Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sighting Your North Star

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Pentecost includes I Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

What primary values do you live by? Of all the influences that swirl around you and within you, which of them is your North Star, guiding the course of your life?

Examples—from poor through questionable to laudable-- appear in our readings today.

There’s King Ahab of the greedy eye, coveting his neighbor’s vineyard. Greed is one mighty influence.

His wife Jezebel (and did anyone after this name a daughter Jezebel?) has a conniving mind hungering for power, preferring violence as her shortcut. A violent spirit influences all who see it at work in this Queen of Eminent Domain.

And (speaking of violence) there’s the prophet Elijah, whom we met last week in the widow’s house at Zarephath. He’s shown today as someone not to mess around with. “I have found you,” he growls ominously at Ahab. There’s a long history between these two men. “I will bring disaster on you,” insists Elijah, with colorful predictions of what that will look like. Actually, as Elijah stories go, this one is PG-13 by comparison to the R story when this prophet of Yahweh single-handedly despatches several hundred prophets of the false god Baal. While that could earn him a reputation for being vindictive, he is celebrated as a great vindicator of the true God of Israel, and as the champion of the common people like Naboth the vinegrower. Bloody as it is reported to have been, Elijah’s moral compass pointed to the North Star of God’s righteous judgement and persistent justice.

Some people live, understand their world, and make their choices through the terms and logic of law. St. Paul devotes most of his letters to revealing the futility of letting religious law be our primary influence as Christians.

And to reinforce that lesson, a Pharisee appears in our Gospel. This disciplined, principled, civilized, responsible man has invited Jesus to come to his table to eat a meal. What happens next reveals the values that Jesus lives by.

A woman of the city enters, uninvited. We could spend some time looking up that phrase “woman of the city” in a Greek lexicon, but I’ll guess that wouldn’t change our hunch that we know what’s happening here. Two cultures are colliding, crashing, conflicting. No, make that three. Catch what’s happening to each.

First, the host watches his plans for the evening fall apart. The earnest discussion he intended to have with the street preacher Jesus has been replaced by what the Pharisee must experience as spontaneous theater, fully out of his control unless he chooses to make an ugly scene of it.

Second, the woman barely gets to open that jar she carries. She is so flooded with gratitude for what has already happened in the public ministry of Jesus, that as she approaches him she breaks into crying the tears of the redeemed and the relieved. The context for this? Just verses before, Jesus has been declared a friend of tax collectors and sinners and they know that this is true: he loves them.

And third, Jesus is laying down his life like a bridge over troubled water, between these two distant residents of their one neighborhood. Like the other guests at table, he is reclining on pillows, supported by his left arm, eating with his right hand from a mat on which bowls and platters of food are arranged, his feet pointing away from the mat. And around that perimeter of feet (try to remember that image next Maundy Thursday, when we wash feet) was a larger circle of street people and neighbors who had come to watch the meal. In a culture with limited opportunities for private entertainment, people flocked to occasions that could be turned into free public entertainment.

If this banquet was set in an interior room, neighbors were ringing the walls. Just as likely, it was an outdoor courtyard, and they were draped on the railings, taking it all in by sound and sight, wishing it could be by hand and mouth.

This really was open street theater, and each of our three key players experiences it uniquely.

The Pharisee stiffens from years of training. The woman releases her pain from a lifetime of abuse. Jesus deftly reaches them both, reaches within their souls, relates them to each other.

But where are we in this story? How do we relate to Simon the Pharisee? Can we admit to being just as sure in our knowing within our own world of relationships that this person or that person is a sinner? Do our assumptions about people (who they really are, what kind of man or woman?) get us in any less trouble than he finds himself in? Do we contain ourselves in superiority as he does, and so close down (as he does) from opening our hearts to strangers, losing each opportunity to open ourselves more and more to God?

And do we have the courage of this woman who allows her tears to bathe the feet of Jesus—trusting him to care, bonding herself to him in her honesty and his compassion—the courage of this woman who, letting down her hair to wipe his feet, spotlights her public crossing of boundaries meant to keep the sexes separate? Her actions are as if she takes a diamond to the glass that separates woman from man, and scratches a great arc on the windowpane; she has pressed so hard that when Jesus touches, the glass falls and they reach through the frame where hand finds hand.

The host is scandalized, first by the woman, then by Jesus who allows her behavior; together, they shatter the social conventions known to every person in that room. How will the Pharisee respond? How would you respond?

Even before he does, how deftly Jesus maneuvers the moment. The host hasn’t yet opened his mouth, but Jesus reads his face and is aware of what he’s thinking. So, listen to a commentator: “At banquets and feasts it was common for the host or guests to pose riddles for one another in a contest of wit and wisdom. Jesus poses for Simon a riddle based on the convention of patron-client relationships.” Notice, a benevolent patron, a point not to be lost on Simon as Jesus tells this story of a resourceful person who declares amnesty, forgiving all parties involved. Generosity like this goes beyond what the law demands. Jesus, by the way, is generously helping Simon save face in the midst of all this scandalizing. Jesus loves Simon, as prickly as Simon is.

Then Jesus teaches Simon that the impact of forgiveness seems to vary from person to person, in direct proportion to how much debt they’ve had forgiven. Grudgingly, Simon admits that he gets it. But Jesus has, by his riddle, sprung the trap that now catches Simon. “Jesus
exposes the contrast between Simon’s lack of hospitality and the woman’s selfless adoration of Jesus.” A good host would provide water and a servant to wash a guest’s feet. A host might embrace and kiss a guest, could freshen a traveler by anointing him with oil. Simon had done none of these things; the woman had provided all, completing the host’s role for him.

As he teaches Simon (and, of course, the crowd encircling them, a crowd that includes you and me), Jesus says that this woman’s loving act is evidence that she has been forgiven much. He celebrates this fact by announcing her absolution: “Your sins are forgiven! Your faith has saved you. You are free. Choose wisely. Go in peace.”

But don’t you have a hunch that she’ll be among the disciples who stay with and follow Jesus?

Simon could have gone to bed that night contenting himself with the memory that Jesus had implied that his host had, of course, little to be forgiven. But that is not what Jesus said, or meant. Jesus was reaching into Simon to free the power of insight to recognize his own need to be forgiven the weightier sins of a cold and neglectful heart shut by fear, prejudice, contempt, perhaps self-hatred.

What primary values do you live by? Of all the influences that swirl around you and within you, which of them is your North Star, guiding the course of your life?

The commentator mentioned in this sermon is R. Alan Culpepper, in “The New Interpreter’s
Bible”, Vol. IX, pp. 168-173. Abingdon Press, 1995.