Audacious grace

Luke 7:36-50

Invited to dinner perhaps to debate theology, perhaps to be caught out, perhaps because they wanted him to prove himself, Jesus reclines at table with Simon and other religious leaders of the day.

Have you ever been invited to a function like that, where the invite has an agenda attached? You're the future daughter or son-in-law at the 'family do' being checked out by the parents. You dine with that future boss who is checking off your qualities against that CV.

These are not easy meals to eat and the last thing you want is an embarrassing incident. But this is Jesus remember, if he can eat with those regarded worthless: the sinners and the tax collectors, then he can eat too with those whom society regards: the Pharisses and the scribes. God shows no partiality and this prophet Jesus can see our very hearts.

The embarrassing episode soon arrives in the shape of a woman who gatecrashes this private event and begins to behave in ways which cause everyone, but Jesus, to blush.

By their extravagance, her actions challenge us here this evening. Jesus uses this episode in his day to challenge those religious leaders who sit all around him, open-mouthed with shock. Jesus contrasts the judgemental, self-righteous Pharisee Simon with the loving and humble woman, so poor in spirit and despised in the eyes of the world, to set a choice before us. Whom would we prefer to be?

How much easier it is to be the Pharisee, whose outward show and reputation would have him be much admired. How hard it is to be instead the humble woman, despised by the world, weeping in gratitude for her forgiven sins at her Saviour's feet.

So how was she able to behave as she did?

It was possible because for so long she had lived with the way that the world viewed her. But then she heard stories of this God-man Jesus: life-changer, sin-forgiver, future lover of her soul. She came to have an understanding that Simon and his friends with all their studies and debating society dinners would fail to grasp: that we can not earn our salvation. A relationship with Jesus begins when, like this woman, we give him our weaknesses, surrender ourselves to his mercy and accept his forgiveness so that we might start over in a newness of life.

She was one for whom much had been forgiven, like the man whose debt was so huge in Jesus's explanation to Simon. Simon, on the other hand, still stands in his sins because they continue to remain invisible to him, so convinced has be become by his own outward show. And so Jesus teaches Simon that mercy looks like this woman who has received such mercy that she now expresses it toward Jesus, with every fibre of her being in undignified displays of love.

Have you ever loved anyone with an undignified display of love? It's risky stuff –my husband and I have been together for twenty years, we met when we were young and heading to different universities, following different career paths, which was all creating considerable stresses and strains. I remember one argument which left me standing at the exit of a carpark that he was attempting to leave. I just stood in the middle of the exit way. 'I am not going to let you go...my pride is kind of suffering right now, but I am sorry and can we talk this through?' Love will sometimes have you lose your dignity because love calls us to transcend self-consciousness. This woman transcends self-consciousness because of an incredible God-consciousness. She knows that she encounters God and her response is extravagant love. She loves with everything she has to give. She does not measure out her offering, she does not hold some of it back, she pours it all out, like the widow who gives all her wealth, like the man who sells everything for buried treasure, like the merchant who trades it all for one pearl of high price. And so it would seem, she comes to tell us too that there are few half-measures with Jesus.

And so as we sit here, do we understand that we are forgiven sinners too, just like this woman? We are those to whom great mercy has been shown by the God whom Paul describes in Ephesians as 'rich in mercy,' who in Christ came to earth to be born as one of us and die an undignified death to save us. There was nothing held back on that cross. More than the woman's costly ointment, it was all poured out there for us.

Like this woman who comes to Jesus so humbly, we are given the opportunity again and again by God's Holy Spirit to acknowledge our weaknesses and make them visible (she cried over hers at his feet, have you?). We are given the opportunity again and again by God's Holy Spirit to accept by faith his power to show us mercy and make us whole, so that like this woman, who would have left him transformed, forgiven and made new, this becomes true for us too.

Simon saw a sinful, embarrassing mess – aren't we all? but he stopped there. That was his problem, he didn't have the imagination to see further. Jesus knew her problems but saw her inward character: a woman of tremendous faith, a woman who understood his worth, a woman who poured it all out (and all over his feet) prophetically anointing his body for burial because like her, he would come to understand at the cross what it is to be reviled by the world.

'You did not attend to my dusty feet,' says Jesus to Simon (washed on entering a house from the unmade roads), 'she has bathed them clean with tears and hair.'

'You didn't greet me with a kiss,' says Jesus to Simon, (a custom of hospitality in Jesus' day), 'she has not stopped kissing the very dirt of my unwashed feet.'

'You did not anoint my head with oil,' says Jesus to Simon (another custom of hospitality), 'she poured out every drop of her costly ointment.'

... so much then for Simon's religion!

What does it look like then, this living the merciful life, if it doesn't look religious, like Simon but like the life of this woman?
Well, it looks very counter-cultural. When the world says 'do for me and you will be given in return'– Jesus says 'do for me, I am your return.' If Jesus is your return, your enough, you are free to lavish love and mercy on others without the need for the 'thanks' that adds that action back again onto the world's cycle of sale and return, sale and return.

What does it look like this merciful life if it looks like more like this woman than the religion of Simon?

It is a way of living where serving Christ becomes its own reward because it is just so good to be in his presence. Working for and with Jesus is attractive, compelling, fulfilling and joy-giving. If you aren't feeling the joy, perhaps you aren't working out of your giftings, the woman only had tears and attention and ointment to give – what do you have, what gifts did God give you to give away? He is only asking that you know yourself in your weaknesses and strengths and pour them all out for him.

And thirdly and finally what does it look like this living the merciful life, if it looks like this woman and not like the religion of Simon?

Well, it has to go far further than knowing the answers in theory. In Jesus's question to Simon about which debtor owed the greatest love, Simon answered correctly; he understood in theory. We can understand the gospel in a similar way, we can quote great theologians and huge expanses of scripture but when grace comes to dine with us can we set a place at the table for the poor in spirit and welcome people like that woman, for Christ in his great mercy set a place at his table for you.

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