SERMON Today, I Know I am Forgiven

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Lectionary 11 / Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13–15
  • Psalm 32
  • Galatians 2:15–21
  • Luke 7:36–8:3

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 7:36–8:3 ESV)

I love this story. I love everything about this story.

Here we have Jesus sitting and eating with a Pharisee. We hear a lot about Jesus eating with sinners, but mostly we hear about that. We actually see Jesus and his disciples eating with Pharisees and scribes. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus is asked by some Pharisees and scribes he is actually reclining at table — eating with — in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel, right after he calls Levi to follow and Levi throws a great feast for Jesus as his disciples. And Pharisees and scribes too, I suppose, because there they are, grumbling at Jesus.

So another Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner. Who doesn’t want his company? And in comes this woman — an unnamed “woman of the city” — who Luke tells “was a sinner.” Luke doesn’t tell us what that means, and we can spend our days guessing what it is she does that earns her the title of sinner. It doesn’t matter what she has done, how she has fallen short.

What matters is that she knows she’s a sinner. Whatever it is she has done, she has heard the words Jesus has preached — good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive, sight to the blind, the healing of those who are unclean and — more than anything — that word Jesus speaks with such authority:

Your sins are forgiven you.

She knows who she is. And for much of her life, she has lived with the violence and abuse, the utter indifference to her wellbeing, that comes with the condemnation of who she has been and how she has lived. I am certain, for all those reputable people in this community — especially the scribes and the Pharisees — that condemnation, that deliberate and purposeful exclusion from the people of God, is an essential part of the good order of the world.

It is the judgment of a just God who, long before this woman was conceived, gave the teaching to Israel in the Wilderness. Simon, I’m certain, believes he is just doing as Moses commanded. He is just proclaiming the judgment of God upon sin. Her sin.

And whatever that sin might be, I’m certain there is a punishment she’s earned far greater than mere shunning. Simon the Pharisee may think he is being merciful and magnanimous for not grabbing a few stones, for not putting her to death, or for not simply running her out of town.

Make no mistake here, Jesus has not ignored her sin — whatever it is. He has judged her. And he has judged her harshly. Because there can be no forgiveness without judgment. And she knows this, knows that whatever it is she has done, that has gotten her this label of “sinner” is real. It separates her from God, from the people of God, from a life that is valued.

Your sins are forgiven you.

And she knows who she is now. She knows she is forgiven, that whatever this Pharisee might say about her, how he and others like him might treat her, that great chasm that separates her from the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is gone. As David, himself no stranger to sin, judgment, and the repentance that can bring, sings in our psalm today

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah (Psalms 32:1–5 ESV)

We don’t know her sin. But she does. And those simple words spoken by Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven you,” have changed her life. She was a sinner; now she is a saint. She was lost; now she has been found. She was dead; and now she has been raised to new life.

She responds in deep and abiding gratitude to the one who spoke those words, “Your sins are forgiven you,” with power and authority. She grovels, grateful before the Son of God, washes his feet with thankful tears because his words of forgiveness are true words of forgiveness. No work of law could have justified her, made her right, not before God, not before Simon the Pharisee, who likely would have overseen any attempt to repent on her part.

Now she lives, the forgiveness of Christ alive in her, trusting the Son of God, whose feet she washed and wiped and anointed, whose words brought her back to life.

Your sins are forgiven you.

She has encountered the love that matters, in one who lived and died and rose again.

We encounter that love too. We are a people because of that love.

I’m torn. Our confession teaches that we are equally sinful, all equally distant from God, all equally incapable of reaching across even a tiny portion of that vast gulf between us and God. And I do believe that. When Jesus speaks here of different kinds of debtors, of one who owes 50 and one who owes 500, he’s speaking in metaphors, making a point to Simon the Pharisee. All are sinners. None can pay their debt. All need forgiveness.

But what if … Jesus really means what he says here? What if there is a distinction, a real difference, between a debt of 50 and a debt of 500? He is clear in the example he gives to Simon — both could not pay. From the standpoint of the debtor here, whether you are 50 short or 500 short, it hardly matters. Unable to pay is unable to pay.

But there is still a difference. Someone who owes 50 might, for much of the time — at least until the debt is called in and payment comes due — see their debt as manageable. You can live well enough to service this debt, to be in the good graces of the moneylender. And it’s something that can likely be settled, eventually, given enough time. Someone likely wouldn’t lose much sleep over 50, wouldn’t worry about what people around them felt about their debt. And even if it is called in, well, maybe there’s enough to sell off to deal to take care of it. After all, everyone owes a little something, right?

But 500 … that’s something to worry about. After all, who but the unlucky, or the profligate, or the stupid, owe 500? That’s something beyond managing. That’s a debt to toss and turn over, stay up nights worrying about, a debt that earns the harsh judgment of everyone around me, who see what kind of person I am by how much I owe.

Or, conversely, someone owing 500, more than they will ever see in lifetime of honest or dishonest labor, might much might simply give up. There’s no way to pay it all off, and so it hardly matters how I live or whether I even try. I am beyond helping.

Either way, to owe 500 is to despair. Nothing I can do will ever matter.

Your sins are forgiven you.

With that Jesus changes everything. Simon may only really have owed 50, but as Jesus tells him, he showed little gratitude for the forgiveness he has received. He did not welcome Jesus with much enthusiasm, was not the best of hosts. Not like this unnamed woman, who heard words of forgiveness and believed them with all her heart.

In Christ, she met love, and she loved in return with everything she had.

Love much, sisters and brothers, love extravagantly and passionately, knowing you are loved without end. Love like you owed 500, like you could never repay your debt in a dozen lifetimes, like you faced a miserable and desperate and desolate end because of your debt.

Love like this woman.

Love like you know — you really know — your sins are forgiven you.

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