Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
June 13, 2010
Luke 7:36-50

Professor Barbara Lundblad pictures a twenty-something young man waiting alone in a bar.  Around 11:00 p.m., when he is ready to leave, someone finally shows up but says he cannot stay.  So the two walk out into the night together.  The young man who has been waiting for hours says, "I was sure my friends would come.  After all, I have more than 600 Facebook friends!  Of course, I've never met some of my Facebook friends.  They aren't really my friends. They're friends of people who are my friends - so they could be my friends."

Lundblad points out that many now live and communicate in the virtual worlds of Twitter and Facebook, texting and blogging.  We are connected to more people in more places than ever before.  Yet, it's easy to imagine two thirteen year olds meeting on a corner.  They are standing close enough to touch, but they are texting each other.  Recently a friend mentioned to Lundblad that her daughter refuses to listen to voice messages left on the home phone because she thinks it takes too much time.  The daughter said, "Just text me, Mom!"  Even the human voice disappears.1

Today's Scripture passage not only focuses on the power of words - healing words - but also on intimate touch, deep affection, strong emotions and a life-enriching relationship.

Jesus has been invited to dine with a Pharisee.  Christians living today have heard so many sermons about hypocritical Pharisees, we automatically think the word "Pharisee" is a pejorative term.  In the first century, it was not a derogatory label, but rather the name for a group of devout Jews who lived by the highest moral principles.  Pharisees were dedicated to living virtuous lives by scrupulously following every law in the Torah.  To appreciate the punch of the story, it helps to know that our passage begins with Jesus being invited to dine in the home of a man who is recognized for his impeccable moral character.

Jesus takes his place at the table and, while he is eating, a "woman in the city who was a sinner," which is a polite way of saying "the town harlot," stands behind Jesus weeping.  She bathes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  She kisses his feet and anoints them with expensive perfume.

The Pharisee is appalled that Jesus would allow a woman like her to touch him and to openly express such affection.  Jesus responds to his host's indignation by telling a brief parable  He says, 'A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred silver pieces and the other owed fifty.  When neither could pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them  Now which of them will love him more?'  The Pharisee answered, 'I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.'  And Jesus replied, 'You know it.'

Then, Jesus points out that the Pharisee had not shown him even the most basic signs of hospitality.  He had not provided any water to clean his feet after walking the dusty roads.  And he had not greeted him with a kiss, the customary sign of welcome in the same way we use a handshake today.  In other words, the man must be harboring some contempt toward Jesus because his greeting was a cold shoulder.  The woman, on the other hand, has bathed his feet with her tear and has not stopped kissing his feet.

The woman is so overcome with emotion because she knows that her sins are great and yet, Jesus accepts her and forgives her.  The Pharisee, on the other hand, is unaware of any shortcomings of his own.

A friend mentioned that his father did not like worshiping in a Presbyterian church because of the frequent use of a prayer of confession.  His father stated emphatically, "I do not have anything to confess."

The man was not joking; he simply did not understand sin.  He knew that he had not stolen, killed or committed adultery.  He did not take God's name in vain and he honored his parents.  He thought that pretty much took care of it.  He thought that sinning meant breaking a rule.  He knew the list of things we are not supposed to do and he had not committed any of them.  Plus, when he compared himself with other people who broke some of the rules, people who were undoubtedly sinners, he felt confident that he lived a virtuous life.

The man never grasped the fact that sin is something deep within us that gives rise to thoughts and actions that distance us from God and undermine our relationships with others.  Jesus saw this same attitude in many of the so-called virtuous people in his day, especially the Pharisees who followed a tight moral code.  They did not break a single rule on the list of thou-shalt-nots.  However, on other occasions, Jesus exposed the insidious nature of sin.  For instance, when he pointed out to a rich young ruler who had carefully kept every commandment that the young man could not be one of his faithful followers because he loved money more than he loved God.  On another occasion, Jesus pointed out that a man who felt ashamed of his sin and confessed his need to change was on better terms with God than the man who boasted of nothing to confess.  Jesus said the one who believes he has nothing to confess is alienated from God by arrogance.

Sin grips all of us.  There are times when we are envious, when we are unforgiving, when we are unjustly angry, when we are greedy, and when we neglect the needs of others.

The Pharisee in today's story was much like my friend's father.  He could clearly see the overt sin in the town harlot, but he was blind to his own failings.  He was unaware of how his hubris had alienated him from God, he was blind to his unforgiving nature and he overlooked his lack of hospitality.  He clearly failed to grasp, "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Did you hear about the scientists in New York?  After digging to a depth of 10 feet and finding traces of copper wire that dated back 100 years, they came to the conclusion that their ancestors already established a telephone network more than 100 years ago.

Not to be outdone by the New Yorkers, a California archaeologist dug to a depth of 20 feet, and shortly after, a story in the LA Times read: "Finding traces of 200 year old copper wire, a California archaeologist has concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced communications network 100 years before the New Yorkers."

One week later, a newspaper in my home state of Oklahoma, reported the following:   After digging 30 feet deep in his pasture, Bubba Mitchell, a self-taught archaeologist, reported that he found absolutely nothing.  Bubba concluded that 300 years ago, Oklahoma had already gone wireless.2

Sometimes personal pride skews your perspective.  Sometimes it's my state is better than your state.  Or, my school has a better reputation than your school.  Or, my neighborhood is more prestigious than your neighborhood.  Underneath such thinking is "I am a better person than you are."

This is the Pharisee in today's story.  He has obeyed not only the top 10 Commandments, but all 612 laws found in the Torah.  He is a superior moral human being and therefore he is confident that he is in good standing with God because he has earned it.

In today's parable, Jesus does not dispute the Pharisee's moral superiority.  His point is that the one who recognizes God's love, forgiveness and acceptance - that is, God's grace -

forms a deeper bond with God and is filled with such gratitude that it spills over to others.

Retired seminary professor Fred Craddock recalls a class he taught on the parables of Jesus.  His students were drawn toward the stories of a reversal type in which the offer of grace was extended to the ones who seemed least deserving: the son who had blown the inheritance, the sinful tax collector and the workers who were not employed until an hour before quitting time and received a full day's wage.  The students frowned on the parables that talked of punishing lazy stewards or slamming doors in the faces of foolish bridesmaids who forgot to bring oil.  In short, grace was no longer an unexpected gift, but instead was always expected by the students.  So the professor read this story without explanation and asked if it was a parable:

There was a certain seminary professor who was very strict about due dates for papers.  Due dates were announced at the beginning of the semester, and failure to meet them resulted in an F for the course.  In one class, three students did not meet the deadline. The first one explained, "Professor, unexpected guests from out of state came the evening before the paper was due, and I was unable to finish it."

"Then you receive an F," said the professor.

The second student explained, "On the day before the paper was due, I came down with the flu and was unable to complete it."

"Then you receive an F," said the professor.

The third student, visibly shaken at the news about the fate of the other two, cautiously approached the professor.  He said, "Sir, our first baby was due the same day the paper was due.  The evening before, my wife began having pains, and so I rushed her to the hospital.  Shortly after midnight she gave birth to a boy.  We named him after you!"

The professor listened with interest, pondered the situation and after a long pause, he said, "You receive an F for the course."

The news spread rapidly through the seminary community. A large delegation of students marched to the professor's office to protest.  "Why have you been so cruel and harsh?" they asked.

The professor replied, "At the beginning of the semester I gave my word concerning the papers. If the word of a teacher in a Christian seminary cannot be trusted, whose word can be trusted?"3

Guess what? The students did not like the story. No great surprise.  Professor Tom Long explains, "The students did not like the story because it did not go the way they thought it should go.  Christian stories are supposed to be nice at the end.  They are supposed to turn toward mercy and grace and it didn't happen and they're angry because they think they're entitled to grace."4

But if you believe you are entitled to grace, then your love for God will be low-grade, your gratitude mediocre and your joy lackluster.  However, when you realize that God's love for you is not based on your character or your accomplishments, but rather because God loves you like a caring and devoted parent, and wants the best for you, then you will be passionate in your love for God and delirious with gratitude.



1. Barbara Lundblad, "Just Preaching: Embodied in a Virtual World," October 28, 2009.

2. This joke has been passed around the Internet.  The source is unknown.

3. Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p.18.

4. Thomas G. Long, "Thanks, or Not Thanks," May 2, 2010.