“On Our Best Behavior” Sunday June 16 Luke 7:36-50
Behavior matters. Attitude matters. Taking some initiative matters. And I don’t just mean that these things matter in life. I mean that they matter as Christians. Behavior, attitude, and initiative shape our human lives, and also are shaping the church and its future.
Jesus goes to visit the home of Simon the Pharisee and an odd thing happens. A woman comes into the dinner setting and weeps over Jesus’ feet and then wipes them and pours perfume on them. Now, in Middle Eastern culture, it was normal to treat a guest in your home with great magnitude. Their culture of hospitality was highly refined. Jesus might even have reasonably expected the Pharisee or his servants to wash His feet when He entered the home. That was the norm in their culture.
So here is Jesus, possibly feeling disrespected, when this woman shows up and wipes His feet with her hair and pours perfume on Him to refresh Him after His walk through this desert environment. Behavior matters. The Pharisee may have invited Jesus over and said all the right thing, but His behavior was less than stellar. Attitude matters. The household of the Pharisee may have revolved around an attitude of superiority. Taking some initiative matters. This woman came forth to take care of Jesus when no one else had. Now, the text here says that the woman was known locally to have lived a sinful life. There’s a real and meaningful dichotomy here, a break, . . . and we should look at it for its meanings.
To unpack the meaning, Jesus told a tiny parable. Suppose there are two people who owe money to a moneylender. One person has a much bigger debt than the other and neither has a chance of paying Him back. When the money lender forgives both debts, Jesus asks the Pharisee, which of the two men will love Him more?
The answer is obvious, and the Pharisee gives it: The one for whom a greater debt was forgiven.
The analogy is that this sinful woman, who has been forgiven much, will love God more than most people. I would add that the reason for her great love of God is not merely because she realizes how sinful she was, but more because she, because of how great her need has been, most fully realizes how great and thorough and absolute God’s love is.
Let me make a clear point here: Scripture is not mostly about us. We often make the mistake that it is because we want it to be. We want a guide for how we should live. And Scripture can help us with that, so we focus on that aspect of it. But the real truth is that Scripture is primarily and most importantly about God, and how He expresses Himself and shows His nature to us. And the key idea of Scripture is that God shows Himself to us so that we might act and think in a way closer to how He acts and thinks.
And that’s what shows through this reading. The parable shows that God forgives and that this forgiveness is a great and powerful tool to turn people’s lives around. But who in the story shows a love for another like the love God shows in forgiving sin? The woman throws herself into the act of showing love to Jesus. She holds nothing back. Even in the company of the Pharisee and his household, and their guests, she got down at Jesus’ feet and wept and sought to show Him compassion and love.
When Simon is made to see this point, He has nothing to say. The guests in his household say who is this to forgive sins? But do you notice how they twist Jesus’ words? Jesus doesn’t say “I forgive your sins.” He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” What this means is “all sins are forgiven.” But the Pharisee and his guests miss this important point. Why do they miss it?
Attitude. Lack of initiative. They are self satisfied. They are not curious and lack initiative because they think they already have all the answers. They lack the initiative to examine their faith and their religion and themselves. What they are forgetting is that faith is not mostly about them, it’s about God. It’s about an abiding trust in who God is and how God will act. What the Bible attempts to do is give us foundational reasons for that trust. Faith is not about us. The Bible is not about us. What is happening in faith is about God reaching us right where we live, right where we struggle. Behavior matters because it shows our character and our intent and our needs. This woman who wiped Jesus’ feet had a need for forgiveness, and Jesus, as one with God, understood her need. She showed her intent through actions. And Jesus told her that her needs had been met in God, . . . indeed, all needs are met in God.
Now I have stated some mighty important truths in this sermon. Write them down. Behavior matters. Attitude matters. Initiative matters. And the Bible isn’t primarily about us and our ways, but more about God and His. That’s a lot to take in from one sermon. But let me also move on. There’s more.
I’m writing this to myself, for myself, because I no longer have a congregation. Sometimes I wish I still did. Other times, the idea of having a congregation again after nearly three years away scares me to death. Deep down, I really don’t believe it will ever happen.
I am wounded. I would say “walking wounded,” except that sometimes, emotionally, I am not walking. I am barely creeping some of the time, and there are times that I am not moving at all. I learned about two years ago that I have a condition called Avoidant Personality Disorder, which in essence means I often consider myself to be socially inept or personally unappealing and that I may avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, rejected, or disliked. It is a condition that leads to a lot of anxiety. I am also dealing with being bipolar and having PTSD and ADD. Being bipolar creates anxiety and so does having PTSD. So there’s a lot of anxiety in me. In general, there’s a lot going on in my head, and sometimes it’s just overwhelming. I thought I had been dealing with simple depression all my life only to find out that it’s more a case of bipolar disorder and anxiety, which is more complex and harder to deal with.
That’s the psychological definition. What I feel happening in my life is that I don’t connect to other people easily. And I have had many, many people tell me this is true as well. And I also lack confidence about most everything where I am concerned.
About three years ago, all this built up in me to the point that I had a series of anxiety attacks that took me out of my work in the pastoral ministry. Even before that, I was asking people in the Methodist hierarchy for help figuring out what to do when congregations would tell me I didn’t seem connected or some other wording of the same idea. Since then, I have been looking for help from therapists and psychologists. I have taken numerous medications, aimed at the ADD or at the depression or at the anxiety or at the bipolar condition. None of that has been much help at all, I’m sad to say.
So I am going to take stock for a minute here. Have I exhibited wrong behaviors? Oh sure. I’ve been frustrated, and seemed angry. I’ve been hurt and got defensive. I’ve cried out for compassion, and not shown as much as I was looking for. All that. But, in my defense, I have also exhibited some laudable behaviors. I have visited the sick, and visited in homes, and led missions to help the less fortunate. I have taught the Bible and helped people in their faiths.
Have I had a bad attitude? Yeah. I have been persistently sarcastic. I have been frustrated by my relationship with the Methodist Conference. I have met church members who I was convinced weren’t Christians and I was not always kind to them. I’ve been an ass. In my defense again, I have also been almost overly compassionate to many people even when they found fault with me and hurt me or my family deeply. I’ve tried. But I do know that I need to ask forgiveness, so I do.
Have I lacked initiative? Well, I have lacked energy and motivation at times because of depression. But all in all, I think I have shown a lot of initiative despite these issues. I am the one asking for help and I have been the one seeking to find ways to make churches do a better job of what they’re supposed to do. I don’t think initiative has been the problem.
1 Peter 3:14 says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
So I admit that I have not always been gentle and respectful. I have not always been loving. I have failed to be Christlike. And I seek forgiveness for all that.
Let me ask those same questions though of some other Christians. Here I am, dealing with some heavy psychological issues. And while it’s true that people don’t often know I am dealing with all this, they do know that I have been out of work for almost three years. And some of the people in the Methodist hierarchy have known that I am dealing with very difficult psychological disorders.
Have they taken action? No. Not really. In their defense, I think they just don’t know what actions to take to help me. But, even so, someone could have reached out to me or my family and walked through this valley with us, and no one has. Even the therapists I’ve seen have mostly shrugged their shoulders and told me they don’t know how to help me. Where is the compassion in that? Couldn’t somebody have taken some time to help me deal with finding a job, with receiving disability, with my grief over losing my career, with loneliness, . . . with any one of the parts of my issues?
Have they had a bad attitude? Sometimes, yeah they have. I have gone to my Methodist superiors, people who are supposed to be in their positions to serve the church, and they have at times been cold and uncaring. I have directly asked them — people who are ordained clergy — to minister to me and my family. But nothing has changed, and I’ve given up trying with them.
Have they shown initiative? No. Not toward me. It just hasn’t happened.
So the question Jesus asks is basically: who more appreciates God’s love more? And the answer is: the one who has been forgiven more. And I probably have been forgiven much. So I really appreciate God, even though sometimes these days I find it very difficult to feel much about His love and acceptance. I wish I could know in some clearer way that God is with me. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I need forgiveness . . . I struggle to find and know God’s presence clearly lately.
But . . . and this is the lesson the Pharisee probably missed . . . there are others who need forgiveness too. The Pharisee and his household needed forgiveness. Just as in our day, bad behavior, sour attitudes, and lack of initiative are rampant, aren’t they? Gentleness in love and respect for others is in short supply all around us. Forgiveness is also in short supply. So . . . I forgive those who have hurt me. I don’t know how I do it, or how long it will take to work through it, but I take the initiative to amend my behavior and forgive, and I offer a positive attitude for the future of all these relationships. I’ll try. And I’ll take responsibility to amend other behaviors and attitudes for the better as well.
I can’t really do much more about the needs others may have to be forgiven, or about the needs they have to be forgiving, to change behaviors, to improve attitudes, and to increase initiative as well. I can pray about it and keep up hope, although I will admit I expect that to be very hard.
The lesson about the woman who washes Jesus’ feet is simple. We have to behave in ways that are loving. Merely having faith isn’t enough. The Pharisee had faith in God, yet still didn’t know God’s real depth of compassion or how to show compassion himself. We each have to watch our attitudes. We each have to step forth and show our faith from time to time, or it will shrivel up die and on the vine.
And the still larger lesson for each of us is this: every single day of our lives we walk past someone or talk to someone who is in real pain, who is really struggling, but the pain doesn’t show like it would if the person was on crutches or something like that. We each must go further than merely accepting what shows on the surface. True compassion means sometimes taking the initiative to dig a little deeper with someone and learn what their struggles are and how they are trying to deal with it all. Christian love means lifting our attitudes to others until all that shows is gentleness and respect. We must each be willing for our behavior to be changed if we expect to be “transformed” by the power of Christ.
The Bible isn’t primarily about our ways, after all. Instead, Scripture calls us to something higher. It calls us to reflect and represent God’s ways here in our world. The other people, even the ones who may not yet understand their need for forgiveness — maybe especially them — need to see clear representations of God if they’re going to be led to Godliness. And if we’re the people of God, the followers of Christ, it is up to us to led that charge.
It is even up to me, broken and wounded as I am. And Goddammit I am trying here! It would be nice if someone tried back.