2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15
Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Today’s readings may have the best pairing of Old and New Testament lessons in the whole 3 year cycle! In the OT we hear how the prophet Nathan tricks King David into condemning himself for killing Bathsheba’s husband and then taking her as his wife. In the NT we hear Jesus do the same to a Pharisee.
Both Jesus and Nathan are speaking truth to power a dangerous thing to do, but an essential part of the job description for a prophet. King David, the one beloved by God, has been corrupted by power. The Pharisee, Simon, devoted to living by the law, has been corrupted by his devotion to the rues. Both have lost sight of mercy and compassion.
Nathan tricks David by telling a sad story about a poor man who owns one lamb that has become a pet. A rich neighbor, not wanting to kill one of his many animals to feed a guest, takes the poor man’s lamb, kills it, and eats it for dinner. King David is outraged and Nathan then turns the story into a parable about what David has done.
The Gospel story is a bit more complex because it’s unclear what the Pharisee’s motive was in inviting Jesus to dine with him. We know he didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss or wash his feet, as was customary when greeting a dinner guest. Did Simon see himself as so much better than Jesus that he did not need to welcome him? Did he invite Jesus just to test him and/or display him before the other guests? We just don’t know.
When the unnamed woman, who is known as a sinner, walks in and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, the Pharisee immediately wonders why Jesus accepts her behavior. Doesn’t he “know” she’s a sinner and her touch will make him “unclean?”
So Jesus asks the Pharisee a question: “A creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon answers correctly: “the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” Jesus uses this answer to contrast the woman’s treatment of him versus the Pharisee’s treatment of him. And then forgives her her sins!
At the heart of this lesson is this question: “who loves God more, a sinner who’s been forgiven, or a good man who hasn’t needed much forgiveness?”
This is a really tough lesson. For those of us who have spent our whole lives trying to mind the rules, staying put and working hard, this lesson is likely to turn sour in our mouths. Like the older brother of the prodigal son, we feel this as something unfair. God should love those best who sin the least! The Pharisee lives by the rules! This woman, who we only know has been guilty of many sins, is not only forgiven, but praised by Jesus for her signs of love to him.
Once again we are forced to acknowledge that God’s logic is not necessarily like ours. And if we look at it more closely, it may not seem quite so unfair to us. One thing we have to understand, whether we like it or not, is that God loves all of us, sinners and saints alike, and I suspect God loves us all without distinction. There’s the rub! We are all equal in His sight. That doesn’t mean God is blind to our sins, but rather that our sins do not erase or erode his love for us.
I think what both Nathan and Jesus are doing here, is showing a supposedly righteous person that they aren’t. They are pointing out that David and the Pharisee are hypocrites, at least in these specific matters. Hypocrisy is a kind of blindness to self, whether intentional or not. By that I mean, that humans often cover up or justify what they have done that they know is wrong rather than admitting it and asking for forgiveness. Sometimes we are just plain unaware of some of our sins. We don’t see ourselves clearly. Either way, hypocrisy is the result.
And once we get ourselves in that situation we often become much more judgmental of others as a way of projecting our own misdoing onto them. Any time we forget that judgment is God’s job and not ours, we put ourselves at great risk of hypocrisy.
One of the things we love about stories like this is that they show the rich and powerful brought low, but we must also remember that the lessons apply to us, the weak and lowly, just as well. Like the Pharisee we can be blind to our own faults and eager to point out the faults of others. Like David, we can do wrong in order to meet our own needs and justify it in any number of ways.
Jesus is calling us to see ourselves clearly, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Without that clarity there can be no repentance and forgiveness. We have watched one political figure after another brought low just like David, whether with glee or disgust, but we don’t always see the relationship of that to our own lives.
What about someone who lives their whole life as a rather dreadful sinner, but confesses on their death bed and is forgiven. I’ve heard people who express great outrage at the very idea that God would actually forgive them, and I suppose, save them, when good people have behaved properly all their lives. While such outrage is understandable in our way of thinking it also raises other tough questions.
Do we behave ourselves and do the right thing because we’re afraid not to or do we do it because we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves? That may have a lot to do with our introduction to God in childhood. If we’ve been scared into good behavior, we will surely resent those who haven’t been.
I suspect however, that if we act out of our own convictions, our own desire to leave the world a little better for our having lived here, our own desire to maintain our relationship with our creator, then we are free to join in the rejoicing at the return of the one who was lost. That return does not take anything away from us. As the father of the Prodigal son said to the older brother, “everything I have is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”
What we have to remember is that everyone who is lost and then found is one more member of the Kingdom of God. And more, importantly, we have to remember that if we should get lost along the way, God will try to find us and return us to the fold, and that will also be a moment of great rejoicing. AMEN