Sunday, June 16, 2013

Envy: Equal and Enough

Envy: Equal and Enough
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 16, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 7: 36-50 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

36 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. 37 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. 38 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. 39 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.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [1]  

So on this father's day I'd like to start with my favorite quote from my father. I find that this piece of wisdom I remember and use more than any other from him. As an English teacher, or really as a teacher of high school boys in general, it just seems to always be applicable to all kinds of situations, so I find new opportunities to use it in new and effective ways. I'm not sure what Dad's source for it is, or whether it is original to him, but I always remember it. He said, "When you're explaining you're losing." It is true in so many different ways. Think about it, if you are telling a joke and you have to explain it you are done. . . joke over, won't be funny anymore. Usually starts with you saying, "Do you get it, then silence, so you try to explain and it just gets worse. Another application where I use it, probably the most often, is with my students about their writing, actually that isn't true, the first is when they come into class with an excuse, trying to explain away something they did wrong, but closely after that is with their writing, trying to get them to illustrate their points with proof and evidence rather than broad and vague explanations, I'll say stop explaining and show me the answer, show me don't tell me. I found this to be a common thread between this morning's Old and New Testament Lessons. Both Jesus and Nathan, instead of explaining the situation they illustrate the point so that David and the Pharisee convict themselves by their own reaction to the parable.
Let's look at David first: David and Bathsheba. David who has been given the throne, given the world, wants more, what he has just isn't enough. He lusts after another man's wife, and then arranges it so her husband, one of David's officers, Uriah, is killed in battle, removing him from the picture, clearing the way for David and Bathsheba to be married It is one of the most despicable acts in the Biblical narrative, and this one from a supposed hero, a supposed great pillar of Old Testament greatness, a supposed man after God's own heart. It fulfills Samuel's prophesy about what a king will do to the people. It fulfills the truths about how humanity's fallen nature handles power. It is truly awful. And Nathan calls David out on it, but instead of talking to him directly he offers a parable, a parallel story about a rich man who takes the prized lamb of a poor shepherd. David reacts angrily, having been a poor shepherd himself. He is angered by the injustice of the situation. He knows it is wrong, but here is where Nathan turns the tables, by opening David's eyes to his own sin, saying:

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; 8 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. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? [2]  

Nathan's like, was it not enough? You would have been given more, why did you take?
Jesus' parable is similar. He has been invited to this Pharisee, Simon's house, so Jesus goes, but while he is there, a woman of the city, a sinner, comes up behind him, and washes his feet with her tears, drying them with her own hair, kissing them, and anointing them with ointment she had brought. The Pharisee sees it, doesn't say anything out loud, but only to himself, saying, this man, speaking of Jesus, he can't be a prophet, if he were, he would know this woman is a sinner, and wouldn't allow her to touch him so familiarly. Now we don't know how Jesus knows what he was thinking, it could be that he could read the guy's thoughts, it could be that he read his looks, it could be that he simply assumes, but assumes correctly, because he addresses the man's thoughts as if he had spoken them aloud and much like Nathan tells the man a self convicting parable, illustrating what the Pharisee just couldn't see. He asks:

“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 

The Pharisee answers, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt," and Jesus says, "You have judged rightly." Then Jesus goes on to forgive the woman's sin, and showing how her reaction to him is more right. She is showing her devotion, whereas he is looking at others.  She is loving, he is judging, even if he is "judging" rightly. Then he finally says to him, "the one whom little is forgiven loves little," not hey  you need to love me, he can figure that out for himself, and to her he says your sins are forgiven. No further explanation is given. We don't know whether this Pharisee got it or not, but the other people at the table start grumbling, wondering who this is who forgives sins. Jesus doesn't stop to explain he goes on, and the chapter ends, episode over. Luke 8 begins with something else. Jesus seems to have understood my dad's advice, too. When you are explaining you are losing, so he doesn't explain he just acts and moves on, letting the actions speak for themselves.
Now maybe I should take Dad's advice here, or follow Jesus' lead, because talking about sin and human nature can get you into trouble, opening up the possibility of being a hypocrite, no problem there I am a hypocrite, and fall victim to these tendencies constantly myself, but I want to look into this story a little bit more anyway, and look at it how it parallels the David story. When I look at the situation of the Pharisee and the situation of King David I see the three E words that make up the title of this sermon. I see issues concerning the concept of what is enough. I see issues of equality. I see how those things work together to get at another E word, defining the sin we call Envy. Let's look at each of these.
Enough, David first. David is the king, David used to be a poor shepherd. There is a ton of upward mobility there. David overcame Goliath, against all odds. David overcame Saul against all odds, not because of David's great abilities but because of God and God's work in him. He is given all, but it is not enough for him. He wants more, and instead of going to God for more he takes it upon himself to get it, by any means necessary. What is it in us that makes us want more? Is there anything that can ever be enough? We look around us constantly and we see people destroyed by their desires. Nothing is ever enough. In our material culture, we need more and more things. . . have you seen the commercials? Bigger is better? Even little kids know it, whether it is the coverage that Verizon offers, or whether it is how much money you save with Geico. They use children in the commercials to show just how self evident the idea is to even the most simple and innocent of us. But the problem with big is it is a relative term, and if things are relative there isn't room for an absolute like, "enough." God should be that absolute, should be that enough, but is he for us? Or do we look elsewhere? Why?
Sometimes our notions of equal get in the way of our notions of enough. This is the key ingredient in Jesus' parable to the Pharisee. Jesus tells the Pharisee that he "judged rightly" when he said that the man forgiven more debt should be more pleased,  but is that necessarily true because it misses a key component of the parable. It misses the main point of the parable, blinded by the inequality, it is the Pharisees main problem, and I think it is ours as well if we "judge rightly" like he does. It makes me think about another of Dad's advice. When I was learning to drive, he said that it is not enough to be right in a car. "You can be right, but you'll be dead right if you are not aware of what is going on." Open your eyes and know what is going on. The Pharisee judges right, but he is dead wrong about the truth. He sees the two forgiven debtors in the story divided by the amount of their forgiveness, rather than seeing the bottom line in how they are equal. Very similar to the fact that he sees the differences between he and the sinning woman, rather than the fact of how they are in fact equal. They are equal in the final status, as people forgiven of debt. Does the Pharisee get this in the final analysis? That not only is the woman at Jesus' feet forgiven of her sins, but so too is the he. Does he get that when he sees this parable? Do we? Does he even see his sin? Do we see our own?
Do we get it when we see this parable enacted around us all over the place? When we see others get ahead? When we see others who are more talented? When we see others who have more stuff? When we see others who are more happy? When we see others who seem to have more spirituality? When we see others who seem to be more at peace? When we see others, others, others? Can we see the grace of God in our own lives while we are looking at the grace of God in others? God I hope so, but it seems not if we are worried about things being equal, blind to the fact that they are. Before Christ enters into us there never will be equal, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven, completely, this forgiveness is a real manifestation of God's love that is the only equality in the world, and it is enough, it is infinite, more than it doesn't exist, so it is enough. Is our conception and focus on the rest merely blinding envy?
David, he listens to Dad, when Nathan confronts him, he doesn't try to explain it away, instead he confesses, he says, "I have sinned against the Lord," and the tradition is that he then prays and writes Psalm 51, which we used this morning as a prayer of Confession, as we do weekly, and God hears his prayer, and "puts away his sin." Then in Luke' Gospel, we don't get to see how the Pharisee behaves in response to Jesus' parable, its left open as so many similar events in the Gospels are, because it allows us to insert ourselves. Are we the woman at the feet of Jesus or are we the Pharisee? I can't tell you which is the right person to feel connected to, but I can tell  you that it doesn't matter, they are both forgiven, and so are we, and to quote my father again, one last time, "Thank God for Jesus." Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 7:36-50). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (2 Sa 12:7-9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.