Most of you know that before I went off to seminary, I worked with a Habitat for Humanity affiliate. My time at Habitat taught me a lot about politics, about motivating volunteers, and about organizing people for change. But some of the more profound lessons came from the homeowners themselves. The Habitat program includes sending homeowners to financial counseling so that once they purchase the home they are financially stable enough to stay in the home. I remember getting feedback from one of our financial counselors. You see, in looking at one particular homeowner’s budget, the counselor realized that the homeowner was giving 10% of her income – a tithe – to her church. The counselor tried to reason with her – that the 10% could really get her out of the hole – even if she only gave 5% to church, the homeowner would be able to manage some of her debt. But the homeowner refused. The Lord had gotten her this far – and there was no way she going to stop giving to the church now, she argued.
Our staff conversations were all over the map about the issue. We wondered what arguments might convince her – the welfare of her children, the parable of the talents, or something else. We wondered whether her pastor had guilted her into her tithe. We wondered how much of the issue was cultural, as most of us were of Caucasian descent, while the homeowner was African-American. While most of respected her decision, and did not pressure her to give up her tithe, what we never talked about was our own practice around giving. Being people who work in nonprofit, one might argue that we were already big-hearted people. But our discomfort with and unwillingness to talk about our own financial generosity probably said more than we ever realized.
That is what is so hard about our gospel lesson today. The sensationalism of the story tempts us to be distracted from the heart of the story. I mean, what this woman does with Jesus is scandalous on so many levels. One, she is a known sinner in the community, so she has no place at the table. Two, she is showing a level of intimacy that makes us uncomfortable even by today’s standards – kneeling by Jesus, crying on his feet, using her long hair to dry his feet, touching him in a vulnerable way. Three, she shows no sense of shame – she does this in public, in front of everyone, and she, according to Jesus, does all of this because she knows that she is forgiven[i] – she claims her forgiveness boldly like a slap in the face.
But while our minds are filled with visually stimulating, scandalous images, the real story is happening off stage. The Pharisee, Simon is exposed as a mess. He disregards conventional hospitality norms, neglecting to offer Jesus water for his feet, a kiss of greeting, and oil for anointing. He judges the woman (muttering about her known sinfulness). He judges Jesus (muttering about his claim to prophecy). He begrudgingly admits that the answer to Jesus’ parable about the forgiven debts is that the one with bigger debts is more grateful than the one with few debts. To all this commotion, Jesus says, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
This is the turning point in Jesus’ interaction today. Jesus does not say, “Watch out, Simon, because the one who loves little is forgiven little.” But rather than render judgment, Jesus instead simply offers a description: Those who have been forgiven little love very little.”[ii] Now, it could be that Jesus is not talking about those who are not forgiven, but those who don’t notice their forgiveness. Or perhaps those who don’t even think they need forgiveness. If we cannot admit our need, we cannot receive the remedy for our lack, will not experience the gratitude of those who have received, and so are unable to love with abandon.[iii]
If, then, we are people like Jesus says, who need little forgiveness but then risk loving little, what can we do to find a well of gratitude and generosity that goes deep into the soul? The number one thing we can do is to surround ourselves by people for whom much has been forgiven. That means not just helping other people or those less fortunate than ourselves, but really getting to know those less fortunate than ourselves. That means listening to the stories of those whose struggle is not like our own. That means examining our lives in light of those experiences, and turning our hearts to abundant gratitude too.
I often think back to that experience with the Habitat staff and wonder whether we could have asked each other different questions. We could have asked each other how much of our own budgets are designated for church giving – and what that says about our priorities. We could have had longer conversations about what our financial practices say about our lives of faith – where our sweet spot is between trust, responsibility, and faithfulness. But mostly, we could have trusted the homeowner – perhaps even admired the homeowner. The implication was that her tithing was foolishness – but perhaps her tithing was extravagant generosity in the face of threat. Those questions, like the interaction between Jesus and this woman, are going to feel awkward sometimes. But the tunnel of awkwardness leads to the freedom of abundance. Amen.
[i] M. Jan Holton, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 144.
[ii] David Lose, “Forgiveness & Gratitude,” June 9, 2013 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2601on June 9, 2016.
[iii] Steven J. Kraftchick, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 143.