Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 7:36-50
“Friend of Sinners”
There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup and then kept on pouring so that tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop! It is full. No more will go in.” “Like this cup,” said the hermit, “you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions, and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?” 1
In many ways, our gospel for today raises similar issues for us. If we read, listen, and interpret our gospel for today with our built-in biases and prejudices, we shall miss the power of its message for us. If we come to this gospel passage full of our own opinions, preconceptions and ideas—we will likely be offended, just as Simon the Pharisee was. Our gospel today challenges us to open our eyes, ears and hearts; to empty ourselves and stop judging others on the basis of our norms, customs, and stereotypes.
This is a wonderful, emotionally-charged story, which highlights one of Luke’s favourite themes: namely, that Jesus challenges us once again—to employ an old cliché—not to judge a book by its cover. Jesus wants us to see with his eyes—not on the basis of outward appearances but much deeper, in the heart. Then we shall discover the power of love, forgiveness, inclusiveness and acceptance.
There was once a candymaker who made candy in the shapes of animals and birds of different colors and sizes. When he sold his candy to children, they would begin to quarrel with words such as these: “My rabbit is better than your elephant, but it is tastier…”
And the candymaker would laugh at the thought of grown-ups who were no less ignorant than the children when they thought that one person was better than another. It is our culture and conditioning, (our built in biases and prejudices) that divide us. 2
In our gospel, Simon the Pharisee, along with the other guests at the table failed to see the woman as Jesus saw her. Their limited observances of norms and customs; their preconceived ideas and stereotypes had pigeonholed this woman. They were so much better than she was—she was a sinner and unclean. The gossips of the neighbourhood had her all figured out—she was a prostitute. But was she really a prostitute?
The passage does not come right out and say that she was. She is called a “sinner.” Why do Simon and the other guests, and yes, why do we so quickly judge this woman on the basis of that word sinner? One Bible scholar, J. Jeremias, has stated that the word sinner here does not necessarily mean prostitute. He says sinner may also refer to being involved with other dishonourable jobs—like, for example, tax-collecting, shepherds, donkey-drivers, peddlers, tanners or someone who is dishonest or a liar in any other type of business.
Whatever type of sinner this woman was, it is clear that Simon, and perhaps the other guests too, thought she would only contaminate and make Jesus unclean. For them, she was “beyond the pale”—she was of no importance and was to be avoided. Stereotyping, biases, and prejudices prevented folks from seeing who this woman really was—namely, A Forgiven Child Of God. Furthermore, because the woman had not obeyed the norms and customs concerning dining and guests—Simon and the guests were likely even more offended and convinced that she was a dishonourable sinner. She had intruded on Jesus who was the guest of honour. Her emotional acts of weeping, touching, kissing and anointing Christ’s feet embarrassed Simon, the other guests—and surely it did the same for Jesus too, did it not?
Jesus however is not embarrassed. Nor does he feel dishonoured or contaminated by the woman’s actions. He defends and praises this woman’s actions. She, in fact, had honoured Jesus and had been more hospitable toward Jesus than the others. The woman’s strange, emotional, unconventional actions were obviously due to a previous encounter with Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 47, her sins “have been forgiven.” In response to receiving forgiveness, she acted in love, gratitude and worship. She who had a reputation of being the worst sinner is—for Jesus—a shining example of true love, gratitude and devotion to God. She is truly blessed by God, since she knows her need of God.
I wonder, whom do we identify with the most in this story? Simon and the other guests or the woman who was a sinner?
Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.
But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come to God who loves you. This message is liberation through truth. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers (and sisters) as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. 3
May we live under the power of God’s forgiveness in order that we might respond to Jesus like the woman in our gospel today. When we live as forgiven sinners, we shall learn what it means to be a loving, forgiving, inclusive, accepting church. Our built-in biases, prejudices, norms and customs will become less important as we see and respond to other people as Jesus does in this gospel. For even the worst sinner is still a child of God—loved and forgiven by God.
1 Cited from: Paul Wharton, Stories and Parables for Preachers and Teachers (Mahwah, NJ & New York: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 17.
2 Cited from: Anthony de Mello, The Heart Of The Enlightened (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 172.