An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Who makes the grade?

A sermon on Luke 7: 36 – 8:3 by Nathan Nettleton

One of the things that becoming a Dad has done is help focus my mind on questions like what sort of community do I want her to grow up in? Because the kind of community she grows up in will be a factor in shaping the kind of person she becomes. What sort of values do I want to see shaping the community that is shaping my daughter? What sort of people do I hope will become the role models and mentors she is surrounded by?

The scripture readings set for this morning, especially the story of Jesus we heard before, ask of us some similar questions. What sort of people are we becoming? What sort of values shape the way we respond to one another? And most importantly, are those values healthy and life giving?

In the story we heard, Jesus is invited to a dinner party in the home of a dedicated religious man named Simon. For Simon there were very clear teachings about what sort of behaviours were acceptable and what weren’t, and he not only observed them rigorously, he sought to ensure that others did too. The religious law was the centre piece of his world view. He invited Jesus, probably expecting some learned and perhaps occasionally animated discussion among the guests about the centrality of the law, the code of conduct for all good people to live by.

To Simon’s dismay, the dignified atmosphere is broken by the unwelcome intrusion of woman. She’s sobbing loudly, massaging Jesus’ feet with some perfumed ointment, drying them with her hair and generally making quite a display. Now you can imagine how the invited guests feel. I mean, not only is this woman breaking in to their assembly in a most ill-mannered fashion, but look what she’s doing. She was all over him. Any more intimate and she’d have been taking her clothes off. How would you folk feel if in the middle of my sermon some bloke walked in bare chested and started giving Jane a sensuous foot massage right there in the middle of the circle. You wouldn’t know where to look would you? And to make matters worse, this woman had a reputation in the town. We don’t know why exactly, but whatever it was, the first word that came to everyone’s mind when they thought of her was “Sinner.”

Now although this was by no means expected behaviour everyone knew what the expected response from a religious man was. She must be shunned, put back in her place, kicked out. A religious man must be sober, dignified, respectable. He can’t go having his feet massaged in public, let alone by a woman of ill repute. And so if Jesus is a prophet, as so many had been saying, surely he’d be the first to condemn sin and demand that God’s law be rigidly observed.

So we’ve got two competing sets of expectations on Jesus here. Simon clearly expecting Jesus to condemn the woman and throw her out. The woman clearly expecting that he wouldn’t do that, because you can be dead set certain that she wouldn’t have walked in there unless she was expecting that Jesus would protect her, because she knew without a shadow of a doubt that no one else there was going to stick up for her. She felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Jesus about something, so much so that she just had to express it then and there in the most intimate fashion, and she clearly believed that Jesus would honour that even in the face of the horrified disapproval of his religious companions.

And he did. Jesus not only accepted her affections, but he used her as an example to Simon of what was wrong with him. Those who don’t feel that they’ve needed forgiving, those who feel they have earned their acceptability, their good reputation, they love little. They become arrogant and stuffy. So confident in their own cultivated goodness, they look down on those who haven’t done it their way.

Those, on the other hand, who know they never made the grade, but who are accepted and honoured as a pure act of grace are beside themselves with gratitude and love. This woman had never been treated with dignity and respect by anyone before Jesus now on the basis of her response, he declares that she is accepted by God as well, that her sins are forgiven. Outrageous!

This is an illustration of what the Apostle Paul said in our other reading: “A person is justified, or put right with God, not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Not being orthodox Jews,most of you won’t be accustomed to thinking of religious law as a basis for how you become acceptable. But is our culture really that different? I’m not so sure. We may be more divided up into distinct social tribes, but each has their own “law”, their own set of expectations to which you are required to conform or be ostracised from the group.

In one tribe you’re expected to wear op shop clothes and Doc Martin boots, go to the Pearl Jam concert, be a vegetarian, boycott Nestlé, call your favourite things “wicked” and talk a lot about being “real”.

In another tribe you’re expected to introduce yourself by exchanging business cards, work a 55 hour week, minimum, renovate a townhouse, and if the magazines are to be believed you’re now supposed to have a baby as well but not until you’re at least 32.

In another you’re supposed to wear black, go to lots of art exhibitions and poetry readings, drink pinot noir and café lattes and have an Amnesty International sticker on the back of your car.

And that’s just to name a few of our tribes. There’s nothing wrong with any of their particular codes of behaviour. In another it’s sensible shoes and manicured lawns. In mine it’s polartec jackets, micro-brewery beers and controversial causes. There’s nothing wrong with any of them. Like the sabbath laws for the Jews, they define our group identity and that’s OK.

If you try to live seriously outside those expectations, don’t expect to be accepted as part of that group. You might as well be walking in and doing foot massages at Simon the Pharisee’s place. You know the rules. You play by them or you’re an outcast.

And most of the time the church is just the same. You ask anyone who’s not involved in a church what the rules are for those who go to church and they’ll have no trouble giving you an answer. While claiming with Paul that we are justified not by the works of law but by faith in Jesus Christ, the church looks just like another group that operates with set expectations that you must measure up to.

And what intrigues me even more, is that many people in Australia who don’t even try to do the church thing will still tell you that they are Christians because they conform to another set of expectations that override the church ones. “I live by the golden rule. I do the right thing. I’m faithful to my wife. I look after my kids. I’m as Christian as the next bloke.”

But if we are justified not by what we do but by faith in Christ, then it doesn’t much matter which set of social expectations you measure up to because God is not the least bit interested in how competent you are at living up to a set of expectations, no matter how good a set it is. God is looking for relationship, for friendship, for intimacy. With you. And it is being offered to you with absolutely no preconditions other than your willingness to respond. There is no behavioural entrance test.

Unfortunately for most of us, our ability to meet the expectations of our particular tribe blinds us to our need for grace, for acceptance that is absolutely undeserved and unearnable, for pure unconditional, unmerited love. We’re doing OK. We’re making the grade. I said there’s nothing wrong with any of those codes, but where they go wrong is when they help delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve made the grade, we don’t need to grow or develop any further, we can just fosilize here because we’re perfectly OK as we are.

It’s usually those who haven’t made the grade anywhere, like the woman at Simon’s place, who realize first their need for grace. When they recognize the depth of love and intimacy that is being offered in Jesus, they don’t hesitate. They just throw themselves exuberantly into it. So overwhelmed with gratitude and love that even throwing yourself at someone’s feet, crying and doing a public foot massage doesn’t seem like too much in return. And it’s in throwing themselves into that love and grace that they open themselves to new life and growth, to the ongoing journey into grace and love and joy and integrity.

Those of us who are confident of our ability to make the grade without God’s help feel no such gratitude. Like Simon we stay dignified, respectable, staid perhaps. Such displays are beneath us. We can make it on our own, thanks. Mercy is for sinners. We’ve always done the right thing. And we overlook the invitation to relationship.

It’s pathetic really because we know that in our closest relationships we’re not happy with that, and yet it’s what we often give to God. Most women are not happy with the model husband who always does the right thing, provides for the family and is a pillar of the community, if he offers no emotional intimacy, no real closeness, no excitement. Neither’s God.

The God of our Lord Jesus Christ is the most passionate lover in the universe and couldn’t care less about your ability to do the right thing if you won’t embrace the loving intimacy offered. And just like in your other intimate relationships, that requires a commitment of time and effort to develop it. My relationship with my daughter will be a crashing failure if I only give her an hour a week. And I hope she is able to grow up surrounded by people who will put a lot more into their relationships with the God who is love than an hour a week.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up surrounded by good people who have fossilised. But I’m quite happy for her to grow up surrounded by weirdos and punks, lawn bowlers and drag queens, stockbrokers and deros, racists and social workers, if . . ., if they are embracing the extravagant love of God, so evident in Jesus in this story. Because those who abandon themselves to the power of love, those who overflow with gratitude for life received as a gift to be celebrated, are the ones will keep growing, and what I want more than anything else for my little daughter is that she grow up surrounded by people who haven’t stopped growing and who will model for her the journey into love and joy and grace and peace and integrity. And I’m hoping that you people gathered here today will be those people and undertake that journey with us.


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