Measuring Debts


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 3, 2017

Text: Luke 7: 35-50

     One could certainly say it’s been more than a bit interesting to watch Senator Ted Cruz have to come to New Jersey to help get the aid his state of Texas needs after the horrendous storm that left so much of the Houston area under water considering the fact that he was one of the most vocal opponents to any and all aid for New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy which battered us almost five years ago. It’s a shame that he still doesn’t get it. There is a huge debt there.

     Jesus’ parable about the two debtors takes on special meaning in the light of what the politicians from Texas will owe the rest of the Nation. But that’s what is meant by the word commonweal. We are all supposed to take on the needs of others and not even consider it a debt. As a Nation, we are sup-posed to remember that, like in a boat taking on water, if everyone does not work to bail the water out, we’ll all sink.

      In our own lives, we’ve all had some measure of debt to another, and here I am not talking about the monetary kind. Each of us owes something to the greater society that has nurtured us, educated us, protected us, and provided certain basic social services that none of us can do without. Most of us rely on the greater social well-being as well as the economic well-being of our Nation.

      Jesus, of course, is using this parable to explain to his dull-witted listeners, the Pharisees, that a person who has sinned greatly not only may have more need of forgiveness, but is–or should be–more grateful for the forgiveness received. The woman in this morning’s reading is only identified as a “sinner.” The text does not tell us what her sins were. Many early church commentators argued that her sins were of a sexual nature and they merged her into the figure of Mary Magdalene, but the text is silent regarding her identity.

      Just as the text is silent regarding her identity but only calls her a “sinner,” much of the text of our lives and the lives of others does not identify us as sinners. And just as the text in Luke does not name the sin, the same is true of our own lives. Most of our sins remain unnamed.

      Sin. It’s a word we don’t use much anymore, even in confession. In our twenty-first century way of thinking, we find euphemisms for that word which is usually so unpleasant to our ears. Although the word often translated as sin from the Hebrew means to miss the mark, or to err, the Greek word hamartia, first used by Aristotle to describe a flaw in character, is closer to the Christian concept of sin. 

      Most of us find it difficult to think of our acts as sinful. We know that we become angry with others, sometimes even spiteful or wrong, but not very often do we consider our acts as sinful. We do not even consider our complicity in actions taken on by others. We are social but even hermits don’t have pure lives.

      Just as we find it difficult to cast our actions as sinful, we also find it difficult to forgive the actions of others that hurt us. Although we may believe that that God forgives all, not being God, such magna-nimity is difficult for us. The strange thing, of course, is that sometimes what we consider a trifle on our parts becomes serious when committed by others against us.

     Be that as it may, how do we look at the debts we owe others? How do we address the volitional acts that can be called sins? Let’s first examine the idea of the debts that we owe, not the limited monetary ones, but the debts we owe each other as members of a society.

      Our English word commonweal dates back to

the late fourteenth century when the word was a phrase: common weal, the word weal meaning the body politic in the broadest sense of the word. It devolved into commonwealth, but the archaic meaning is the real meaning. It means living and sharing together for the greater good of both society and the people in it.

      It means recognizing that the old and the young, the rich and the poor should all care for each other, that the social bond is primary. This idea has broken down over the last thirty years or so. Not only have we been encouraged to think of “me first” rather than the greater good, but the “me first” idea has become a virtue rather than the selfishness it actually is. And we see its results in everything from road rage to littering as if no one else really mattered.

     The parables of Jesus are all told in a social context. This one in Luke is told in the setting of the invitation of Simon the Pharisee, one of the very few times a name is given to a Pharisee, to Jesus to eat with him. It follows the passage when followers of John the Baptizer have come to Jesus to ask him if he is the one who is to come or whether they should look for another, meaning was Jesus the Messiah or just another itinerant preacher.

      Rather than answering them with the words, “Yes, I am he,” he tells them to return to John and tell him what they have seen with their own eyes: the blind have received their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them. And then he speaks to the crowds of John’s ministry and compares himself to John.

      In his presentation of Jesus’ ministry, the writer of Luke tells these snippets, including the one we read this morning to weave in the purpose of Jesus with his wanderings, for after a parable, Luke usually has Jesus going through “cities and villages, pro-claiming the good news of the kingdom of God.”

The good news Jesus preached included the promise that the poor would have their lives changed, but even more, that God’s magnanimous forgiveness was open to all, no matter what the sin, no matter who the sinner. And the story of the weeping woman is a prime example. Here is a woman, a “sinner,” who comes to Jesus, bares her head in an act of utmost humility.

      Humility is a word we also do not use much in today’s world. Much like the word sin, it conveys our relationship to God and to each other. Acknowledging something as a sin creates a spirit of humility in us–or at least, it should. It means that we realize that whatever it was that we did–or did not do–was of such a consequence that it puts us out of sync with ourselves and God.

      Usually we think of forgiveness as a result of repentance. What’s striking about this passage is that Jesus has not demanded her repentance but has only said that she has shown great love. The story does not tell us what happens to the woman as a result of the generosity of forgiveness. We are only told here that Jesus tells her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

      Most people have some sense of justice. We see it in children when they recognize that something isn’t fair, that the outcome of someone’s actions upsets the fairness apple cart. And many of us tend to think that God’s justice is much like our own sense of justice, namely that repentance must precede forgiveness, and we morph that into our somewhat muddled concept of sin.

      Right now, there are over 2800 persons on death row in US prisons. Many have been there for years–and years. Over 40 percent of them are black, far greater in proportion to the black population of the United States. The average time between the imposition of the death penalty and execution is almost 12 years, and some have been on death row for almost 20 years.

      Most, of course, like Marcellus Williams in Missouri, maintain their innocence; a few do not but have appeals going in order to get some form of sentence which will at least allow them to live. Some have shown outward signs of repentance, taking on projects most of us would fear, such as working with convicted murderers and violent criminals. What is it that we demand of people who we would clearly call sinners, those who have taken the lives of others?

      We use the word justice to describe our desire for retribution and vengeance and tell family members that they will have “closure” when their relative’s murderer is executed. But many family members say there still is no closure, some because they want the executed person to “feel the same pain” as did the murdered victim. There is only one word for that feeling: vengeance.

      So, in our commonweal, our society wherein each depends on the other, where does the death penalty fit? Not as justice, to be sure. Here Jesus forgives the woman, a “sinner,” as the text calls her, possibly guilty of the same sin as the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel. His response to her more than willing executioners was “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they all left.

      The parable says that the man forgave the debtors, not the debt. Forgiveness is like that. We forgive the person and in that forgiveness restore not only the forgiven but ourselves. For our forgiveness of others comes from the humble realization that we, too, are sinners and stand in the need of forgiveness.

       As I said earlier we don’t like the word sin. It brings to mind all kinds of things from Cotton Mather’s sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” to the  allegorical paintings of hell by Hieronymus Bosch. We prefer the euphemism for where we stand in relationship to God and each other.

     We need to reclaim the word sin and be willing to use it to describe the social and political landscape that destroys the lives of the marginalized and poor. For there is no better word than sin to describe how the poor and those on the fringes of our national obsession with money are treated.

      As a society we need to reflect the lesson of the parable that Jesus tells Simon. Practicing humility and working for the commonweal reflect the good news Jesus brought not just to the poor but to all of us. That is how our faith will save us and let us go in peace.

     Let us pray: Magnanimous God, we pray that we may practice the same generosity with others as you do with us. Forgive us our sins and help us to share your good news with all. In the name of him who was your instrument of mercy and forgiveness, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.