I don’t usually bother to post my sermons here – I generally reckon anyone who wants to hear them will be there in church for it. But I thought what I needed to say this morning was worth saying; and I certainly needed to hear it myself.
Here it is.
How Much Do You Love Jesus?
After all the excitements that Alison and I enjoyed last Sunday, I’ve been really looking forward to something calm, prayerful, peaceful, uplifting.
We went to two churches while we were on holiday, in the diocese that calls itself Eds and Ips. One very lively, evangelical, full, but kind of totally out of control. (Vacancy) A number of songs – can’t remember exactly how many because they were repeated so many times I lost count of when we were starting a new one. I only knew one of them… And no one spoke to us, in any welcoming kind of way. The other – well, it was the evening service and the woman priest had done 3 other services on the same day so she was recycling a sermon as I’ve been known to do. She introduced it as choral evensong – only there was no choir! only 11 of us. But we were made to feel thoroughly welcome: in fact they said they hoped we had just moved to the area because they wanted to sign us up for the choir.
So, quite exciting and emotionally rather strange. And leaves me with lots of continuing questions about worship, and the whole balance between what’s popular, accessible, contemporary, helping a congregation to learn and grow. What is worship for? What should be its result? And nice to be home. I wonder if this will be the kind of service I was hoping for?
Anyway, we’ve got this story in our Gospel reading, about Jesus going to Simon the Pharisee’s house for a meal. Jesus had quite a mixed, sometimes stormy, relationship with those people called Pharisees. He was quite close to them in one way: they took their faith seriously, and really tried to follow the Law, etc. So did Jesus. But he also had some of his hardest things to say about them: Matthew 23.13-14
But when Simon invited him to his house, Jesus accepted the invitation. It wasn’t, Ooh, I’m not darkening HIS doorstep, he’s a Pharisee! And it wasn’t, Well, I don’t care for him much, but hey, it’s a free lunch. (You thought there was no such thing, didn’t you?) It was: love. Jesus is concerned about, and interested in, every single person, every single one of us. And where he is invited, he never turns the invitation down. I want us just to pause and reflect on that, how amazing and wonderful it is, how much grace there is in it. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you may be: if you invite Jesus to be there, he will not turn you down, he will be there.
Hospitality is a wonderful gift; and so is the willingness to receive hospitality. A part of following Jesus is that we are to be like him, in giving and receiving hospitality.
Now, there were quite a few people there at this meal, but only two of them really take centre stage.
First, there’s this really crazy woman who’s come in off the streets, and ugh, she’s a real sinner – we’re not told in what way, but I guess everyone here has got a pretty good idea, right? Do you notice how quick we are, the world is, to judge and blame women? Are we any different, if that’s what we think this story is about, from the countries where a woman can be raped, and then it’s she who gets punished? Obviously it’s her fault. (And you know, we are one of those countries. Maybe not punishment like flogging, but the harsh cross-examination those girls had to go through at what was supposed to be the trial of their abusers?) This quite extraordinary display of weeping, bathing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, kissing his feet and pouring this expensive ointment on them.
Jesus was OK with that. Perhaps that’s even more extraordinary than accepting Simon’s invitation? Accepting the attentions of a woman like that. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you may be: if you want to do something for Jesus, or offer him something of yourself, he will accept, he’s not going to reject you or turn you away.
And the second person, of course, is Simon the Pharisee. A very proper, upright, godly, probably wealthy man, since he’s entertaining that many guests. And hospitable, up to a point: he’s even let this crazy woman off the streets into his house, though he would probably put her out quickly enough except he doesn’t want to make a scene with Jesus there, and Jesus apparently putting up with what’s going on. But that doesn’t stop him having his thoughts: What kind of person have I invited here today? This Jesus! He’s supposed to be some kind of a prophet, a man of God, but if he really was, surely he would know just what kind of a woman this crazy woman is. Surely he would know she wasn’t acceptable company for a religious person, wasn’t acceptable to God.
I suppose we often have our ideas about what is, or isn’t acceptable to God. Trouble is, it often turns out that no one has bothered to tell God about it. If we think about being an inclusive church (one of our core values, remember?) there’s a thought: talk to God and ask him who is and isn’t acceptable to him. How Jesus responds here, is surely a kind of In Block Capitals answer.
Now, these are two very different reactions to Jesus, the woman’s, and Simon’s. And when Jesus reads Simon’s thoughts – he can do that kind of thing – he really puts him on the spot. He compares Simon’s cool welcome of him, with the woman’s passionate, OTT welcome. With this little parable of the two debtors. One is forgiven a debt of 500 denarii, the other of 50 denarii. Which one will love the creditor more? Well, I suppose the one who was given more: Simon gives the right answer (it’s not rocket science).
This is the question this passage challenges me with, us with: How much do you love Jesus? What is it that determines how much we love Jesus? Jesus gives us the answer: v.47. It’s all a question of how much we have been forgiven. Or how much we think we have been forgiven.
Simon didn’t think he had been forgiven all that much, because, well, he didn’t need to be. He was a good man, more virtuous than pretty much all his acquaintance, and certainly more virtuous than this crazy woman. And maybe we feel like that. Oh, sure: we come into church week by week and say those words of confession, but after all, we know we’re good people really, so God hasn’t really got to make a big effort to forgive us, he’s not going to break a sweat about it. What this story tells us is, that Simon was wrong. Just in being judgmental of this woman; and maybe by being rich, when there were poor people around; maybe he was a worse sinner than this woman, whatever she had done. And the consequence was, he didn’t love Jesus all that much; he was unable to receive all the forgiveness that he needed.
But this woman, with her crazy, extravagant, passionate outpouring of love and gratitude to Jesus. She knew she needed to be forgiven; and she knew she had been forgiven. Our God is a forgiving God. He forgives – without hesitation – all those who admit that they need it, that they’ve gone wrong, that they are sinners; and who turn to God for that forgiveness (instead of maybe trying to earn it by their own effort and good works); and who jolly well let God forgive them. Yes, because that’s true, it would be a very Simon-like thing to do, to say to God, Well thanks, but I don’t really want your FREE forgiveness, I’d much rather have a forgiveness that I’ve earned or deserved in some way… No. There’s only one kind of forgiveness: forgiveness on God’s terms.
Jesus’ parables are often rather binary in nature, they offer us a choice of two possibilities. You can do this, or that; be like this, or that. Be like Simon the Pharisee, or the woman who was a sinner. What are we going to choose this morning? How much do you love Jesus?
I really wasn’t going to preach on this passage today. I looked at it, and thought: this is so familiar, I can’t think of anything to say about it. I’ve come to learn (I think) that that usually means this is a core passage, it really is at the heart of what Jesus wants us to know and to be. Take it to your heart.
How much do you need to be forgiven?
How much have you been forgiven?
How much do you love Jesus?