Love and Grace
Scriptures: Luke 7:36-50; Luke 5:27-32
This story appeared in the Spokane newspaper about ten years ago. It tells about an incident that happened in Washington, D. C.
A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capital Hill home, sipping red wine. Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14 year-old guest. “Give me your money, or I’ll start shooting,” he demanded….
The other five guests, including the girl’s parents, froze—and then one spoke. “We were just finishing dinner,” Christina “Cha Cha” Rowan, 43, blurted out. “Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?” The intruder took a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, “That’s good wine.”
The girl’s father, Michael Rabdau, … told the intruder to take the whole bottle. The would-be robber, his hood now down, took another sip and had a bite of Camembert cheese that was on the table. Then he tucked the gun into the pocket of his nylon sweatpants. “I think I may have come to the wrong house,” he said, looking around the patio. “I’m sorry,” he told the group. “Can I get a hug?”
Rowan … stood up and wrapped her arms around him. Then it was Rabdau’s turn. Then his wife’s. The other two guests complied. “That’s really good wine,” the man said, taking another sip. He had a final request: “Can we have a group hug?” The five adults surrounded him arms out. With that the man walked out with a crystal wine glass in hand, filled with Chateau Malescot. No one was hurt, and nothing was stolen (The Spokesman-Review, July 13, 2007).
In our second scripture reading Jesus is sitting at a dinner party with a Pharisee when an intruder comes in. I will talk about the intruder in a moment. But the first interesting thing to notice is that Jesus is having dinner with a Pharisee, a prominent religious leader. We often talk about Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners and other marginalized people. But here he is having dinner with a religious leader named Simon. Apparently Jesus will go to dinner with anybody: Pharisees or tax collectors, Republicans or Democrats, Trump supporters or Trump protestors. It does not matter. Jesus will hang out with any of them.
Why? In our first scripture reading, when Jesus is criticized for eating with Levi and his tax collector friends, he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Jesus accepts Levi’s invitation to dinner, because he knows that Levi is a sinner in need of forgiveness.
So what does that suggest about why Jesus went to dinner with a Pharisee? It means the Pharisee also needed Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, only the Pharisee did not realize it.
Then, like in the newspaper story, an intruder comes in, a woman known in the city as a sinner. In other words, a woman of ill-repute. For Simon this is proof that Jesus is not a prophet. He says to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’”
The irony is that Jesus not only knows about the woman, he knows about Simon. When Simon says, “If this man were a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is,” he is not talking to Jesus, he is talking to himself. He is thinking these thoughts. But Jesus knows what he was thinking. Jesus knows all about Simon just like he knows all about the woman.
So he responds to Simon’s thoughts with a parable. Two people owed money to a lender. One owed 500 denarii, about a year and a half worth of salary, while the other owed 50 denarii, about a month and a half of salary. The lender forgave both debts, just wrote them off the books. Then Jesus asks Simon, “Which of them will feel more love and gratitude to the lender?” Simon answers, “I suppose the one with the greater debt,” and Jesus says, “Right!”
Jesus’ point is that love is proportional to grace. The more grace you experience, the more you will be able to love.
It’s like the robber in the newspaper story: the experience of being offered some really good wine and cheese changes his feelings about the people at the party. Unexpected grace produces unexpected love.
Jesus then applies this parable to the woman and Simon. The woman, Jesus notes, shows extravagant love: wetting his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them with expensive ointment. Meanwhile Simon does not even offer Jesus a basin of water to wash his feet. Simon omits most of the usual courtesies a host was expected to offer to an important guest, like a basin of water to wash his feet or an embrace and kiss of greeting at the door.
Jesus points out the contrast between how he is treated by Simon and how he is treated by the woman. Then he says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” Notice Jesus does not say that the woman’s action procured her forgiveness. She shows great love not to earn forgiveness but out of gratitude for receiving it. It is just like in the parable: the person forgiven the greatest debt will feel the most love.
But then Jesus says to Simon, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Does this mean that Simon, the Pharisee, has little debt—that he has little need for forgiveness? No. Both Simon and the woman are sinners in need of forgiveness, but Simon does not realize it. Simon thinks he is doing Jesus a favor by inviting him to his house. That’s why Simon omits the other trappings of hospitality. He thinks he is doing Jesus a favor just by inviting him to dinner. It never occurs to him that Jesus is the one doing Simon a favor.
When you come to church, do you think you are doing God a favor, or that God is doing you a favor? I’ll just let you think about that.
Simon thinks he is doing Jesus a favor. It never occurs to him that he might need a favor from Jesus, that he might need Jesus’ forgiveness and grace just as much as the woman kissing Jesus’ feet. And that’s why he has such a hard time loving people, not only the woman but even Jesus.
If we have trouble loving people and forgiving people, perhaps it is because we have forgotten how much love and forgiveness we have been given. If we have trouble showing compassion and grace to people, maybe it’s because we have forgotten how much compassion and grace God has shown to us.
I mentioned once before a book by Sara Miles called Take this Bread. Sara grew up with parents who were militant atheists, avoiding religion like the plague. Sara herself was skeptical of religion just like her parents. But one day during a walk on Sunday morning, she decided on impulse to go into a church near her home—St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. She got there just as the service was starting, and to her surprise she was hooked. Sitting in that church service taking communion, she found something she did not even know she was missing: a sense of being claimed and loved by Someone greater than herself and participating in a mission—a purpose in life—that was bigger than her own self-fulfillment.
She kept going back to the church week after week. But over time she discovered that she had issues dealing with some of the other people in the church. She writes,
Probably because I felt so defensive about my lack of formal education, money, and official Christian formation, I tended to get irritated with the members of St. Gregory’s community. I thought they were clubby and precious; I sneered at their early music concerts. As I ducked out the door at coffee hour, fleeing from one more generous attempt at conversation, I would feel by turns superior, condescending, horribly inadequate.
Yet my own snobbery couldn’t protect me from being drawn, more deeply, into the place. I had to admit that these people, all their specific flaws intact, had opened the door to grace—not because they had good taste, not because they were rich, not because they were exceptionally intelligent or even likeable, …[but] because they—no matter how imperfectly—were committed to letting in clueless and unprepared strangers like me: because they believed in the absolute value of welcoming people who didn’t belong (p. 81).
When we experience grace, when we recognize that we too are sinners need of Jesus’ forgiveness, it makes it easier to show grace toward others. And when we show grace toward others, it become easier to experience it for ourselves.