In the 2003 film “Luther” starring Joseph Fiennes, Martin Luther is seen rather early in his ministry as wrestling with the character and intention of God. You may be aware that Martin Luther was chief architect of what eventually became a sprawling reformation movement – a movement deeply opposed to how the established church (at the time there was only the Roman Catholic tradition) – how the church understood its role in the world’s relationship with God. Luther was, apparently, very distressed about how Christendom had become shaped up to his time, the early 16th century. Even a quick glance at history books suggests a global understanding that God was understood to be something of a trickster, and Luther lamented what he saw as facts in his day:
• We’re born tainted with Original Sin
• God is angry at us throughout our lives because of our faults, and
• God is a righteous judge whose purpose is not to miss a single soul that should be damned to everlasting hellfire.
In the film, Martin’s mentor asks him, “What do you seek?”
His reply? “A merciful God! A God whom I can love! A God who loves me!”
Perhaps you’re like me and have figured out that Martin is on the right track, making love paramount in terms of how we know God.
Our long gospel story today – a story unique to Luke – may give us some powerful insights in reply to Martin’s longing, and maybe our longing as well. In it Jesus attempts, yet again, to help us gain a greater understanding of what is meant by love.
Note the stark difference between Simon, the Pharisee at whose home Jesus finds himself dining, and the unnamed woman:
• Simon clearly wishes to adhere to Levitical law
• He seeks to separate the righteous from the unrighteous
• He distances himself from the woman, and
• Ultimately from Jesus as well,
• Judging incorrectly that Jesus cannot be a prophet or else he would have seen the woman to be unclean and not allowed her to touch him.
Now note the role Jesus plays in this moment:
• He reveals the very nature of righteousness
• He counters Simon’s contemptuousness
• By demonstrating God’s divinely given power and authority
• Jesus knows what’s in the woman’s heart
• And, more, he knows what’s in Simon’s mind
Which actually proves his prophet status.
• In the end, as usual, Jesus is the more assured one
• He shares God’s authority to forgive sins
• He displays a generous intention to heal life, restore relationships and to forgive the sinful.
And just in case the details thus far have left us still craving more knowledge of God’s nature as it is expressed in the person of Jesus, he goes a big step further, with a parable.
And in the parable we see God’s nature exemplified in the radical generosity of the creditor who forgives “by way of a gift”. That’s the main thing Jesus wishes to convey about the kingdom of heaven – about Divine Righteousness – in this particular moment with Simon.
Jesus’ entire purpose in telling this parable is to help Simon move toward a change in his perspective – to help him begin to understand that he has been laboring under a misapprehension.
Jesus doesn’t judge and separate the way Simon does. Instead he hospitably receives the woman’s gift of love and gratitude for her own forgiven debt – a large debt, her sins were many.
Looking at Simon here, we begin to imagine that the more the human invests in human understanding of righteousness, the greater the degree of inability to see his or her own need for divine mercy. Simon’s motives and methods seem, rather, to thinly veil a kind of contemptuousness – contemptuousness for God, for others and even for himself deep down. And righteous though he may feel, Simon is utterly at odds with the greatest commandments as taught by Jesus. Love God fully. Love neighbor fully. Love self fully.
Love. Thank God for these little gospel lessons on love. And right now I’m also thanking God for having stumbled upon Krista Tippet’s latest book, “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” to which I owe much regarding the understanding of love I’d like to share.
In this day and age, love may well be the superstar virtue of virtues. But it may also be the most watered-down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. I love chocolate cupcakes. And what we’ve done with the word we’ve done with the thing – the possibility – the essential bond – the act. We’ve made it private, we’ve contained it in family (when its power lies in its potential to cross tribal boundaries). We’ve fetishized it as romance, when its broader quality is as a true indicator of sustained and sustaining practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is really a way of BEING. And when we are at our best, it’s what we all desire, and seek to give AND to receive. But somehow, even after lifetimes of human loving, developing the intention to walk through the world practicing love across all kinds of relationships and encounters, still feels like a vast frontier. And so, in terms of our collective ability to succeed in this regard, I still find more questions than answers.
We are at such an interesting and unnerving time in the world. As we continue to awkwardly live into inventing a common life for this century, we continue to find ourselves struggling collectively with divisions of race and income and class – divisions that, while not new, are freshly anguishing. But here’s what IS new: there is also a growing and widespread awareness that the healing stories we’ve told ourselves up to this point, are far, far less than complete. So we’re still seeking. And there’s a bewilderment in the American air which is both frustrating and refreshing for its lack of answers to things we feel we’ve addressed already.
We still don’t even know how to begin to change our relationships with the strangers who are our neighbors. One of my favorite declarations is, “If you’re not treating your neighborhood like it’s your parish, you’d better start”, and yet I can’t give you clear step-by-step instructions.
But I cling – and I crave drawing you nearer the challenge at hand – the invitation that Jesus continually bears in his hands to us. And the clinging and craving have everything to do with relationship.
The desire to love and be loved in ways that improve relationships bids us consider the extent to which our search is linked with a new intimacy with God. Think of the woman. A new intimacy that entails volition – a human decision to pursue renewed connection with God. A God we can love. A God who loves us. The unnamed woman wordlessly models this for us. We, like her, must consciously decide to boldly enter in to this new intimacy.
And here’s why it’s important: I think Jesus would have us know that the capacity to humanly demonstrate love and gratitude in the world is directly proportional to the ability to receive divine love. The woman in our story positively reveals the interconnection of love, grace and forgiveness; whereas Simon can only see the woman as outcast, and undeserving of love.
Today’s gospel is truly an excellent lesson on love. Love, as public good, certainly needs something public to make it grow – a kind of yeast. This yeast comes in the form of those adherents who choose to stand with, speak for, and protect the very identities around them that are threatened by conflict. It’s not about pointing up the differences – it’s about experiencing common humanity. And the way love filters through and in and around conflicts common to humanity can be seen as a kind of social artistry – it involves stepping up at times and stepping back at others.
I believe we are all called into the challenging, refreshing, comforting and afflicting work of knowing and loving our neighbors – being present as neighbors. And we cannot help but do so with our eyes wide open. Love crosses the chasms that exist between us. At the same time, it brings those chasms into focus. The challenge of standing before an open rupture in society is matched by the challenge to love – the challenge of standing hospitably before those who have offended us, or harmed us, or continue to drive us crazy! And more challenging, still, is standing hospitably with our own, perhaps justified, righteous indignation.
Think on the word “hospitable”. It serves as a gateway into a gentle understanding of what it means to be “love in action”. It’s soft and shimmery. It helps conjure up permission for us to find ways to stay in relationships, and even improve them. Being hospitable helps us find out what love can mean – in this moment, in a year, in ten years.
All of this intelligence of Divine Righteousness, begins to come so much more readily when engage the gospels so as to know the motivation and method of God’s love for us. It fuels us for the work of salvation. Through these stories we can come to learn, with a sense of relief, how to approach the entire matter of love in the world.
We began our journey today looking for a God who will love us and whom we can love. Having found God, perhaps in a new way through Jesus, we’re drawn into expanding the meaning of love in us and around us. We will serve and be well served in our continued journey through the world by learning to come before God as humble creations. We must allow ourselves to be informed in the deepest sense by a new and intentional personal belief that this world and all its complexities must not remain a world into which we sometimes grudgingly choose to acknowledge God’s presence. That sounds a bit like our Simon. It is the woman who shows us how to “be” in love – how to “be” in a world that is not our world, but God’s world.