SJF • Prober 6c • Tobias Haller BSGI spoke last week of how little Saint Paul seemed to have learned from his teacher Rabbi Gamaliel when it came to being tolerant of those with whom he disagreed, and you can see some ripe examples of Paul’s intolerance in today’s reading from his Letter to the Galatians. He was clearly more than a little put out with Cephas — that’s Saint Peter — concerning what was to be required of Gentiles who joined the early church. Paul was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Peter over this issue, and called him on his hypocrisy.
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.
The fact is, Paul was right to call Peter on this; what is troubling is the way he went about it. Peter had “caved” to pressure from the traditionalist wing of the church — those who insisted that Gentile converts to Christ needed to observe the Jewish law in order to be Christians. This made Paul simply furious, and in this letter you see him in high ranting mode: if Jews can’t keep the law — and I’m talking about you, Peter! — how can you expect Gentiles to? Make no mistake about it, Paul did not make many friends with this kind of language; and one might go so far as to wonder if the cause of the church might have been better advanced with a more harmonious approach.
For as the collect with which we began the our worship today, and with which I began this sermon, affirms, we do indeed call upon our Lord to keep this household of the church steadfast in faith. We want to hold the faith that Saint Paul preached, that we are justified in Christ through faith, and not by the works of the law; that we are saved by Christ, and not by our own efforts to follow a set of rules — a set of rules that even those to whom they were originally given, the people of Israel, were unable to keep.
We want to hold fast to this faith; but we also pray for our household the church to be kept steadfast in God’s love. Faith and love go together, and we need them both. That is why the collect goes on to ask for the grace not only to proclaim the truth with boldness, but to minister God’s justice with compassion.
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There is a wonderful example of this ability to combine justice and compassion, faith and love, in our Old Testament reading this morning. King David has done something terrible — something that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of the Sopranos. He fell in love with another man’s wife, seduced her, and then, when he couldn’t get her husband to sleep with her so that he might think that the child she would bear was his, sent the husband off into battle, and then arranged for the other troops to fall back and leave him exposed, so that he would certainly be killed in action. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why it is that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” And God sent Nathan the prophet to David.
And that’s where we see compassion mixed with justice. Nathan doesn’t confront David in Saint Paul style, going toe-to-toe and telling him what a terrible man he is, and what a terrible thing it is that he has done. Rather, Nathan tells David a story and then allows David’s own conscience to convict him — to open his eyes to the error of his ways.
It is one of the most powerful confrontations in all of Scripture, a powerful mixture of compassion and justice. God punishes David by taking the child who is the fruit of this adultery — and let us be careful not to interpret this as a punishment of the child, whom God takes to himself in his innocence. The punishment falls on David, to lose the child who might have been his heir, as Bathsheba’s next son, Solomon, would indeed be. David would later say, after the child of his adultery was taken up by God, “I will go to him, but he shall not return to me.” And so God’s justice is exacted, and yet by God’s compassion David is led not only to repentance but to an ever deeper understanding of God’s power and love.
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We see an even more eloquent example of this in the Gospel reading. The stage is set for a drama of contrasts: Simon the Pharisee, no doubt intrigued by what he has heard of Jesus, invites him into his home to dine with him. And a woman from the city, a sinner — and I don’t think I have to tell you what kind of a sinner she is — comes in and makes an incredible display of herself at Jesus’s feet. You may remember I’ve explained before that the reason she can stand behind him at his feet and wash his feet with her hair is due to Jesus lying on a couch at the meal, in the Roman style of that time. Had they been sitting at a dining table she would have to have been a contortionist!
Now, contortion or not, it takes no imagination to picture the look of indignation on Simon the Pharisee’s face. Pharisees, remember, are the people who are very fussy about observing the law — about not touching anything unclean, about washing your hands before eating, and making sure all the vessels are ritually pure. They are the Hyacinth Buckets — it’s Bouquet — of first-century Judaism. These are people who are trying to do the very thing Saint Paul told Saint Peter no one could do: follow the law in all its details down to the last jot and tittle, including how to fold your napkin after you’ve wiped your hands.
But Jesus, the ever-compassionate Jesus, doesn’t turn on the Pharisee and read him the riot act — which, as we know from other confrontations with Pharisees, he was perfectly capable of doing! Rather in this case he takes Nathan’s approach, and by telling a story that seems to be completely unrelated to the present situation, he gets Simon the Pharisee to convict himself. As a good teacher, he doesn’t spell out the answer to this moral dilemma; but provides the learner with the tools needed to understand it himself. He constructs a play within a play (or a story within the story) to catch the conscience of the Pharisee.
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We continue to pray that God will keep our household the church in his steadfast faith and love, so that we can proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion. We pray this, but we often seem to lose the will to follow through on the harder work of helping people to help themselves in the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves — like Nathan and Jesus in our readings today. Too often in the church we hear voices raised that sound more like Paul or Simon than like Nathan or Jesus: quick to judge and condemn what they see as faithlessness, zealous and bold for the truth, and eager to see God’s justice carried out — but lacking in the love and compassion that would make their mission not only more effective, but more Christlike.
In doing this, as Saint Paul had the wisdom to realize about himself, they become noisy gongs or clanging cymbals: perhaps effective warning alarms to alert people to the very real moral danger in which they may find themselves; but ultimately less effective in actually saving people from themselves. Without love, without compassion, faith and justice lose half of their effectiveness.
Without love and compassion, the justice of the Pharisee would send that woman back out into the streets, to a life of sin and despair. Christ, in his love and compassion, allows this fallen woman not only to be with him where he is, but to minister to him, saved by her faith in response to his love and compassion.
Shall the church play the role of Paul at his most intolerant, or Simon the Pharisee at his most judgmental? Or shall we take the course of Nathan and of Christ and proclaim the truth in ways that those wounded by sin and despair can hear and be healed? Shall the church require its ministers to imagine themselves pure and free from sin by their own virtuous manner of life, by following the works of the law? Or shall it celebrate the ministry of those who do not sit in judgment but who, knowing their own weakness, lovingly and generously serve the body of Christ?
The woman of the city was no longer worried about her sins, which indeed were many, for she had turned to Christ. Nor does the gospel mention repentance — unusual for Luke who mentions it so often! Rather her tears reveal faith, hope, and love, flowing from the knowledge of forgiveness. We see in this incident the essence of the virtues incarnate in a woman thought by the Pharisee to be incapable of goodness, a woman who plays out the sacrament of baptism: with her voiceless confession of faith, the washing of her tears, anointing her Lord with fragrant ointment, sealed with the kiss of peace — and is then sent out in that peace to love and serve her Lord in the world.
Our Gospel today presents us two models for our encounter with Christ, and for Christian ministry. Here are two models for service to the body of Christ which is the church — the household of God. All who serve the Lord are sinners, yet all who serve the Lord are forgiven. Some will prefer to spend their time worrying about other people’s sins and whether the church can tolerate them. They will seek to obstruct their service, thinking all the while that they protect God’s body from the touch of unclean hands, and are simply being good housekeepers — like Hyacinth Bucket making people take off their shoes before entering her spotless house — if she lets them enter at all. Others will get on with the hopeful works of faith and love, of justice and compassion — the kind of good housekeeping that accepts the fact that there will be some cleaning up to do from time to time, because so many people have been made welcome in the house. Is there any question at all which of these Christ would rather have us do? +