“Judge of Character”
June 11 & 12, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who brings healing, and wholeness! Amen.
It’s the end of the school year in the Buegler household. The school lockers have been cleaned out, the backpacks have been stored and on Wednesday afternoon, more than the appropriate level of excitement and joy were demonstrated. Our school year ended well. I have to admit that it’s kind of weird to have kids that are getting older. Both Nathan, going into 10th grade, and Sam, going into 8th grade, long ago passed by the place where I could help them with their homework…well, at least the math and science parts. (But I still rock them at history!)
Reflecting on the year, our boys had good experiences. They were busy with music, sports, theater and lots of stuff at church. In other words, Lori and I pretty much lived in the car.
And they loved the jr high and high school. They made good friends, and they had great experiences with their teachers, who cared not only about what they learned, but who they were becoming as people.
Now, I don’t really know the boys teachers very well. I haven’t spent much time with them outside of conferences. But I like them. I like them because their character is reflected in their actions towards my kids. In other words, I can tell that they like our boys by the way they treat them. And let’s be honest: I’ll like almost anyone who likes my kids. Those teachers: they are good people!
Generally, judging human character is difficult. It is a challenge to look at someone else, and to make value judgments about their nature…their identity…about who they have chosen to be, relative to who God has created them to be. Understanding character is elusive. Abraham Lincoln defined character this way. He said: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of the tree; but the tree is the real thing.” Judging character is trying to get past the reputation, and to look at the real person. Sometimes these judgments are based on the tree…sometimes they are based on the shadow.
The Pharisees believed that Jesus wasn’t a very good judge of character. In our gospel, Simon, a Pharisee, had invited Jesus over to his house for dinner. Like most houses of the era, the table was probably positioned actually outside of the house, in the middle of a courtyard, and the participants probably would have been visible from the street.
For Pharisees, life was all about climbing the social, political and religious ladder, often at the expense of others. Words we might use to describe Pharisees would include pompous, or self-important. The normal protocol when a guest came to the home for a banquet would be for the host to greet the guest with an embrace…to wash their feet as a way of showing humility, and sometimes to anoint them with a dab of fragrant oil, to sooth the weary guests hands or feet.
Simon, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner did none of these things. These socially expected norms went out the window.
Remember that Jesus was incredibly popular at the time, and had people who would follow him around. People would hear he was in town and would gather in crowds to see him. It is likely the woman in the story was one of them. From the street, the crowd would have seen Simon’s social slight, his disrespect, towards Jesus.
At this point, the woman takes action. She walks, uninvited, into Simon’s courtyard. And with an alabaster jar of expensive oil in her hand, she walks up behind Jesus and kneels. She is crying. It could be because she was upset at Jesus being slighted by Simon; but I don’t think so. Something much deeper is going on here. And as she weeps, her tears fall onto his feet. She uses her hair as a towel to dry them, and then pours the expensive oil on his feet.
At this point, Simon, the Pharisee, makes two character judgments: one about the woman, and one about Jesus.
He is correct in identifying that the woman is a sinner. This was her reputation in the community. Now scripture doesn’t specifically mention what her sin is, but we can probably guess. And Simon points at her and says it out loud for all to hear: “This woman is a sinner!” He then goes on to make a judgment about Jesus. He said that if Jesus were actually a prophet, he would have…he should have…known that this woman was a sinner and that Jesus shouldn’t have allowed her to touch him.
Simon the Pharisee definitely knew the law. Technically, he’s right on all accounts. But he terribly misjudged the character of Jesus. While Jesus understood this woman’s sins, Jesus moved beyond that reputation to forgive the woman her sins. Jesus recognizes that a little bit of grace is what is needed in this woman’s life.
Simon the Pharisee was confused because he equated what the woman did, with who the woman was. She sinned. Therefore she was a sinner. He believed that she wasn’t worthy to even be in their presence.
But Jesus knew that there is a difference between what we do, and who we are. The woman was a sinner. Those were her actions. That was her reputation. But Jesus would look beyond her actions, into her heart, and would love and forgive her.
Simon looked at her heart and judged her through the filter of law. Jesus looked at her heart and judged her through the filter of love.
We can learn a lot from this woman and her encounter with Jesus.
We can learn that we should be honest about our sin. There is a brokenness that is a part of our humanity. We need to learn how to be honest about that. This requires a certain amount of humility.
Isn’t that why the woman was crying when she entered Simon’s home? She carried her shame and guilt like an open wound. It haunted her. She had probably been following Jesus around for awhile. She knew what she had been doing…she knew her sin. She knew that Jesus had something that she needed: forgiveness and a fresh start. Perhaps she had been so ashamed of herself that she hadn’t approached Jesus yet. But at that moment, on the outside looking in at the courtyard, she saw Simon skip the ritual greetings, and she could take it no more. She walked in…ashamed…wounded and crying…and she gave Jesus the greeting he should have received from Simon. And Jesus’ response? He looks at her and says “Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This was the Word that this woman desperately needed to hear. And in all honesty, it is a Word that all of us need to hear as well. Deep down, we all share in the brokenness that the woman in our Gospel experienced. I don’t know your sin; I don’t know what kind of wounds you carry around with you. But you need to know that Jesus’ Word of forgiveness to this woman, it is his Word to you as well: “Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
We can also learn from this woman that our Jesus is approachable. When the woman approached, despite Simon’s protests, Jesus welcomed her.
In the same way, Jesus is approachable for us. Jesus wants to be in relationship with each of us. Jesus, in fact, has judged our character and has said “come to me.” In fact, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus says straight up: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Our God is not distant and unapproachable. Our God wants to be close to us.
There is an old story about the ancient Olympic Games in Greece. Before the start of the marathon, a young stranger took his place near the starting line. His physique was awesome. He was strong, and had clearly been training hard for the race. Taking no notice of the other runners he stared straight ahead, focused.
Two prizes would be awarded the winner of the marathon: a magnificent bouquet of flowers and the honor of standing beside the king until the conclusion of the other contests.
The other runners were intimidated by this stranger, and his obvious strength. It is alleged that he was offered money not to run. Someone else attempted to bribe him with property. Refusing the offers, he toed the mark and awaited the signal to run. The race wasn’t even close. The stranger dusted the competition and finished well ahead of the pack. Someone asked the young man if he thought the flowers were worth as much as the bribes of money and property he had refused. He replied, “I did not enter the race for the flowers, or the money. I ran so that I could stand beside my king.”
I ran so that I could stand beside my king.
The woman who invited herself to Simon’s table? She did so because she had only one thing on her mind. She wanted to stand beside her King. She knew that there she would find redemption. Unlike Simon, she had judged Jesus’ character… correctly. And likewise, Jesus judged her heart correctly. A sinner? Yes, but a child a God, loved beyond measure. And God’s children…all of God’s children…are worthy of the gift of redemption.
That redemption is offered to each of you. It is a gift. Jesus has judged your character, and yes, you are guilty of sin. But don’t confuse what you do with who you are. You are a sinner; but you are also a child of God, loved beyond measure. And Jesus has invited us to join him at the banquet table, and has found us to be worthy of the gift of forgiveness; because he has made us right…made us whole. And he invites you to stand with your King, because there you will find redemption.
Jesus looks each of you in the eye, judges your character and says “you are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”