Luke 7:36-8:3 (also 2 Sam 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Gal 2:15-21) (RCL)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus uses a man’s rude behavior as the backdrop to give a lesson on the Christian life. In fact, Jesus sums up all of the doctrines of the Bible by making reference to what we would today call “bankruptcy:” being relieved of one’s debts that one cannot pay.

Jesus’s dinner host is not very gracious. He ignores the basic duties that one should attend to when one has a guest. Today, we might offer a visitor a drink, put out some snacks, and invite them to sit in a comfortable chair. Although the customs of the first century middle east are different than those of twenty-first century America, the idea is still the same. Especially, if one invites a person of honor to one’s home. Jesus is a well-known rabbi, and a polite person would surely see to his comfort – something Simon the Pharisee is lax in doing.

Now, whether Simon is being deliberately rude, or is just a social clod, we don’t know. But Simon’s lack of manners also manifests itself toward the woman in our account. While our text only tells us what he was thinking, one can hardly imagine that his utter distaste for the woman can easily remain hidden. He not only questions Jesus’s standing as a prophet, he also condemns – at least inwardly – the woman’s actions based on her reputation.

So, instead of seeing her devotion to the Lord (a devotion which, by the way, highlights his own failure as a host), Simon sees only her past sins. He judges her worthiness by her former wickedness. Instead of a redeemed and repentant sinner who is filled with love, Simon sees only a sinner, filled with iniquity. He sees her service not as a good and noble work, but rather as hypocrisy. Who does she think she is, and why is this rabbi allowing her to do such things?

Jesus, seeing the irony of the boorish behavior of the “righteous” man versus the loving behavior of the “sinful” woman, takes advantage of this “teachable moment” and tells Simon a story about creditors and debtors. Asked who is most appreciative, a debtor who is forgiven much debt or a debtor who is forgiven little, Simon correctly answers the one forgiven much. Jesus congratulates him: “You have judged rightly.” Simon’s earlier judgmental attitude has given way to sound judgment of a hypothetical accounting matter. Having guided his pupil to the correct conclusion in the abstract, Jesus then applies this logic specifically to matters of sin, redemption, and the Christian life.

Jesus sums up the entire Christian faith – both doctrine and practice – as a matter of debt. This is not the only time our Lord refers to our sins in financial terms. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us.” These days, we usually use the word “trespass” with regard to property lines. However, the older meaning of the word reflects the original meaning: “debts.” This is why our Bibles normally translate this petition as “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” Our Lord is not referring to our car payments and Visa bills. He is using the word “debt” as a way to express our sins.

We don’t normally describe sin in financial terms – but it’s a beautiful analogy. Having recently finished seminary, I know a little something about debts. I’m sure I’m not alone here. Debt is a powerful and dangerous thing. If not managed, it quickly balloons into a monster that can take over one’s life. When debts grow large enough, they become such a burden that a person may not even be able to pay the interest – thus theoretically making it impossible to ever get out of debt. In former times, a person in such a situation was sent to prison. The only hope of ever leaving debtor’s prison was either the unexpected grace of the creditor in forgiving the debt, or the appearance of a redeemer who would pay the bill on behalf of the prisoner. Without either forgiveness or a redeemer, one would rot away in prison year after year, until dying only to pass on one’s debts to one’s heirs.

In our text, Jesus tells a story of debt forgiveness, and the gratitude and joy that follows such forgiveness. Jesus tells a slightly different and expanded version of this motif in his Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18. In that parable, our Lord presses the analogy further, equating debtor’s prison to hell itself, whence there is no escape, that is, without forgiveness or redemption.

Like our bills, our sins are debts. They compound on one another like interest. They rack up every moment of the day. They hang around our necks like the proverbial albatross. They weigh upon us, and drag us down. Unless discharged, debts can eventually spiral out of control, and become a burden that threatens to send us to debtor’s prison.

But our Lord doesn’t end his discourse on such a note. For what good is it to instruct the Pharisee Simon (as well as the rest of us Pharisees today) about debts and the forgiveness of those debts unless there is a benevolent creditor willing to cancel our bill, a wealthy benefactor with an open checkbook ready to balance our accounts?

Jesus not only alludes to himself as the kind creditor and great redeemer, he makes it happen right in front of his pupil. Speaking to the woman whose debt is beyond her ability to pay, our Lord pronounces the words of absolution: “Your sins are forgiven.” He has paid her tab – not with cash, but with his blood. He has picked up her check, not with a credit card, but with his flesh. He has brought her balance down to zero, not by a balance transfer, but rather by a blessed exchange which was to take place on the cross.

While the other guests at the table ponder Jesus’s authority to give such absolution, while they wonder among themselves who is this man with the power and right to cancel the debts of people who otherwise would be trapped and left without hope, Jesus teaches them something else, something equally important: the woman’s acts of devotion, her kindnesses to Jesus, are not what saves her. Her debts are no more wiped out by her loyalty and kindness any more than our Mastercards are paid by being nice to the collection agent on the phone or promising never to use American Express. The women’s love for Jesus is not what cancels her debt. Rather, our Lord proclaims: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Her works – though beautiful and clearly a demonstration of her faith – did not achieve her salvation. They did not forgive her debt. Her love – though genuine and heartfelt – did nothing to wipe out her liability. Her love and her good works were results of her forgiveness. They did not initiate her forgiveness. They did not earn her forgiveness. They did not pay her check. Rather, they grow out of her gratitude, they explode from her as a result of having her debts paid. Her love and her deeds flow from the Gospel, the good news that she will not have to spend a miserable lifetime in a debtor’s prison, she will not have to waste away eternally in hell. Jesus, by his blood and with his word, has stamped her bill “paid in full” and she is filled with joy.

Dear friends, there is no greater expression of the Gospel than today’s text. Every one of us baptized Christians are exactly the same as the sinful woman in our reading. Each one of us has racked up a debt so large that we can’t even begin to pay the interest on the debt. And as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans: “the wages of sin is death.” But as Paul continues, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We hear our Lord say those precious words to us every Sunday: “your sins are forgiven.” And of course, we are also just like Simon. In spite of our Lord’s cancellation of our debt, we continue to judge others by their past, even as we ignore our Lord. Instead of anointing our Lord with our tears, how often we treat him as if he isn’t even there. This too is part of that debt that we can never repay, that we can only ask our Lord to forgive.

Christians often struggle with how to approach the Christian life without lapsing into “works righteousness.” In other words, how should we live a life of good works without falling into the trap of taking credit for them? Paul, in our second lesson, reiterates our Lord’s words about faith and salvation: “a person is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Emphasizing salvation by grace through faith, and not by works of the law, is a teaching that has always been central for Lutherans. But this is not Luther’s teaching, nor even Paul’s teaching, but rather our Lord’s teaching: “your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the trap of presuming that since we are sinners and debtors, and since we can’t defeat sin, we may as well give in to sin and treat it as a trifle. Since Jesus died for our sins, sin is really no big deal, nothing to get worked up about. This is a particular danger for Lutherans. If someone calls us to repentance, we may be tempted to ignore our sins and simply take our baptisms for granted. Since we are baptized, since good works don’t save us, we can sin all we want, knowing that all we need to do is receive absolution every Sunday.

Such a diluted and matter-of-fact view of sin is a satanic delusion. In our first lesson, we heard the familiar account of David’s murder and adultery – repugnant and shocking acts which he somehow didn’t even recognize as sinful – until Nathan the prophet told him a parable about a pet lamb. When presented as a hypothetical situation – apart from his own life – David judged wisely, rightly concluding that such sinful behavior deserves nothing less than death. Sin is no trifle, it is deadly serious, and the Lord cannot and will not abide it. It is so serious, in fact, that God took flesh, and gave himself on the cross in order to redeem our debts. As the Lutheran pastor and martyr, the blessed Dietrich Bonhöffer reminded us: grace is free, but it’s not cheap – it cost the life and death of our Lord on the cross. We receive it as a gift – but it’s the most expensive gift in the universe.

In our text, our dear Lord condemns both errors – the error that we are saved by good works and by the law, as well as the error that sin is just no big deal, that our good works aren’t necessary. Just as Jesus makes it clear that salvation that is by faith, he also points out that actions flow from forgiveness. We don’t need bestselling books and slickly-marketed programs to direct us how to live the Christian life. What we need to do is surround ourselves with reminders of the tremendous evil of our sins, the terrifying wrath of God, our helplessness to get out of debt, as well as the indescribable act of love that paid our debts in blood and sealed that forgiveness in baptismal water. We would do well to surround ourselves with crucifixes, in our homes, in our churches, on our persons. Plain crosses are simply not as vivid a reminder. They’re too sterile. We need reminding. We need to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood often. We should regularly confess our sins to our pastors, confronting our own debts, so we can hear them wiped out with our Lord’s words: “your sins are forgiven.” And we do well to make the sign of the cross on ourselves often, as a constant reminder of how our debts were, and are, paid in full. Recalling the Lord’s cross and our baptism is a greater encouragement than all the TV evangelists and “motivational speakers” put together.

The so-called sinful woman in our text provides a model of the Christian life. She is not driven by a purpose, not motivated according to a programmed list of hoops to jump through. Nor is she deterred by what others may think. And although she is overwhelmed by emotion, her feelings are not motivating her deeds. She responds in love with good works out of her overwhelming gratitude for having her huge debt cancelled. It’s that simple.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us revel in our bankruptcy. Let us thank the triune God for the payment of all of our debts, and for springing us from the debtor’s prison of hell that we all deserve. Let us keep the image of our crucified Lord ever before our eyes, that we may be grateful in thought, word, and deed for what our Lord has done for us. And with the cancellation of our debt comes the freedom which enables us to anoint our Lord with the oil of our love and the ointment of our good works, freeing us to join him at table in celebration for all eternity. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace. Amen.”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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