June 16, 2013 Luke 7: 36-50
Rev. Catherine Purves
I’ve always thought that prequels are stupid. If you’re going to tell a story, just start at the beginning. Don’t begin a long story in the middle and then, in the next installment, take a time-out to go back and show what happened beforehand. When books or movies or TV shows jump around like that, it’s unnecessarily confusing in my opinion. It’s hard enough to make sense of the some complicated plots without hopping around with prequels and sequels, flashbacks and fast-forwards. But with this story of the sinful woman’s forgiveness, I wouldn’t mind having a helpful prequel. Though the story is masterfully written by Luke and complete in itself, I’m left wondering what happened before that poor woman ended up in Simon’s house with an alabaster jar of ointment, determined to anoint Jesus’ feet. How did she get there? Why was she doing that? What’s the backstory? And what came first, her love for Jesus or her experience of forgiveness?
This is almost a classic chicken and egg story. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If you don’t have a chicken, where would the egg come from? And the only place a chicken can come from is an egg. But one of them had to come first. In our story we have love and forgiveness. Which came first, the love that the woman showed for Jesus or the forgiveness that she received? Like the chicken and the egg we can see that in the woman love and forgiveness are related and it is a causal relationship. Because the woman experienced forgiveness, she showed love to Jesus. But because the woman loved Jesus she was able to receive forgiveness, and that made her love him even more. Just as the chicken lays the egg and the egg gives rise to another chicken, so too love and forgiveness create an ongoing cycle. Love makes us able to receive forgiveness and forgiveness prompts us to love more, and on and on it goes. But which came first?
See, that’s why I want to read the prequel. I have all kinds of questions that Luke never bothered to answer. Like, how did that woman know Jesus? Did she hear him preach? Had she spoken to him before? What made her go to the Simon’s house? She must have known that Simon the Pharisee would look down on her as a sinful woman. Or, had she stopped being such a sinful woman? If so, when did that happen? How will we know which came first if we don’t know the answers to these questions, if we don’t know the prequel to the story?
As we read this story, we see that Simon is actually in the same position that we are. The woman and Jesus know about the prequel. Only Simon is in the dark. All he has to go on is the fact that this woman of the city, this known sinner, had wandered in off the street and was behaving in ways that were frankly scandalous. She was weeping and causing a scene in the midst of his dinner party. She was touching Jesus’ feet. She had let down her hair in public – something that no self-respecting woman would ever do. And she was kissing Jesus’ feet and anointing them with ointment. That would certainly put me off my dinner. It’s hard to imagine what could possibly justify such an outward display of emotion. Something had to come first. But Simon, obviously, had no idea what it was.
That is why Jesus told him the story of the creditor and the two debtors. And it is in that parable that we will find some hints about our mystery prequel, what happened to the woman before she came to Simon’s house. The one debtor owed the creditor 500 denarii and the other owed 50. Since one denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a laborer, these are not insignificant debts. The smaller debt was equal to 7 weeks’ worth of wages. The larger debt was equal to about a year and a half’s worth of wages. At the front end of this story, it’s important to note that both were debtors and that both had had their debts canceled. This is the prequel that shows us which came first.
If we recognize that Jesus was actually retelling the story of Simon and the forgiven woman, we see that he was insisting that both Simon and the woman were sinners. The woman was a bigger sinner. She owed the larger debt. But Simon was a debtor too, whether he realized that or not. We are all debtors when it comes to sin. Now, who was the first person to act in Jesus’ parable? I’ll give you a minute to think about that. It was the creditor, right? The creditor forgave both debts. Neither of the debtors had made any effort to repay what they owed. The creditor’s decision to cancel the debts was what came first. The forgiveness comes first. In the case of Simon and the woman, of course, the creditor is God. Simon, the woman, and all of us owe a debt to God because of sin. But in Jesus Christ, God has canceled those debts.
Then Jesus poses a question for Simon. Which of those two debtors will love the creditor more? That is, which of those two sinners will love God more? Simon, who may not yet have connected all of the dots, responds, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” This, of course, was the right answer. And this is how the story of Simon and the forgiven woman played itself out. The woman who was forgiven the greater debt loved more. Simon who was forgiven a smaller debt loved less. Either way, the forgiveness came first and the love, in greater or lesser quantities, came second. The whole story can be summarized in these words from 1 John: “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4: 19)
So now we’ve got our chickens and eggs, God’s forgiveness and our love, in the right order. We know which came first. But then, it seems, Jesus muddies the waters a little bit when he declares to the woman after all of that weeping and kissing and anointing, “Your sins are forgiven.” That almost seems to reverse the order again. We should read the declarative statement, “You sins are forgiven,” as a confirmation of something that had already happened, and that would continue to happen (because none of us ever stop being sinners). The chicken and egg process once started would continue so that forgiveness would beget love and still more forgiveness would follow that love for the rest of the woman’s life.
Jesus’ next statement, “Your faith has saved you,” is a little more difficult since this is the first we had heard of the woman’s faith. How does that fit into this continuing chicken and egg, forgiveness and love phenomenon? Is that part of the prequel too? Let’s first recognize – this is important – that faith is not something that we do; it is something that we have. And we have it as a gift. This verse from Ephesians explains that: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2: 8). Still, how does faith fit into our chicken and egg continuum?
This is how I understand that. We know that God’s forgiveness comes first. Jesus is very clear about that. Let’s call that forgiveness the egg. And that makes our love for God the chicken. The egg, God’s forgiveness, always comes first. Our love for God, the chicken, comes second. But that chicken has to hatch. I think that the hatching, which is also an act of God, is what faith is. Like the chicken and the egg, the hatching is all part of the one process that goes on and on. So too, forgiveness, our loving response to God, and God’s gift of faith are all part of the ongoing life we live in Christ. There’s no chicken if the egg doesn’t hatch. There is no salvation if we can’t receive the gift of forgiveness, and there is no life of loving gratitude if we don’t have faith. For the forgiven woman, somewhere in the midst of her prequel, that egg hatched – an amazing act of God – and she found herself at Jesus’ feet filled with love and gratitude.
Now this is more than just the solution to a puzzling theological conundrum about which came first. This is gospel good news for us. Whether you’ve accumulated as much debt as that sinful woman or as modest a debt as Simon the Pharisee, your sins are forgiven; your debts are canceled in Jesus Christ. Faith to receive that great gift is given by the Holy Spirit. And now you can show your love for God, your gratitude, in the way you live your life as a disciple of Jesus. Of course, you will sin again. But that is the wonder of this whole chicken and egg phenomenon of how God works in our lives. The forgiveness will always come first, it will always be there for you, and the gifts of faith and the grace to grow in our love for Jesus will continue for as long as we live. Egg, hatch, chicken…egg, hatch, chicken…on and on it goes. Thanks be to God!