The good, the bad...

Luke 7:36-50



Around our house the question comes up a couple of times a day - Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?  Stories, sports games, tv shows, the kids want clarification - who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?  Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not so much...
if I read a list of names, could you distinguish which ones?  Let your mind do it's catagorizing as you listen to these: Osama Bin Ladin... BP... Barak Obama... Snoop Dogg... nurses... upper management... nurses who cross the picket line... Sarah Palin... firefighters... Priests... Lady Gaga...
So?
I guess it depends on who you ask, right?
So in this story, who’s the good guy and who’s bad?

Simon the Pharisee thinks the woman is bad, they all do, but we can see that she is actually the good guy and Simon is the bad one for being so judgmental… right?
She’s our precious prostitute, even though it doesn’t say that anywhere, it has been the jumped-to conclusion for years, (a "sinner" who is a woman must be a prostitute), and we can dig Jesus hanging out with the downtrodden, even the sentimental sinners that we feel badly for: prostitutes are people too.

But all it says is that she’s a sinner. A recognized, acknowledged sinner. What if she cheats people?  What if she spreads false rumors, vicious slanderous lies?  What if she rips off people’s possessions and gets rid of them on ebay? What if she sells pot to kids and poisons puppies?  The point is, she’s the bad guy, and sinner means sinner, not someone we should necessarily feel pity or affinity for.  If we knew her, we probably wouldn’t like her either.

I mean, really, a good guy, a really nice guy, who is a pillar of his community, a tithing, recycling, stopping to help you change your tire, honest, upright solid guy is having a dinner party.  And he’s invited the rockstar visiting teacher, the one making headlines for his radical poor-loving, rule-breaking, ways, so he’s not just a solid upright guy, he’s open-minded too.
So this nice guy has a dinner party, and suddenly in the middle of it this wretched person, who is an embarrassment to the community, a liar or a thief, or a whore, someone who is corrupting our corporate well-being, and tainting our community, comes in, makes a horrifying scene all over the guest of honor, I mean practically lewd, sniveling and crying, falling all over him, taking down her hair in public and wiping his feet with it – emotional, inappropriate, disgusting, really.  And he takes it, in front of all these people he lets her do this.
Poor good guy, right?  Poor host.  How’d she get in here? What humiliation.  So he tries to spare his reputation, because it looks like maybe he was wrong about this Jesus.  “He must not know who this is, what kind of person this is touching him.” he mutters. He must not really be a prophet, says the good guy, because if he were then he would know this lady taking such liberties with him in front of everyone is one of the bad guys.

"Simon," Jesus says, calling him by name and not by distinction.  "I have something to say to you."  Then he tells a story, a story about forgiveness.  Which one loves more? he asks. The one forgiven more is, of course, the right answer. And then Jesus tells another story, one that would make us ready to point out who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, the story of what is going on right there, unfolding in that very moment, each of them a character, everyone listening.  And how awkward and uncomfortable that would be to listen to!  "You’ve been a lousy host," he says, "and she is expressing great love."  Her sins – which were many, were forgiven.  Hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little. The implications are offensive.  And the message is: You don’t get to categorize people as good or bad.  She is a person. Just like you. In fact, she has greater love than you because she has been forgiven more.

So, our minds want to sort it out again, we must have had it wrong after all, just like Simon did.  She is actually the good guy and he is the bad guy, right?  I mean he certainly gets stripped down to size.  And so we can take this story as some kind of morality tale about judging others too quickly, about overlooking the importance of hospitality. We can use this story to be an even better good guy than Simon the Pharisee was.  Amen, and move on with the renewed effort: not to judge and to try to love more – (but maybe not so much that we’d make a public scene or anything).

Only forgiveness, God’s grace, Jesus himself doesn’t play by that rule either.

She walks into the room a sinner.  The label sticks, it is what defines her in their eyes and company, it sets the trajectory for her future, it is her identity. A Sinner in Our Town.  But she also walks into the room having been forgiven.  She walks in having been given a new identity, Forgiven, moving in her forgiven-ness, outside the bounds of invitation and definition and decorum and decency, and she pours out her thanks and her soul in front of everyone. In spite of everyone. 

And Jesus, after her outburst and his parable, having just publicly humiliated his host, Jesus turns to the woman, and says, your sins are forgiven, they have been and continue to be forgiven.   Go in peace.

And can she go any other way?  Now in front of everyone, in spite of everyone, her place is shifted, her identity is different. Who knows who she will be among them from now on, but she can no longer by the de facto Sinner in Our Town, she can no longer be the widely acknowledged, easily recognized bad guy.  She might be that lady who blubbered all over Jesus, the one who wrecked Simon’s party, but my suspicion is that what sticks is - The Forgiven One. 
Because she lives in her forgiven ness, She walks in it and moves from it and revels in it, and it has been declared over her in front of everyone, and whether they believe it or not doesn’t really matter.  It’s irreversible.  And she’s not playing by their rules and roles any more.

And Simon is no longer the good guy.  Not necessarily bad, but just a little tainted, perhaps. He did, after all, kind of botch the whole hospitality thing… And maybe even if you didn’t jive with what Jesus said, you could have some reservations about Simon’s judgment for inviting this wild card preacher in the first place.  So Simon, even if he isn’t bad, is not the completely good guy, anyway, the model good guy…

But mostly, the residue left behind from this encounter with grace, that can’t get erased, is the vague unease that maybe we don’t actually know who’s the good guy and who's the bad guy.  I mean, Simon trusted Jesus and look where that got him – we thought Jesus was a good guy but he appears to be something of a loose canon.  We just aren’t sure what to make of all this, or how to resume a kind of “life as usual.”

Forgiveness is very destabilizing.
Grace upends all order, it changes the rules and obliterates the categories we use to make sense of who is who, the ways we judge what is good.  These moral categories that we need to make sense of life, Jesus takes away.  Getting too close to grace can be a dangerous thing.

And yet we are called by grace, bathed in grace, summoned to exist in the reality of grace – in forgiveness that disturbs and transforms our lives, our relationships, our structures and the very fabric of reality.  Are we ready to be agents of such transformative grace in the world?

Are we willing to invite the unsettling power of grace to invade our orderly dinner parties?

But most of all, whether you are Simon the Pharisee or the Sinner in Town - and everyone in between -
hear this: You are forgiven.  Get ready - That changes everything.

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