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Wonderful story. At least, it is to me. Others might not like it so well. It is certainly astonishing.
Put it in the context of a dinner party at your own home or even a supper in Celebration Center. By this time in Jesus' ministry, he had garnered quite a bit of public notice. All sorts of people had been attracted to him - rich, poor, educated, illiterate, from the highly respectable to the lowly riffraff. To have this famous rabbi come to dinner was very special and everyone would have been excited...and perhaps a bit nervous at the same time - after all this teacher had had some not too complimentary things to say about the religious folks who were his hosts at the moment.
Suddenly, an uninvited guest appears - a woman described in the text simply as "a sinner" (and it does not take too much imagination to figure what kind of sinning had been going on). She comes over to Jesus, begins to pour expensive perfume on Jesus' feet, weeping as she does so and then wipes his feet with her hair. The other guests just stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
If you think this would be uncomfortable in our day, it would have been almost unimaginable back then. Women did not intrude into the company of men who were sitting at table for dinner; in fact, even wives were often not included. As to her very public show of affection, it would have been excessive in the extreme - letting down her long hair in public (not done), wiping his feet with it and kissing them (please - this is getting just too, too intimate). On top of all that, what does this do to Jesus' stature as a holy man and rabbi to be known by this lady of questionable reputation?
Jesus could have brushed her off. And the story makes plain that this is precisely what his dinner companions and host expected. But, no. Instead, Jesus jumps to her defense with a little story.
"Simon...A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty [a denarius was about a day's wage]. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?"
Simon replies, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt."
You SUPPOSE, Simon? You SUPPOSE? And then Jesus tells his host the reason for this woman's remarkable behavior. She had been forgiven...a lot! The story does not tell us, but certainly this was not the first time she and Jesus had been together. She had heard his word of forgiveness at some previous encounter and had come to experience the remarkable sense of liberation that came with it - thus, the outpouring of affection (not to mention the expensive perfume).
But more was necessary. For this woman's life to really change, the rest of the town had to know she had been forgiven as well. She would not be truly whole again until she was no longer a social leper. Thus, the meeting at the party. The woman may not have been invited by Simon, but I would be willing to bet that she had been by Jesus. The scene Simon and his friends witnessed that day was Jesus' clever way of beginning that process of restoring her to the community. That is why the story ends with Jesus telling the woman, "Your faith has SAVED you." Not pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye saved, but wholeness, healing, shalom in the here-and-now saved.
Now, put yourself in the story. Who are you? Jesus? The woman? Simon and friends? For myself, I know my tendency would be to be Simon. I can be terribly judgmental and self-righteous without much prompting at all. But a story like this reminds me that this is not what I or the church should be about. Contrary to what far too many people think, the church is not in the morality business. Society handles that role just fine, thank you. We pay legislatures to codify that morality by writing the appropriate rules and regulations, then we pay police to enforce that code. The church is not in the morality business, the church is in the forgiveness business. Hear that again: the church is not in the morality business, the church is in the forgiveness business. One more time: the church is not in the morality business, the church is in the forgiveness business.
To be honest, there is not a lot of forgiveness out there these days. Husbands don't forgive wives, parents don't forgive children, Republicans can't forgive Democrats, and right now, NOBODY wants to forgive BP. And if WE are not willing to forgive, we don't want anyone else forgiving them either.
Ever hear of Irish Alzheimers? If you have IRISH Alzheimers, you forget everything but the grudges.
True, we pray, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," but we struggle with the concept. Sad too, because when WE truly forgive someone (which, by the way, does not mean that what they did do us was right), it can be wonderfully liberating. As one writer has it, "To forgive is to put down your 50-pound pack after a 10-mile climb up a mountain. To forgive is to fall into a chair after running a marathon. To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that prisoner is you. To forgive is to reach back into your hurting past and recreate it in your memory so that you can begin again." (1)
Now, again, what business is the church in? Right! If you take nothing away from here this morning but that, it will be sufficient because, quite frankly, when the church forgets it, we get into trouble. And that is precisely why churches continue to have these internal (and seemingly E-ternal) squabbles about social issues - human sexuality, abortion, gay rights, and so on and so on and so on. When we are tempted, we would do well to remember a certain party at the home of Simon the Pharisee.
A number of you had the delightful experience of hearing Tony Campolo when he came to the Island last winter. Me too. While he was here, he told a story that he had published earlier in his book entitled The Kingdom of God Is a Party. (2) The setting is Hawaii where he had flown to speak at a conference.
He describes checking into his hotel and trying to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 AM. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.
He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, "What d'ya want?"
Well, Tony isn't so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."
As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39."
To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"
The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"
"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"
"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"
A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."
His wife comes out. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."
So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that's when she totally loses it. Now she's sobbing and crying. Harry, who's not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."
So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"
But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"
Harry doesn't know what to say so he shrugs and says, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."
"Oh, could I?" she asks. Looking at Tony she says, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."
She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.
So Tony gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?" And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 AM listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes. Tony recalls, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."
When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."
Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."
Now, one more time. What business is the church in?
1. Lewis Smedes, "Forgiveness: The Power to Change the Past," Christianity Today, 1/7/83, p. 26
2. Anthony Campolo, The Kingdom of God Is a Party, (Dallas : Word Publishing, 1990)