Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament.
These good men don’t want to do anything more than clean up the Jewish faith, making sure that everyone is following the ancient Mosaic Law. They’re reformers.
Frankly, that’s a good thing, because God’s people have gone off the rails and aren’t really in the kind of relationship with their God that they should be.
And Simon, one of those Pharisees about whom we hear in today’s Gospel, gets the same kind of treatment we see in other parts of the gospel….he’s a Pharisee, and he just doesn’t GET what Jesus is about, so he’s some sort of fool. Seems sort of cruel, doesn’t it?
Simon, a devoted man of faith, at least as he himself sees it, is the Pharisee who invited Jesus over to dinner.
The question that sticks in my mind is why a Pharisee would invite this rebel preacher to his house for dinner. Is he curious about this man who has worked miracles? Does he want to hear more about Jesus’ teachings, which sound pretty radical? Does he think he will best Jesus in a theological argument, and will be viewed as a hero by other Jewish leaders? Does he hunger for something that is missing in his soul, and does he wonder if Jesus can offer him that missing piece?
We don’t know, but we do know that Pharisees are the guardians of the law, the zealous enthusiasts for “doing it right” in following the law. So it is no surprise how he reacts when a woman who is a notorious sinner shows up at the table. She has brought oil to anoint Jesus’ feet. She weeps. Her tears wash Jesus’ feet. She anoints his feet and dries them with her hair.
Simon’s reaction is horror. First of all, she is a woman. Second of all, she is a known sinner. In Mosaic law, those are two powerful reasons for Jesus to shrink from her touch. You’re not supposed to touch women who are not members of your family, and you’re certainly not supposed to touch “bad girls.” But Jesus doesn’t push her away; he lets her do this thing.
Simon thinks to himself, “If this man were really someone of God, he would know that this is an unclean woman and would not let her touch him.” But Jesus knows what he’s thinking. His response is a little parable about forgiveness…the person who is forgiven more will love the Lord who forgives more. Jesus knows that the forgiveness he offers the woman is more precious to her than his presence at the Pharisee’s table is to Simon, and he blesses the woman.
Simon may have had a particular direction that he thought the evening would take, but Jesus takes him off that path into a new and unfamiliar territory. Can Simon adjust to the change in route? Can he go with this changed reality? Can he be open to God working in him in new ways, ways that are not marked out by the old Mosaic law?
It’s a question for us as well, isn’t it?
Can we go off the particular map we have in our own heads, the familiar and comfortable path, if the Spirit leads us into a new place? Can we be open to God working in us in new ways that are not marked out by the old familiar landmarks?
That’s a scary proposition. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the familiar and the certain. Things I think I know well enough to control. That preference is exemplified by my love for my new phone. It’s got GPS, with turn-by-turn directions. When I’m going somewhere I haven’t been to before, which is a lot of the time these days, I can tell it where I want to go – “navigate to Gelati Celesti!” – and it gets me there, reasonably efficiently. I feel safe. I won’t get lost. Even if I take a wrong turn, it will say “recalculating!” and will get me properly turned around.
Before I had the phone, I had Mapquest. I Mapquested my way all over the place, and it usually got me where I wanted to go in a way that made me feel confident and secure. Before that, I used the Rand McNally Road Atlas, and was pretty darned good at getting where I was going. Here’s the secret: with tools like these, I felt like I was always in control.
That’s a really different way of approaching getting to a new place than that of my mother. My mother was very good at general orientation. She could always tell whether she was going north, south, east or west. She was notorious for getting into the car and heading off in a particular direction towards a new destination, without a clue as to which roads she should take. We’d leave from northern
I have always been much more heavily invested in controlling my environment, but that’s not how God works. God laughs when I try to control things. God wants to stretch me out of the familiar, take me on some of those back roads into new places that I might not have otherwise visited, into new territory of the heart. Can I be open to that? Can we be open to that? As I asked before, can we go off the particular map we have in our own heads, the familiar and comfortable path, if the Spirit leads us into a new place? Can we be open to God working in us in new ways that are not marked out by the old familiar landmarks?
It’s an interesting question to ask today, for two reasons.
First, your Vestry spent most of yesterday trying to listen for God’s voice, to feel the Spirit working in Epiphany in both old and new ways. We came away from that time together with some interesting insights into who we are and how God is calling us, and you’ll be hearing more about those insights in the weeks to come. We haven’t come up with a new roadmap…we like a lot of the old landmarks and hope to incorporate them into our ongoing journey, but we expect there will be some fresh and new ways of traveling ahead of us as a parish.
Second, today we honor five young people who are graduating from high school. We recognize their involvement in the life of this parish, as acolytes and working in the nursery, and in many other aspects of our common life. They are headed down a new path, and the skills we have taught them in reading the map of their future will serve them when it all looks very new and unfamiliar and frightening.
That is, in fact, one of the challenges when God disorients us when he wants to do a new thing in us. We get frightened and we want to revert back to old familiar patterns. We reach back not only for familiar landmarks, but for all the old familiar ways that feel comforting. Whether it is in how we drive from Lakeside to the Fan, or whether it is how we get from being a small and loving family-style parish to a somewhat larger but equally warm and caring parish, when it feels like we are on unfamiliar ground, we long for the old way, and we want to abandon the path that God sets before us. We don’t want to be part of the new thing that God is asking of us.
Our Pharisee Simon is shook up. God is taking him to a new place in the person of Jesus, doing these radical things that no nice Jewish boy should do, teaching Simon that what he cherishes most, that orderly path of following the Law, is missing the point. It won’t get Simon to where he needs to go. Jesus is pushing him down a new path, a dimly lit one, and Simon is frightened and resists it.
He’d much rather just keep on trying to follow the ancient Law in a more perfect way. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s been pretty good so far.
But Jesus has a different message, and a different direction for Simon and for the rest of us to follow. Jesus says: “Don’t try to follow the recipe book that is the old Law! Think creatively about how God interacts with God’s people! Think about God’s great love and generosity as demonstrated by the forgiveness which is offered to this woman!”
Jesus is forcing Simon off the GPS of the Law. He is forcing Simon to get off the interstate and onto the backroads, forcing him to navigate with his wits and his love of God, and with God’s love of him as his only landmarks.
Jesus is working in a new way with Simon. He is working in a new way with these young people, as they step out into a new and unfamiliar world. He is working in a new way with us as we discern how we live as God’s people in this place at this time. There is no roadmap, no GPS for this work. All we have is the certainty of God’s love, the assurance that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit will be poured down on us, and that our true north star is Christ the Lord. Can we trust? As my mother would say, “We’ll get there eventually. We’re headed north. Everything is alright. And we may find some really interesting stuff along the way.” And with Christ, it will be so.