II Pentecost, Year C
1 Kgs 21:1-10,(11-14),15-21a or * 2 Sm 11:26-12:10,13-15
Ps 5:1-8 * Ps 32
(1 Kings 21:1-10)
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, "Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money." But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance." Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, "I will not give you my ancestral inheritance." He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat. His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?" He said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’" His wife Jezebel said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite." So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, "Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death."
(1 Kings 21:11-14)
The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead."
(1 Kings 21:15-21a)
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead." As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?" You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood." Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" He answered, "I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, I will bring disaster on you.
* (2 Samuel 11:26-27)
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD,
* (2 Samuel 12:1-10)
and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him." Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.
* (2 Samuel 11:13-15)
David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house. In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die."
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have
something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." 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 bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Many kinds of people came to Jesus. This is a story of two people who are paradigmatic of the types of people who came to Jesus. This is a story about the essential deconstruction of religion (in the Girardian sense of the word), much like the story of the wedding at Cana that we looked at during Lent.
This is a story that can profitably be seen through the lens of mimetic theory, that has some profound implications for church life today. The Pharisee in our text is part of a holiness movement, a movement of lay people who have taken upon themselves the ‘Holiness Code,’ those who see the entire people of Israel as a “kingdom of priests.” When we recall the divisions that plagued Judaism from the time of the Hasmoneans on with regard to the ‘holiness’ of the Temple priests and the unhappy relations between Pharisees and Sadducees, we can understand the Pharisees’ concerns. They desired not to co-opt the commandments, as had the Sadducees, but to follow God with a whole heart. The Sadducees had eventually (so said the Pharisees) corrupted themselves by accommodating their lifestyle to that of the world around them (the problem of Hellenization). The First Book of Maccabees is excellent reading for the pastor to get handles on this. At the time following the Maccabean revolution with the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty, movements arose as to the quality and legitimacy of the Temple priesthood. It is probable that the sect at Qumran had its origins at this time with the Teacher of Righteousness inveighing against the false priests of the Jerusalem Temple. Another separatist movement was the Pharisees. They too had a problem with the holiness of the Temple but they also had an issue with the holiness of the people. And so they referred to themselves as ‘the separated’ and the regular Miriam’s and Joshua’s as am ha-eretz, or people of the land.
We know Jesus also had a problem with the Temple authorities. And Jesus also appears in the Gospels to have had problems with the Pharisees. Marcus Borg has illumined these divisions in his work, notably Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. Later redaction not withstanding, it is certain that Jesus ran into problems with the various ‘separatist’ groups in his culture. Yet, Jesus with his critique of the Temple system and hierarchy would have found much in common with the teachings of the Pharisees, so Luke’s ‘invitation’ is not an unhistorical probability.
At a dinner given in the home of a Pharisee, a ‘sinful woman’ enters and weeps at Jesus’ feet. Our Pharisee is appalled. He asks two questions of himself which both expect a negative answer. “If this man were a prophet (and he is not), he would know what kind of woman this is (and he doesn’t).” Therefore, he must not be a prophet. Jesus is aware of what his host, Simon, was thinking. It doesn’t take a genius to read offended body language. So Jesus tells a little parable. Like the story of Nathan “parabling” King David, Simon answers correctly but in so doing condemns his own reaction to the woman. We know the rest of the story: Jesus praises the woman for her ‘honorable acts of hospitality’ and critiques Simon for his lack thereof. And Jesus goes on to put her in the place of Simon’s correct answer to the mashal Jesus had uttered, her sins which are many are forgiven.
Simon, as a Pharisee, knows the value of repentance and its strategic role in forgiveness. Why then does he judge this woman when she comes repenting? What has caused his negative critical attitude? In the process he also criticizes Jesus, why does he do so?
Simon’s repentance had taken him far. He followed Torah and heeded the commandments that hedged the Torah. His life was a detailed perfection of holiness, he followed God’s ways, he obeyed God’s laws. He was an example of moral perfection. But he would not fellowship with those who had not come as far as he. He is still of the mind that a great gulf exists between himself and this woman. He does not perceive that the goodness and mercy of God forgive both him and woman. Has he become dependent on what he considers his merits? Has he become self-satisfied with his own status before God?
Simon’s division between himself and the woman indicates that he has once again co-opted the religion of grace expressed by his own rabbis (e.g., Hillel) and participates in the differentiation/exclusion that belongs to scapegoating. He has measured his value before God in terms of others whom he has devalued. He is better than this one and that one, holier than her, more righteous than him. He has compared himself to others when he ought to have been comparing himself with himself. He has become mimetically entangled with the separation he feels from others whom he does not feel are separate enough.
Perhaps Simon was not a Hillelite but a Shammaite, a follower of the more conservative Pharisaic Rabbi Shammai. Perhaps Simon perceived Jesus as a Hillelite, as a liberal. This would not surprise us (On Jesus as a ‘Hillelite’ see Harvey Falk Jesus the Pharisee). No matter how we may construe the ‘historical’ background of this text, nevertheless it is clear that from a mimetic theoretical perspective Simon has engaged in scapegoating and Jesus will have none of that. Just as Jesus accepted Simon by receiving his invitation, so Jesus too accepts the woman, both are freely accepted and both freely forgiven (remember Simon is compared to the one forgiven ‘little.’)
The upshot of the tale for Luke is that Jesus forgives sin, any kind of sin, all sin, and he does so without any kind of demand for engaging the sacrificial process. In short, he acts as God would act and it is this that causes consternation for both Simon and his other guests.
Who were the Pharisees?
“According to Josephus, the Pharisees concerned themselves with the strict interpretation and observance of the Torah, and spared themselves no efforts to fulfill the laws exactly.” More so, the Pharisees had equated their interpretation of Torah (their hermeneutic) with Torah itself, much like those who equate biblical inerrancy with biblical theology. ‘It is more culpable to teach against the ordinances of the scribes than against the Torah itself’ (Mishnah Sanh. 11:3). Furthermore, “in regard to politics, the Pharisaic view was also a genuinely Jewish one, namely that political questions are to be treated not from a secular but from a religious standpoint.” (Schurer, A History of the Jewish People.)
“The fundamental vision of holiness, and of all the people implementing that most basic command of God, makes it entirely appropriate that the Tannaitic sources should define perushim (Pharisees) in terms of holiness.” (John Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees)
Note also G.F. Moore Judaism (New York: Schoken, 1927, many reprints) on ritual atonement, “The Mishnah..makes repentance the indispensable condition for the remission of every kind of sin, and this, with the other side of it, namely that God freely and fully remits the sin of the penitent, is a cardinal doctrine of Judaism, it may properly be called the Jewish doctrine of salvation.”
Finally, with Anthony Saldarini we must recognize that the Pharisees roles changed as Jewish society developed in the centuries before and after Jesus and that classifying them in terms of static categories does not do them justice. One of the more important roles they played was that of a reform of renewal movement (as noted also by Ellis Rivkin The Hidden Revolution). See Saldarini Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees.
We cannot do justice to the complex history of the Pharisees in this short section. Each of these comments was picked to point out that first the Pharisees must be perceived as a lay holiness movement (which should not be unfamiliar to Christians), that they were not ‘works-oriented’ in their doctrine of salvation, but that they had an exclusivity about their self-perception as ‘righteous one’ that is, as those who properly obeyed Torah as distinct from the am ha-eretz. We Christians have far more in common with the Pharisees than we may wish to admit and must not place ourselves over against them as though they were purveyors of law, but we as purveyors of grace.
Christianity has had its various reform, renewal and holiness movements, but each in their own turn have depended upon adherence to a set of rules or morals. In the end, as each movement falls into this trap, instead of setting themselves over against the “world,” they conform precisely to the victimage standards by which the world structures society. All the groups still murder the scapegoat, they just choose different scapegoats.
Some sermon thoughts
It would be easy to begin a rant against evangelical Christians who exclude everyone who doesn’t have their “flat” view of inspiration, and who follow the Bible differently than they do.
It would be just about as easy to rant against the Roman Catholic bishop who recently told his congregants that if they vote for the democratic nominee for president, they must not receive Communion until they have repented and confessed this sin and done penance.
Or we could do a funny sermon about the “church lady” from Saturday Night Live.
And if we did any of those things, we’d just be Simon the Pharisee, complaining about the un-holiness of someone else. Isn’t that a pain???
Where’s the Good News, then?
Surely, in our own repentance. I imagine leading my congregation through an “Ignatian” reading of the text, helping them to tie their own experiences of guilt and relief to hers, perhaps asking them to look still for the things they’ve been to afraid to bring to Jesus. We all fear the Simon within us, and all but the sociopaths among us have one.
Because of this, there are deep cisterns in us filled with guilt that Jesus would turn to wine, if only we could bring ourselves to hear and trust his word of forgiveness. And when we do, the woman’s reaction no longer seems so peculiar. In fact, I can imagine many more extraordinary responses.
We might go bathe the feet of those in prison.
Or go and beg forgiveness of the naked whom we clothe.
Or anoint the heads of those we’ve cast off into the hiding places we call hospitals.
And no one would ever know our names, either.