Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
A few weeks ago I brought a shirt home with me from work to put in the wash. I had kept this shirt at work to wear when I rode my bicycle in to work. It had some bad ring around the collar and needed a good washing and so I took it home. In the same laundry load, I put in some other shirts from my closet at home. These weren’t really soiled but I washed them to keep them fresh. When the laundry was done, I saw that the shirts from my home closet were perfect, and I put them in the dryer. These shirts were super clean, but I wasn’t particularly excited by this.
My work shirt, however, still had ring around the collar. So I got out my iPad and did some research on how to get rid of ring around the collar. I got out a brush and dish detergent and got to work. The next week, this shirt went into the wash again, and this time it came out looking great. I was excited. I went to show Barbara and tell her how I had gotten it clean. I felt like I had really accomplished something.
Jesus makes a similar point to this in our reading from Luke. He asks Simon, a Pharisee, a question: “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied in the way that we might expect, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” Jesus agreed and said “You have judged correctly.”
Just as I was far more excited when my dirty shirt got nice and clean, then when my already clean shirts just got freshened up a bit, so we’d expect somebody to be much more excited at having a $500 debt canceled then a $50 debt. But Jesus wasn’t a social scientist or a psychology professor trying to make an interesting point about human behavior. He was making a bigger point about what the Gospel is all about.
I know of people who really dislike Rite I because of all the language in it that seems intended to make us feel guilty. The Prayer of Humble Access is often regarded as particularly distasteful. Other churches I know intentionally skip the confession of sin in an attempt to not make people feel guilty. In fact, there are many Christians who don’t like to speak of judgment, guilt or anything of the sort when they talk about God, thinking that we should only share positive things. And I can sort of understand their point. Nobody likes to be constantly browbeaten.
But I have always been drawn to the confession of sin, the Prayer of Humble Access and other such things that remind us of our guilt and the grace that God showers on to us in response. I like it because I know I am guilty. Hearing these parts of the liturgy don’t make me feel guilty because I know that I am. It is much better to know that we are guilty but forgiven by God’s grace, then for us to be either deluded or in denial about ourselves.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus was talking to Pharisees. Pharisees were a Jewish faction which placed great emphasis on outwardly following the law as they interpreted it. They thought by following the law, they justified themselves and so didn’t see a need for themselves to be forgiven. The Pharisees present a stark contrast to the woman in the story. What she did would have been considered seriously out of her place and she would have been seen to have violated many of the Jewish purity laws. Yet Jesus knew that the love she was showing him was because she knew she had had her sins forgiven by him.
Jesus says to the Pharisees “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” This is so true. If we don’t think that we have any sins to repent of, or think that we are justified before God just as we are, then we don’t need God. God becomes someone who we turn to when we need Him to do something for us. Instead of us serving God, we expect God to serve us. And from here, it is a short jump to becoming self-focused and self-obsessed. Did you know that even as our nation has become less religious, it has also become much more narcissistic then it used to be?
If we think that we are justified before God on our own terms, we also tend to become much more critical of others – hyper-critical actually, or to use the common term hypocritical. If there is one adjective that we all know describes the Pharisees it is hypocritical. Why were they this way? They had no humility. They figured that they were alright with God on their own effort, and this allowed them to turn their gaze elsewhere and look down on others who they judged were lacking.
Our Old Testament story illustrates this point very well. Many of us know that King David of the Old Testament was one of Israel’s great national heroes. Matthew, in his Gospel, is very careful to demonstrate how Jesus descended from the line of David. And yet, David did some pretty rotten things. And our story from Second Samuel refers to the worst thing David did. We hear the prophet Nathan’s judgment of David, but let me give you a short summary of what David did.
King David was strolling around the roof of his palace one evening during a time that Israel was at war with a neighboring country. People would often head up to their roofs in the cool of the evening because roofs were cooler and more comfortable in the evenings then being inside. David noticed a woman. Bathsheeba, bathing on a rooftop a little ways away, and he ordered her brought to him. Bathsheeba’s husband was a soldier away fighting in the war. Despite this, David brings her inside and has sex with her. Considering the power imbalance here, we would probably call this rape today. But there’s more. David gets her pregnant.
Instead of owning up to his sin, David seeks a cover up. He orders Bathsheeba’s husband, Uriah, brought home and given a leave. David figures that Uriah and Bathsheeba will get reacquainted and that the pregnancy will be attributed to Uriah. But Uriah, being a soldier loyal to his brothers-in-arms, doesn’t behave as David expects. He refuses to sleep with his wife out of loyalty to his fellows still out on the field of battle. David then engages in a gross and wicked abuse of power. He orders the commander of his army to launch an attack with Uriah at the center, and then to suddenly withdraw everyone near Uriah so that he will be killed by the enemy. This is done, and this is where we join the story.
Note David’s massive delusion and denial about his own guilt. The prophet Nathan comes to David and tells the story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s lamb. We all know what Nathan is getting at here, but David doesn’t. Instead, we read that “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” What irony! When confronted with a thinly disguised story about his own sin, David completely misses the point and is all too ready to pronounce the death penalty against the imagined culprit.
But then Nathan springs it on David – “You are the man!” he cries out. And only then does David acknowledge his guilt. Living a life of delusion and denial about our own sinfulness only brings about hurt and injury to others. We do ourselves no favors by pretending that we are not sinful people badly in need of a savior.
We often make the grievous error that God will only love us if we can justify ourselves to him first. We think that if we admit to our guilt that we are somehow also saying that we aren’t as worthy of God’s love. We think that if we acknowledge and name sin that we are somehow saying that God doesn’t love everyone. But this is backwards. This is a diabolical way of thinking because, you see, we are like the shirt with ring around the collar. When we are washed in the blood of Christ crucified for our sins, then we come out clean and spotless, and God rejoices in this because He loves us. God loves us because we are His sons and daughters and he loved us so much that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for us to make us clean. God delights in making us clean.
In our reading from Galatians, the apostle Paul wrote “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Jesus Christ died for us, no matter how many sins we have committed. The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to wash any of us clean and spotless.
When we realize the immense debt of gratitude we owe to God for our salvation, we are moved to tremendous love – not just for God, but for others as well. Jesus said “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” But the converse is also true “whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.” When we confess our sins and acknowledge our guilt, we are freed to move away from continually trying to justify ourselves either through delusion, denial, or attacking others. We are freed to love God and love each other. And so, let us acknowledge our sins, let us hold fast to God’s grace that, through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, has made us clean, and let us be free to love God and each other.
I am going to conclude by praying a prayer that later on in the service we will join together in praying. But for now, join with me silently as I pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.