A sinful woman’s faith (April 21, 2024)

Sheldon Sorge writes about seeing the best in each other.

Outlook Standard Lesson for April 21, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: ​​​Luke 7:36-50

Shame upon shame

Shame is a potent social force. Parents use it to control their children, bosses their supervisees, teachers their students, and religious leaders their flocks. We most often associate shame with immorality, but we use it primarily to exert control. It’s more about power than it is about worthiness.

The woman in our story behaves shamefully, which only adds to the shame she already carries as “a sinner.” Even if she weren’t “a sinner,” her actions at the dinner table are disruptive and disorderly, and thus shameful. Yet the host, Simon, is more worried about the unnamed woman’s status as a sinner than as an etiquette breaker, and judges Jesus disapprovingly for letting a sinner get so close to him.

Jesus has no use for shame because he has no interest in controlling others. His mission is to set free, not to bind. Shame drives us not to repent but to hide. Nobody had to hide from Jesus, which is what drew people to him. And this is how God is with us, he teaches.

The chicken and the egg

As with the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5, Jesus asserts God’s forgiveness for the person who has come to him. It’s already there before Jesus declares it to her. He notes in verse 47 that she is already forgiven before he tells her so in verse 48. What comes first — forgiveness, or assurance of forgiveness?

Historically, the invitation to confession in Reformed worship has included the declaration of forgiveness before the confession. We are forgiven, not because we admit our sin or promise not to sin, but because God forgives unconditionally. We are free to confess sin because we know it is already forgiven. As we approach God in confession, we are coming to “the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) rather than judgment.

Not only does God forgive sin unconditionally — God forgets our sins, according to Jeremiah 31:34! How can an all-knowing God not remember our sin? Evidently, God cherry-picks what to remember about us. According to Psalm 103, God “does not deal with us after our sins,” because God “knows how we were made, … remembers that we are dust.”

Seeing is a choice

A young couple told me they would have to stop coming to church because of behavioral problems with their younger son, whose autism led him to move constantly in church. He was happy to stay on the floor beside his parents while he squirmed, but they felt eyes of disapproval drilling into them from all sides. I invited them to do something very un-Presbyterian – come sit in the front row and let the boy wiggle to his heart’s content under the front pew. The only one who will see him will be me, the pastor, and it won’t bother me a bit. And they took me up on it! I chose to see the beauty of his presence.

God chooses to see the good in us, to focus on that which is commendable. God could focus elsewhere, but Scripture teaches that God looks at us differently than people do, something God reminded Samuel when he was looking for a new king (1 Samuel 16:7). A powerful instance of this is offered in Romans 4, where Paul declares that Abraham’s faith never wavered. Paul knew better, of course, as does anyone who reads Genesis. Abraham’s faith was mercurial. But in God’s view, it was rock solid. God chose to see Abraham as a pillar of faith, despite his many faith crises.

The Westminster Catechism, in elucidating the Ten Commandments, teaches us to see and celebrate the best in each other. It’s not enough to avoid lying about each other. That would be a good place to start, but we don’t really fulfill God’s intention until we deliberately and unwaveringly speak well of our neighbor (Book of Confessions 7.254). Seeing the best in each other is a disciplined practice that needs to be cultivated.

We rightly celebrate Jesus’ welcome to sinners, his willingness to touch and be touched by people widely considered untouchable. But he was also an equal-opportunity welcomer, choosing to accept an invitation to dinner from Simon the Pharisee. Jesus certainly excoriated the Pharisees plenty for their hypocrisies, but he did not shun them. The story he tells in our passage says that both characters are forgiven. Thank God there is forgiveness for “good” people who have little idea they need it!

Questions for discussion

  1. Tell about a time when you reached out to someone risky (perhaps a panhandler, or someone adamantly opposed to your politics) and were blessed to find good in them that you never expected.
  2. How might your church be changed if it made welcoming “risky” people a top priority? What would such a commitment entail?

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