Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Unfortunate Side Effect of Being Good

Luke 7:36-8:3

I feel sorry for Simon the Pharisee.
I really do.
Jesus really laid into him in this story.
And Simon was not a bad person.
There is nothing in scripture to indicate that Simon was
corrupt, or conceited, or rude, or self-centered,
or had any serious moral flaw whatsoever.
He was almost certainly a good, decent, respectful, loyal,
and devout human being.
I personally appreciate what Simon represents.
I feel some kinship with him, as a matter of fact.
I preach a lot about the renewal of the church,
about returning to what God intends for us as a people,
to our calling to a communal and missional life.
I preach about pleasing God,
about living the life we were created for.
That’s what Simon was doing.

Everything I know about the Pharisees,
would indicate that, like you and I, they were good folks,
who had valid and noble concerns
about the welfare of their people.
They were all about Israel’s spiritual renewal.

It was their firm and sincere belief,
that if Israel would ever be free from their brutal oppression
by the Roman Empire,
if one of their own would ever sit on the throne of David again,
it would be because they returned to their spiritual roots.
The Pharisees, like every other Jew alive,
were waiting for the Messiah to come and deliver them.
And many believed, according to their interpretation of scripture,
that the Messiah would come,
when they achieved holiness as a nation.
When they were spiritually ready,
the Messiah would come and save them from their oppressors.

So, let me put myself in Simon’s shoes.
Here I am, a recognized religious leader of my people,
concerned about my people’s spiritual well-being,
wanting to make sure they get ready for the Messiah,
by living righteous and holy lives
as set forth by the laws of Moses,
that they follow the holiness code
that grew out of Moses’ laws,
and follow it to the letter,
so that God will be pleased to send us the Messiah.

And here is Jesus, purporting to be a legitimate Rabbi,
with twelve disciples,
who is going around the countryside wowing people
with signs and wonders,
drawing huge crowds of admirers.
And the word “Messiah” is being whispered among them,
and that idea is beginning to spread.

And I, Simon, being a good Pharisee,
have reasonable doubts about this man from Nazareth.
He might have the greatest intentions,
but he seems misguided, at best.
I heard he doesn’t require his disciples to fast,
he openly mingles with tax collectors and sinners,
even sits at their tables, eats from their plates,
and he blatantly broke Sabbath law recently,
by publicly doing his work of healing, on the Sabbath!
But...he’s only getting started; he’s a new rabbi,
so I don’t want to write him off completely.
I do want to be respectful, give him a fair hearing.
Being a righteous man myself, I’m not going to get nasty,
and just start bad-mouthing him for no reason.

So I extend the noble gesture of hospitality.
I invite him to my home.
I’m not going to bend over backwards
and make him think I’m a great fan of his,
but I’ll be nice, polite, and let him make his case.
If I listen to him respectfully,
he’ll be ready to listen to me,
and maybe with a little gentle coaxing,
I can help him out a bit, get him back on course.
He could be a good rabbi, yet,
and help us all get ready for the Messiah.

Standing in Simon’s shoes,
I think that’s what I would be thinking.
If you have your Bibles open to Luke 7, where this story comes from,
flip back a few pages, and check out the two chapters
leading up this story.
Interesting stuff here.
This is still early in Jesus’ ministry.
The Pharisees were not yet Jesus’ sworn enemies,
but they were getting increasing puzzled, and disturbed.
They wondered about him.
They kept asking him “why” questions, questions with an edge.
5:30—“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
5:33—“Why do your disciples not fast?”
6:2—“Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
6:11—the first sign of anger toward Jesus
was when he healed a man on the Sabbath.

So Simon—concerned, skeptical, puzzled—invites Jesus to his home,
to be hospitable,
and to try to find out where he’s coming from.

And no sooner does his friendly dinner party begin,
than in walks this known sinner of a woman,
who behaves in an absolutely scandalous way toward Jesus.
Weeping, touching his feet,
letting down her hair to dry them,
and then kissing his feet, and anointing them.
And Jesus sits there, doing nothing to stop her.
It’s clear to Simon (see v. 39) that Jesus is no prophet,
or he would know what kind of woman this is.
A rabbi willingly lets himself become unclean, impure.
How can he do that, when he knows perfectly well,
that individually, and as a community,
we must remain pure, and holy, and righteous,
or the Messiah will never come.

I love what happens next. Jesus turns and says,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
Simon replies, “Teacher...speak.”
And Jesus tells a two-sentence story.
“A certain creditor had two debtors;
one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them.”
End of story. Then Jesus asks,
“Which of them will love him more?”
Simon answered,
“I suppose...the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Jesus says, “Right you are.”
So far, so good. Simon gave the right answer.

But then Jesus turns personal, and offensive.
He compares Simon to the sinful woman,
and says Simon is the one who doesn’t measure up!
“I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet,
but she has bathed my feet with her tears...
You gave me no kiss,
but...she has not stopped kissing my feet.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Whoa! As if Simon had not just opened his personal home to Jesus,
shared his space,
spread out a nice meal,
and served up good wine.
And Jesus, the guest, has the nerve
to criticize Simon for what he didn’t do.
He didn’t wash his feet, or anoint his head,
or give him a kiss of greeting.
Okay, so Simon chose not to pull out all the stops
and treat Jesus like a greatly honored guest.
He had Jesus here to check him out, after all,
not to make him feel like royalty.
Simon is playing an honorable role here,
as a good, polite, hospitable Pharisee,
who’s trying to please God and do right by his people.
And a known sinner woman comes in and behaves badly,
and Jesus publicly honors her, and humiliates him!

Do you see why I say I feel sorry for Simon the Pharisee?
He’s concerned about pleasing God like I am.
Concerned about the welfare of his people like I am.
He is a decent, honest, community-minded citizen.
He is a good man.

But there is an unfortunate side effect of being good.
In the words of Jesus,
“the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
There’s a built-in weak spot in good people like me,
and like Simon, and like most of us here.
We are not in the best position to give and receive radical love.
It’s harder to recognize and accept the gift of forgiveness
when it is offered to us,
because we don’t realize how much we need it.
And it’s harder to give it to others,
because it’s obvious how much they don’t deserve it.

It was patently obvious in Simon’s house,
which character was the good person,
and which one was the sinner.
Even Jesus didn’t dispute that point.
He knew the woman was a sinner.
And he knew Simon was a righteous man.
But the more important difference between the two,
was how ready they were to give and receive the radical love of God,
how ready they were to respond in gratitude
to the unmerited love and mercy of God.

The sinful woman had no reputation to protect,
she had no worry about what people would think of her.
The only thing on her mind, apparently,
was how to show her love and gratitude to Jesus.
Because it was through the presence and ministry of Jesus,
that she experienced the deep and unconditional love of God,
for the first time in her life.
She was broken in her sinfulness, and she knew it.
But she had been forgiven, and forgiven much.
So the only response that made sense to her,
was to lavish that love and gratitude
on the one who showed her the radical love that changed her life,
even if it came across as irrational,
even if it offended some people.

But we good people don’t often get to that point.
We are too busy protecting our good reputation,
being cautious who we hang out with,
too busy convincing ourselves and others of our goodness.
We rarely come face to face with our need for forgiveness,
our deep need to be redeemed by God,
our need to be saved.
What? We need to be saved? From what, we ask?

Next time we are tempted to brush aside this idea
that we are sinners,
in desperate need of God’s saving grace in Jesus,
think of Simon.
Remember that Jesus turned and said,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
Chances are, if we are good people like Simon,
Jesus would have something similar to say to us.

Being satisfied with the state of our righteousness is a dangerous thing.
It’s not only the Gospel reading that tells us that.
All the scripture we heard today underscores that point.
In 2 Samuel, King David was sure he was the righteous one,
and was indignant when he heard prophet Nathan
tell about this rich man who butchered the pet lamb
of his poor neighbor.
Until Nathan said, “You are the man.”
The poet in Psalm 32, in his day of suffering,
refused to face his sin head on,
and he wasted away in silence, it says.
And in Galatians 2,
it’s the righteous, law-abiding Jewish Christians,
who have a hard time dealing with the fact that Gentiles
who didn’t follow the law,
stood equally justified before God.
There is an unfortunate side effect of being good.
It makes it harder to face our sin.
It makes it harder to appreciate the gift of forgiveness
which is offered to those who turn toward God,
who repent of their sin.
And it makes it harder to offer the gift of forgiveness
to others who don’t deserve it,
especially to those who we look at,
and it’s patently obvious how great their sin is,
compared to ours.
But it need not be this way.

There’s a story I want us to hear,
a sort of modern day version of the Luke 7 story.
Only in this case, Simon does the right thing.
The righteous one in this story,
the one who had the moral high ground,
readily, and amazingly, offered love and forgiveness
to one who obviously did not deserve it.
We are fortunate to have this Simon with us today,
and to tell the story himself.
He is a Mennonite pastor from south Central Java, in Indonesia,
named Paulus Hartono.
Pastor Hartono, will you come and share your story?

Paulus Hartono's words:
I live in Solo City, in Central Java. Solo is an Indonesian city noted for its many riots. Twelve times big riots have happened there. Some Islamic groups hate Chinese people and Christians. They want Indonesia to become an Islamic state. They hate the Chinese because Chinese have control of the economy. They hate Christians because they assume that Christian religion came to Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule, and that Christians are now oppressing the Muslims of the world in places like Iraq and Palestine.

In 1998 a big riot happened in my city. Almost 60 percent of shops, businesses and houses owned by Chinese people were burned. Some members of my congregation were victims of this riot. My congregation has 250 members; almost 25 percent are Chinese and 75 percent are Javanese. After the riot, I tried to teach forgiveness. For the first several years it was very difficult. They refused. But I continued to teach them to forgive like Jesus teaches us to do. When I contemplate Jesus’ words: “I send you out as sheep among wolves,” I know that I want teach my people to forgive through real actions of building relationships with the people who hurt us.

In 2003, the first time I visited the base camp of these radical Muslims, I saw many big signs with angry words like “NO COMPROMISE.” The commander told me that Chinese and Christian are infidels and “kafir” who may be killed or kidnaped.

I worked for two years to build a relationship with this man and I have seen good developments. The angry signs have disappeared. In 2005 they destroyed some churches in our city. I called the commander by phone and invited him to meet and talk and share together with some Christian pastors. This worked very well. It started to wake up our understanding of one another.

For the next days I invited him to go with me to help tsunami victims in Aceh in northern Sumatra where our churches were doing relief work. For two weeks we lived together, ate together, sometimes cooking together, singing and sharing together. After that experience the commander said to me, ”I have a second definition of an infidel ”kafir”. That is a “brotherly infidel”, one that we can trust and build friendship with.

From 2005 to 2007 we continued with a program of giving training in “peace building” to all of his member commandos. When we have a good opportunity, I ask them to share about their experience. When commander tells his story about the harsh way he treated Christians and Chinese, he weeps and apologizes, and I tell him that we have forgiven all of you.

One day the commander came again and explained that he now has a third definition infidel ”kafir”, that is the “kind infidel,” one they must trust and respect. Now they call me commander, too, although I have no gun because I am a Mennonite.

[end of Pastor Hartono's words]


I do think there is a connection between
the ability of Pastor Hartono and his congregation
to look honestly at their own lives,
and recognize their own need for God’s grace and forgiveness,
and their ability to reach out in radical love and forgiveness
to one who so clearly did not deserve it,
to see, in their enemy, the spark of God’s image,
their common humanity.

May we all be so honest with ourselves and with God,
that we hold our lives before God and each other as an open book.
Repenting of our sin.
Seeking forgiveness and healing.

There’s a wonderful hymn text about someone who did just that.

In the stillness of the evening
inner restlessness befalls me
which I cannot overpower.

In the midst of joy and gladness
at the day’s abundant blessings,

silent pain is ever near me.

My defeats loom large before me,
and I know the day now passing
has been crushed to many pieces.

But as day draws to its closing
I surrender all my unrest
to the One who is beside me.

God is greater that our conscience.
He who know that I am helpless,
from the weight of guilt will free me.
All my troubled thoughts are quiet
for I am, in all my weakness,
still beloved and accepted.

Jesus Christ’s own word and promise
comes to me, a gift of mercy:

“All your sins are now forgiven!”
Thus the pieces lying broken
shall this very day be lifted
into love’s eternal wholeness.

If new days to me are given,
every hour with grace abounding
will give hope of new beginnings.

Peace of mind protects my slumber.
Courage is restored for living.
I can meet the new tomorrow!

—Phil Kniss, June 17, 2007

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