I don’t know how many of you caught the ‘Democrats can to be religious’ special on CNN a couple of weeks back. One of the segments that has been getting air time is the one where an audience member asks John Edwards what his worst sin was. His response was something like, ‘What day are you talking about?’
The idea of sin has a bit of a checkered history in this country. Except for some Christian conservatives and other religious fundamentalists, it’s not a topic we talk about much. And even some of those who do talk about it are uncomfortable with the topic.
There was a time, of course, when sin was taken real seriously in this country. It was a live topic for a majority of people. But things changed so dramatically that by the 1970’s one of the more noted religious publications was the book Whatever Happened to Sin?
What happened is that we came up with a compromise as old as the story we read from Luke’s gospel today. Yes, sin exists. But it’s mainly something other people do.
Simon the Pharisee was outraged when this notorious woman, this sinner, had the gall to approach one of his guests at his dinner table.
And he also began to wonder about Jesus, or perhaps have his suspicions confirmed. If this guy was the prophet some claimed him to be why couldn’t he figure out what kind of woman it was that was making such a fuss over him. Only two kinds of woman let their hair down in a man’s presence. A man’s wife, or the woman who definitely wasn’t the man’s wife. This unclean woman was not only touching Jesus, but it was looking a whole lot more sensuous than any rabbi should come close to allowing.
Simon’s doubts about the claims of Jesus being a prophet must has been shaken, though, when Jesus turned to Simon and responded to what Simon was thinking. Remember, Simon doesn’t voice his outrage at what is going on. He thinks he is keeping it to himself. But not so.
It’s not that Jesus didn’t know what kind of woman was being so provocative. It’s just that it didn’t embarrass him, nor did he care about how it might be construed. There was something going on that was much more important than social norms, no matter how seriously people took those norms. Here was a woman who had found life and hope and healing and forgiveness in Jesus. She could come out of the shadows into the light of God. So why would Jesus really care what Simon or anybody else thought?
Jesus asks Simon a question. It went something like this. “Let’s suppose, Simon, that there were two folk who owed the bank money. One owed $20,000 and the other $200,000. One day they both get letters in the mail saying the bank had decided to write of their debt. Which one do you think would be more grateful?”
By this time Simon must have realized, prophet or not, that Jesus was leading him into a trap. So he answers, perhaps with a bit of hesitation, “the one who had the larger debt.’ “Correct,” Jesus says.
So what are we supposed to get out of this story? Is it that Jesus wants Simon to rejoice because this really bad woman, has found forgiveness for her multitude of sins, while Simon rests in the fact that he’s led a pretty righteous life with little need of forgiveness? I don’t think so.
What I do think Jesus is trying to do is to get Simon to reexamine his assumptions in his cost of sinning index. Here’s another way to look at that question Jesus asked Simon about the two folk in debt. If you have no money, and no prospect of getting any, your $20,000 debt might as well be $200,000. And when that debt is forgiven, it doesn’t really matter how much bigger or smaller anyone else’s debt is. Life is going to be a lot better. It feels like you get to start over, no matter what the debt was.
“Do you see that woman over there?” Jesus says to Simon. You may think she is the worst sinner this town has ever produced. But what sins could she have committed that are any worse than you not really seeing her? All you you do it catagorize her as a sinner who is nothing at all like you. But she is a woman with a name, and a history. She has family and friends. She has struggles, and now she has found life. She’s not just some woman who shouldn’t be touching me. She is a human being like you, and you haven’t really ever seen her before, though you have probably passed by her a thousand times, and said all kinds of rude things about her.
Simon thought he had it all figured out. He knew that woman was a sinner, and he wasn’t. But Jesus wouldn’t let him continue to delude himself.
Last week, Mary and I were at our daughter Rachel’s graduation at Ohio State where she received her Masters of Social Work degree. The commencement speaker was President Bill Clinton. Talk about someone who has had to confront sin in his life. He gave a great address. He talked to the graduates about what it was going to take to make the world secure enough so that their children and grandchildren would one day be graduating from college themselves. He said the key for the future of this world is for us to ‘stop obsessing about our differences.’
All Simon could see was not some real flesh and blood human being who was a lot like him, as Bill Clinton said, ‘shared 99.9 percent of his DNA,’ but some nonentity who was different from him. And it was one of the sharpest distinctions of his culture and ours. She was a woman and he was a man.
But Jesus would have nothing to do with it. And to drive the point home, Luke goes on in the next few verses to mention the many women who kept Jesus’ ministry going. If it hadn’t been for them, none of us would be reading the New Testament today. Jesus needed these many women. They were a vital part of his mission, and crucial to the life of the early church as Luke points out the book of Acts. Among these many women and others there were pastors, evangelists, deacons, prophets, and apostles, as well as financial benefactors. It is something the church has been trying to hide ever since. Doesn’t it take more than a bit of sin to try to wipe out the place of women in the early church?
So whose sin is greater than anyone else’s? To whom is forgiveness, new life in Jesus, any sweeter? Simon had a lot to learn from that woman, that’s why Jesus wanted him to take a good look at her. Simon was simply looking at a sinner, and a woman, no less. Jesus was showing him someone who had found forgiveness for her guilt and her fear.
There are a couple of details left out of the story that I wish were there. The first is this. Was this Jesus’ first personal encounter with this woman. Had he sat down and talked with her before like he did with that woman at the well in Samaria? Or had she just heard him preach, seen his love in action, and realized that she could find her life in him? The folk at the dinner objected to Jesus’ claim he could forgive sin. She didn’t. What kind of contact had there been for her to realize there was forgiveness in him?
The other thing I wonder is what happened with Simon after Jesus encouraged him to take a good look at the woman who had experienced forgiveness and love. Did Simon realize that he could experience the same forgiveness and love? Or did he cling to his need to be different from her? To see her as the sinner, but not himself?
It’s true that Jesus didn’t like what the Pharisees did, but he didn’t think they were irredeemable. He believed Simon could find the same life this woman had found, and Jesus was as willing to be a friend of the Pharisees as he was the sinners. And it just happens to turn out that Pharisees were sinners, too.
All you have to do is pick up a newspaper and you will be quickly convinced that sin is a reality in this world. Look at what is happening in Iraq, in the Middle East, in Darfur, in Cleveland, the poorest city in the nation. We have traded falling in love for hooking up, in our greed insisted that we can live by bread alone, and believe that all it takes for life to be better is a better high.
We may not feel comfortable using the word sin, but the concept it there. We are doing what’s right and good and natural. Those other folk aren’t. They are creating the wars. They don’t care what happens to the environment. They are the ones oppressing others. They are the ones who aren’t in touch with their spirituality. But it is not everybody else who is the sinner. It’s all of us. We all have trouble really seeing each other, amongst other sins. That’s why something like the Juneteenth Community Picnic is so valuable. It helps us to see each other, because we able to look past the economic, racial, income, gender, educational divides and see each other as individuals who live in the same community.
We all have fallen short of what God wants for us, what others want for us, what we want for ourselves. But this woman comes along and can’t stop crying. In Jesus she has found forgiveness, she has found a way to love. We don’t need to figure out which sin is the greatest because there is no sin greater than grace, no need more important than the need we carry.
When we see this woman we see that we are all in this together in our own vulnerability. And we are all in this together with the Jesus who is bold enough to forgive our sins and let us touch him. He really is a friend of sinners, our friend who brings us life. That’s worth making a fuss over, no matter what anyone else thinks.