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What Is Sinful, Really?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 12, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-11, 15-16 Luke 7:36-47 Psalm 5:1-8
Our Bible readings this morning give us stories about two sinful women. One is truly evil while the other’s sins are forgiven. The first woman–the one who is truly evil–is Jezebel. She is so wicked that when people want to call someone evil, usually a woman but anyone who is not of the true believers, they are referred to as a Jezebel. In the case of Jezebel, we have someone truly sinful and truly evil. But in Luke we have a sinful woman who is, actually, good. I would like to begin by talking about her.
In our story from Luke, a woman who is called sinful anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. This happens while Jesus is dining at a Pharisee’s home. The Pharisee thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner” (Luke (7:39). But Jesus counters with a challenging saying, “Her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much” (Luke 7:47).
This woman is definitely a sinner by one way of reckoning. Luke tells us that at the beginning of the story. He calls her, “a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town” (7:37). So by one way of figuring, this woman was a sinner. What is Jesus doing in this story? I think that Jesus is pointing to another way of reckoning sin. We don’t know what the woman is doing that causes her to be called sinful. But by the reckoning of the Pharisee–and, I guess, everyone else in the town–she was a sinner. But Jesus comes up with a very difficult statement to figure out. “Her many sins have been forgiven–for she loved much.”
As a minister, and as someone concerned with morality, I find this statement troubling. It seems to be saying that we can sin, as long as we are loving people. But that can’t be right. How, then, can we understand this statement and this story?
I think that what Jesus is doing is pointing to a new way of viewing sin. Maybe sins aren’t s list of, “Do this,” and “Don’t do that.” Isn’t there an old rock song that satirizes this kind of thinking, “Do this; don’t do that; can’t you read the sign?!” That song was actually by a Canadian band, the Five Man Electrical Band. I think that the Five Man Electrical Band is on to something with that song. What if morality isn’t really a list of right and wrong. What if morality isn’t a set of rules to obey. Instead, what if morality is really a person’s attitude. What if morality is really about being a loving person, like the woman in the Luke story.
Now this is a troubling idea for a moralist. If being good isn’t following a list of rules, what is it? In order to make the point that being good may not be following a set of rules, I’m going to give a few examples of when rules don’t work.
The thing is, we can follow a list of rules and still be miserable people. I read in a satirical magazine once about manners. The article said that good manners are important. You can insult someone without them realizing it if you have good manners. A person can be honest and still detest other people. A person can be law-abiding and still think of themselves as superior to other people.
I think that that is what is behind Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
The trouble with rules is that they can make a righteous person feel self-righteous. The trouble with rules also, is that they provide a framework from which to judge other people. If we have a list of rules in our mind about what a person should and should not do, we are then likely to judge them. That’s what the Pharisee in this story did. He had a list of rules about what it meant to be good. He is not unjust, an extortioner, an adulterer; he fasts, and tithes. He is doing what his list of right and wrong tell him to do. But by being right according to his set of rules, he looks down on others, “God, ” he says, “I thank thee that I am not like other men.”
But I do not mean to be understood to be giving everyone a moral holiday. In fact, morality based on attitude is sometimes more difficult. Morality based on whether we are doing the loving thing can be more severe than one based on rules. In the case of morality based on love, we need to ask ourselves if we are loving other people. It can be said that every truly evil deed is against love. We do not love someone if we steal from them. We do not love someone if we lie about them and backbite. We do not love if we want what they have. We do not love God if we value worldly things first. Do you see what I am doing? I am relating the Ten Commandments to love. If a person loves, they will not violate the Ten Commandments. But a person can keep the Ten Commandments and still not love. We need a list of rules when we forget about loving the neighbor.
“How can we love,” a person may ask. “How can I be commanded to feel something?” we may wonder. It tied the philosopher Immanuel Kant in knots. “How can I be commanded to love?” But, my friends, there is an answer. Love is the most natural feeling we have. But, unfortunately, loving self is part of the equation. We love God and the neighbor when we get self out of the picture. That is the essence of real morality.
That is what we find in the story of Jezebel. In this story, just about every commandment is broken due to selfishness. King Ahab wants a vineyard that is owned by Naboth. There’s coveting. But the land isn’t really owned by Naboth. In the belief system of ancient Israel, God owned the land and each tribe was given a portion of it. The land stayed in their ancestry in perpetuity. This way God saw to it that everyone had a fair amount of land to work. No one could amass vast quantities of land; no one could lose the land they owned from God. Ahab was violating this understanding of land by coveting Naboth’s vineyard.
The evil queen Jezebel concocted a scheme to get King Ahab what he wanted. She brought false testimony against Naboth and had him murdered. That’s two more commandments that were broken. By the way, Jezebel worshipped Baal and Astarte which violated the first two commandments. But my point here isn’t how many commandments Ahab and Jezebel violated. Rather I wish to emphasize how blind they were in pursuing their own selfish ends. They wanted Naboth’s vineyard and they murdered to get it.
I suggest that whenever we consider our own way above all, we are heading toward a violation of God’s ways. There may well be times when what we want is the same as what God wants. There may well be times when what we love is loving to others. Then love meets love and we are in heaven.
The idea I am getting at in all this is that doing the loving thing is what matters. There aren’t rules to cover everything. Even the 631 rules in the Hebrew Scriptures can’t cover every occasion. And even if they did, we really can’t remember 631 rules by heart. But Leviticus 19:16-18 are pretty comprehensive and Jesus sums them up quite well. Jesus tells us to love the neighbor. He got this from Leviticus 19:18. But Leviticus adds some more rules that help flesh out this general idea,
Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love you neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:16-18).
Showing love is much more important than following a list of rules. Treating one another with fellow love is the one cardinal rule that all the lists one can think up point to. You can be righteous, but not loving. But you cannot be loving without being righteous at the same time.
Lord, we pray that you lead us in your ways. We know that a loving disposition is what you ask of us. We pray that you fill us with a love for our neighbors and for you. Many are the vexations of our spirit, when we are overcome with selfishness. And much peace comes when we are filled with your love. We pray this morning that you help us to remove our selfish drives, so that your love may enter our hearts.
And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.
Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.