Sunday, April 17, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Jantelagen"

Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. 37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. 38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. 

39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner. 40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher, speak,” he said. 41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. 42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.” 

44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. 47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.” 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?” 50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”  (Common English Bible)

“Help in Unbelief: Reconciling Faith and Belief,” Week Three

I still remember my doctoral classmate’s words in explaining what seemed a completely bizarre concept to me as a corn-fed American raised on the reverence we have for civil liberty and individual rights: “It’s a social law that basically says, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

She was describing to us what is called in Sweden, where she makes her living as a spiritual director, Jantelagen, or the Law of Jante, which, as European sportswriter Simon Kuper put it, is summed up basically by the sentiment of “Don’t think you’re better than us.”  It is a set of mores meant to keep anyone from getting too big for their proverbial britches, of thinking that they are too special of a snowflake, that they are better or more important than anyone else.

Again—totally unlike how we are in America, where we are absolutely persuaded that our child is a genius even as they gleefully eat their own boogers, or where we (okay, me) are utterly convinced that their dogs are the best little dogs ever to grace God’s green earth.

But I like my classmate’s description of jantelagen the best: the question, “Who do you think you are,” because it communicates a sort of disdain for the person that we do still see, that is universal, and that is on full display today in this story from Luke 7—we just need to know where to look for it, because Luke simply assumes that we will know.

Yet now, nearly 2,000 years later and halfway around the world, we need it pointed out to us.  Perhaps we are snowflakes after all, in need of a wind to send us in the right direction—the direction towards an understanding of the sort of faith Jesus sees in this woman that He does not see in Simon.  It is the same sort of faith that Jesus expects of us.

This is a new sermon series for the church season of Easter—that’s right, a season, not just a holiday.  According to the church calendar, Easter lasts for the fifty days between the day the empty tomb is discovered by Mary Magdalene (and, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the other female disciples of Jesus) and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled followers of Jesus on Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

During the first forty of those fifty days, the newly-resurrected Jesus made several appearances to His followers so that they may know that He was well and truly brought back from the dead, and so that their belief in Him as the Son of God might be made complete.

But their belief was not—is not—enough.  Jesus commissions His followers to, in the words of His brother James in his own letter in the New Testament, to be doers of the Word, not merely hearers.
And to be a doer of the Word, belief is only part of the recipe.  One must have faith as well.  After all, belief at its core is merely an intellectual assent to reality.  I believe that fire burns, or that the 49ers won’t ever win another Super Bowl (my pandering knows no bounds).

That is why, whenever I baptize someone, I do not just ask for a statement of belief—the “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God” part, but also for an affirmative action of faith—“and do you accept Him as your Savior?”

Faith is acting on those beliefs, and that is where I think Christianity sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  We care so much about right doctrine that we lose sight of right faith and right action.

We began the series with the creation of right faith within the apostle Thomas, and last week, we looked at another story from John, of Jesus responding to the accusation that He has a demon, and what He has to say illuminates something very important about the nature of faith: its longevity.

This week, we turn to a very well-known, well-loved (and for good reason) story of the anonymous woman who approaches Jesus while He is dining at the house of a Pharisee named Simon.

Simon probably thinks that he is showing Jesus a tremendous amount of respect and deference, allowing this bumpkin carpenter from the boondocks of Galilee to dine with him, a Pharisee, but in fact Jesus puts that notion to lie with the analogy that he presents to Simon: one debtor owed a lender five hundred denarii—the income for an employee after five hundred days of work at minimum wage in ancient Israel (so the equivalent of $29,000 at our current $7.25 federal minimum wage)—while another debtor owed *only* fifty denarii—still a large sum of money at $2,900, but a much more manageable sum.

The lender cancels the debts of both.  Who, Jesus asks Simon, would love the lender more as a result of the lender’s generosity?  “I suppose the one who had the larger debt canceled,” replies Simon.  And Jesus says to Simon, “You have judged correctly.”

It is easy for us to perhaps want to see ourselves in the woman who spurs this dialogue between Simon and Jesus, and I will get to why it may well be right for us to do so.  But I would be committing the equivalent of pastoral malpractice by not first telling you that we likely ought to see some of ourselves in Simon as well.

Because the simple truth is, grace offends Simon.  It has to.  He has built up a life for himself doing exactly what he believes he ought to be doing, and her comes this woman who is, to his way of thinking, a far worse person than he, and Jesus responds much more favorably to her.  What the eff?

Now, we do not know at all who this woman is.  Luke, as is his patriarchal custom (and the patriarchal custom of the other Gospel writers) does not give us her name, just as the names of many of the women Jesus encounters in His ministry go unnamed, largely because of the lack of human regard women were viewed with then.  All we know about her is that she is a sinner.

But what sort of sinner?  After all, jaywalking isn’t quite the same in terms of magnitude as drinking the tears of baby seals.  But the simple truth is that just as we do not know this woman’s name, we also do not know her sins.  As New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe puts it, “A woman would have been called a sinner if she were known as a liar, a thief, a cheat, or any other type of sinner in her own right, or she might simply have been the wife of a man who was known to be immoral or the practitioner of any one of a number of professions looked down upon as the breeding ground of dishonesty.”

So we do not know this woman’s sins.  But perhaps that is as it should be.  It allows her to more fully represent us and our own diversity of sins, our nickel and dime peccadilloes and our mightily immoral wrongs alike.

She then humbles herself profoundly before Jesus.  She doesn’t just wash His feet—a task seen as so degrading that only the lowest ranking of slaves would be instructed to perform it for a visitor—she does so with her own tears and hair before kissing them and anointing them.  Even if her sins were only of the nickel-and-dime variety, she is asking for forgiveness as though they were far worse.

This is how we ought to ask for forgiveness when we have sinned—with humility this deep and vivid.  But so often we do not; we either half-heartedly apologize with a simple “sorry,” or we don’t bother at all.  Or, worse still, we are more like Simon than we first felt, as he is scandalized by this whole display, asking, “Who does this Jesus think He is, allowing this sinful woman to touch Him?”

And therein is the jantelagen question.  The question of, “Who do you think you are?”  That question gets put to Jesus doubly, not only by Simon but, by the end of this story, by all assembled, who are openly asking themselves, “Who does this man think He is, who even forgives sins?”

But it is a question that is posed not only to Jesus.  We ought to see ourselves in this anonymous woman, for she represents not only our wide array of sins but also the reaction we may meet when we finally, at long last, seek forgiveness for our sins. 

Who do we think we are, that we might throw all manner of arbitrary and oppressive social rules out the window in order to receive reconciliation from our God and God’s Son? 

Who do we think we are, that we believe that God’s Son can indeed forgive us our sins?

Who do we think we are, that we have faith, and act on that faith, that God does indeed crave reconciliation with humanity, including even us?

From Luke’s perspective, and from Jesus, those questions need not even be asked, entirely because of who Jesus is, and because of who this woman was.

Who did this woman think she is, that she might throw herself at the mercy of the Son of God for the forgiveness of her sins?

She is us.  And we are her.

In her faith, may we find faith.  In her belief, may we find belief.  And in her example, may we be able to at long last traverse from one to the other in wholeness and in truth.

For as Christ said in the end, her faith saved her.

May it save us as well.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, WA
April 17, 2016

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