Sunday, June 13, 2010

At the Feet of Christ

A very short one; I think sometimes the Scriptures need very little commentary. The contrasts between the folks we meet in our readings today kind of speak for themselves in many ways.

1 Kings 21:1-21a
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." 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."

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; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

Galatians 2:15-21

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.

Luke 7:36-8:3

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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation in the Gospels. Honestly, it’s a reputation they come by honestly for the way they work against Jesus at every turn. Yet however badly they turned out, the origin of the movement was sincere: to be as faithful as possible to the Law of God, as handed down to them in the Scriptures.
Pharisees like Simon strove to be as faithful as they could be, carefully, one might say obsessively, working to observe the smallest detail of those dietary and ceremonial laws passed down from Moses, keeping themselves separated from anyone and anything that might bring uncleanness upon them.

Compare this carefully pious man with the woman who came into the dining room just moments after they had reclined on their couches to eat: it was customary, by the way, for guests to lay on their left side, knees bent so their feet hung off the couch behind them. This woman, who in Luke’s account has no name, never says a word. She had her own reputation – Luke calls her merely “a sinner,” but one with means enough to buy expensive ointment in a costly box.

Simon may have heard about Jesus raising the widow’s son, or may have overheard him preaching in the town’s marketplace, we don’t know. Whatever the case, he took it upon himself to have Jesus over for dinner, so he could get a closer look at the fellow. Was he a prophet, a man of God, or just another in a long line of rabble-rousers, intent on overthrowing Roman rule and “restoring” David’s throne, with he himself sitting in it?

Interesting, isn’t it, knowing as we do who Jesus was and is, that a Pharisee would have been checking Jesus out, making sure he measured up to expectations. One could make the argument that Simon was looking for reasons to discount Jesus as a prophet or potential Messiah; after all, isn’t it the case that when we claim to be making sure someone else measures up, what we’re really doing is looking for the ways in which someone else does not measure up?

This woman, who is washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, might have heard Jesus at the same time as Simon. She may have seen Jesus at a different time, though, speaking with her friends, eating with sinners like her; perhaps she had seen sight restored to the blind or a sick person healed by a touch from Jesus. Whatever the case, this woman knew that it wasn’t a question of Jesus measuring up to her expectations – the fact was that, deep down, she knew she had no hope of measuring up to such hope and love as Jesus personified.

And the nerve of this Jesus fellow, to allow such an unseemly display! Why, if he were really a prophet, he’d know the kind of woman he’s allowing to act that way, and he would certainly not allow the likes of her to touch him! Horrifying!

What Jesus says in response describes the contrast between the Pharisee and the woman perfectly: “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Think about it: by their very nature, the Pharisees depended on their superior knowledge of the Law, their careful habits and attention to minute detail, to keep them in a place of acceptability toward God. Since they were, in effect, doing everything themselves, there was, in effect, not much need for God to help them. They had things under control just fine, thanks. Whereas they had originally sought to please God by their piety, their efforts had in fact become a replacement for God – they could be good enough without forgiveness… they had works, so who needed faith?

All too often we fall into the trap of thinking we are good enough – that because of where we’re born, or how often we attend church, or the sins we do not commit, we are somehow acceptable to God. We find ourselves thinking, like Simon, that we measure up when, in fact, we should be sharing the floor with the weeping woman, sure of nothing except the fact that we need forgiveness.

One of the most fascinating things about Scripture is how readily we can find the sharp divide between our expectations – be they theological, cultural, or political – and the reality of life in Jesus Christ. For example, our readings today bring us in contact with another Pharisee, one who had, at the outset, sought the destruction of the men and women who followed this itinerant Rabbi whose feet had been anointed with the contents of the woman’s alabaster box. Paul had dedicated his life to being the most observant, most holy, most dedicated of all the Pharisees, had sought the instruction of the most famous of teachers, had been above reproach in his knowledge of and adherence to the Law.

Yet as we read this passage in Galatians, we do not meet a man who has reached perfection by his own actions, do we? Rather, we see a man who has looked at himself not in comparison to stringent rules and regulations, but in comparison to the holiness and perfection of God-made-flesh: and just like the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, he has found himself in need of forgiveness. And like that weeping woman, he has found forgiveness, justification, and new life in Christ.

You see, no matter where we start from, Jesus meets us, and always at the place where we lay down our right to claim social status, or religious purity, or birthright. Kneeling at the feet of Christ, crucified with Him, and yet alive in Him.


  1. You might close with a couple of questions to us. "Where are you (the congregant)right now? Have you allowed Him to meet you there?"

  2. John, you always give me something to think about!