The Debt of Gratitude

SJF • Proper 6c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

Saint Peter once said, “God is no respecter of persons.”Acts 10:34 A more contemporary church leader, the late Canon Edward Nason West of our own cathedral church, put it more bluntly when he said, “God loves everybody; he simply has no taste.” What they both meant by this is that God is completely unimpressed by people’s self-righteous attempts to get on his good side, and that God is also completely at ease with sinners who struggle to turn to him in faith, however low they may have fallen.

In our Gospel today we have both sorts of people. Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man, a man who has followed all the rules, colored within the lines, payed his taxes on time and stayed within the speed limit. And he’s rather pleased with himself. That’s not to say he thinks himself perfect. He knows that he must have missed the odd requirement of the Law here or there so insignificant that it may have slipped his mind, done something in ignorance without intending to. But on the whole his conscience is clear; and to cover all his bases, every year he will have gone up to the Temple to make the guilt offering to cover any of those sins he might have committed unintentionally and in ignorance, just to keep the accounts balanced. Simon is content with his own righteousness. As far as he’s concerned, his debts are paid; he doesn’t owe God anything — he thinks.

Suddenly, into his neat and orderly world, there comes this woman, this sinner, the kind of person Simon would have crossed to the street two blocks away to avoid even coming near her. The very odor of her perfume would make him sick to his stomach. And not only does this woman of the streets come right into the dining room — along with a whole jar of her offensive perfumed ointment — but she then puts on a scandalous display, uncovering her head and loosening her hair (neither of which any respectable woman of that day would even think of doing in public) and then bending down and weeping and wiping his guest’s feet — with her hair! — and covering them with that expensive perfumed ointment.

And you can well picture the look on that Pharisee’s face as the odor of the perfume wafts down the table in his direction. And no doubt his face betrays his dismay, dismay at this woman’s interruption, and further dismay that Jesus doesn’t react the way he would, cringing from the touch of those unclean hands, if not kicking them away! Yet Jesus seems unperturbed by it all. “Just what is going on here?” the Pharisee asks himself.

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And so may we. First of all, to understand this scene, we need to picture this dinner the way it would have taken place two thousand years ago. People in those days, in that time and place, didn’t sit on chairs at a dinner table. They reclined on couches, leaning on their elbows, dining off a low table, usually C or U-shaped, with all the guests on one side. Leonardo da Vinci got the picture partly right in the “Last Supper” — everyone on one side of the table — though he placed the disciples on chairs rather than on couches. But if you’ve seen any of those gladiator movies, or stories of ancient Rome, you’ve seen what a classical banquet was like. Servants would wait on the table from inside the U, a very convenient way to avoid having to reach around or over the dinner guests to serve and clear the table. So you can picture Simon, and Jesus, and the other guests, reclining on couches. And this, of course, is how the woman of the city was able to stand “behind Jesus at his feet,” and wipe them with her hair, which would have been quite impossible had he been sitting on a chair at a modern dinner table! So as Jesus continues to recline on the couch, this woman is at the other end, weeping and wiping his feet with that perfumed ointment. And he just lets her do it.

Well, Simon is aghast! The odor of scandal is steaming towards him in an offensive cloud. Bad enough this woman has gate-crashed his dinner party, bad enough that she’s acting like this, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least! And that only increases Simon’s dismay.

What Simon has missed in all of this is that when Jesus accepted his invitation to dinner, when Jesus consented to spend time with him, it was just as much an act of grace as when Jesus allowed this fallen woman to wash his feet. Though Simon’s debt may have been smaller, it was a debt nonetheless.

That’s the God’s honest truth, and Jesus tells a little parable, much in the style of that parable we heard Nathan tell David, a parable to try to get the Pharisee to see. Who will show more gratitude: the one whose cancelled debt is big or the one whose cancelled debt is small?

For the Pharisee has forgotten that he has been forgiven too, that in spite of all his best efforts, he still has a spiritual debt —a debt of thanks — maybe not as much as the woman of the streets, but a debt nevertheless. But since he feels that whatever sins he’s committed and been forgiven for are so small, hardly worth mentioning, he doesn’t feel much gratitude towards God for forgiving them. After all, that’s the deal, isn’t it? The Pharisee’s attitude is: “I follow the rules, I do the right sacrifices, I fast on the right days, I say the right prayers, and if I do happen to make some small mistake, commit some small sin, God forgives me, right? So I should be grateful, too? I’m the one doing all the work!” And because he is forgiven what in his own eyes is little, he loves little, showa little gratitude. After all, he thinks he’s earned forgiveness.

The woman, on the other hand, has sinned big time and she knows it! But she also knows that she has been forgiven big time. Although she has been in the gutter — perhaps because she’s been in the gutter — she knows just how low she’s gone. She can’t go any lower! Like the prodigal son she has come to her senses because she has lost everything, but also because she has seen the rescuing hand of God, reaching out to her, the hand that is there for her. From where she has fallen she can see God reaching out to her, and her heart overflows with gratitude.

Oscar Wilde once said, when someone accused him of living in the gutter, “Sir, we are all in the gutter, only some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde remembered what the Pharisee forgot: that all — all — are sinners in the eye of God, that “there is none righteous, no not one,” and that all forgiveness comes from God, and that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven.” Happy — full of gratitude! The Pharisee walks down the street so carefully, eyes downcast to avoid stepping in something unpleasant, or having to deal with people of the wrong sort, people from whom he averts his gaze as he walks with downcast eyes, he never looks up to see the grace unfolding around him: grace working in others, and grace available for him, if he only realized he needed it just as much as they.

But the sinful woman, from where she has fallen, even from the gutter, turns to God in faith and hope. And her heart overflows with gratitude in the knowledge that God has not rejected her; God, unlike the Pharisee, does not turn his gaze from her, but looks into her eyes with the forgiveness that breaks her heart, and opens it. God has not abandoned her or lost track of her no matter how far from the path of righteousness she has strayed.

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What is important to learn from this Gospel is not that those who love are forgiven the debt of sin, but rather that those who are forgiven the debt of sin still owe a debt of love. Note carefully what Jesus says: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence — that is, because of that — she has shown great love.” The woman’s love does not cause God’s forgiveness any more than the Pharisee’s righteousness causes forgiveness. You just can’t earn God’s forgiveness. No way, no how! God loves us and forgives us because it is God’s nature to love and forgive. Not because we’ve earned his love, but because we are his children. Forgiveness is his gift to us. And the Pharisee and the streetwalker, and all of us, are forgiven by God as we turn to him by grace and in faith, whether our sins be scarlet, or the palest shade of pink — we all receive the forgiveness that comes from a gracious and loving God, free and unmerited. And when those waters of forgiveness pour over us we should shout out in gratitude, loving our God who loved us and saved us.

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This is a hard teaching to understand, and it has divided the church from the days when Paul wrote to the Galatians on up through the Reformation and even today. But the Gospel truth is clear, the truth Paul preached and Peter waffled on: God is no respecter of persons, and we are justified by faith, not by doing the works of the law.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to do good; nor does it mean we should consciously go on doing bad — heaven forbid! What it does mean is that we should never forget that we are children of a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; and that whatever we have done or failed to do, God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ — he has nailed all of our sins to the cross, all of them — and in thanks and gratitude for the grace he has shown us we should love him in return.

We gather here to give thanks to our heavenly Father for all his goodness and loving-kindness to us. By his grace we all have been forgiven whatever we have done amiss, whether much or little. Can we do anything but give thanks to him, to show him our love for him by loving each other, as he commanded us to do? Search your hearts, my brothers and sisters, search your hearts and give thanks to God for all he has done for you, for the mercy he has shown you in forgiving your sins and drawing you close to him. Break open the alabaster jars of your hearts and pour out the abundant and fragrant oil of loving thanks to the Lord, the Almighty, and give him the praise and thanksgiving worthy of his Name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +