March 15, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
PROSTITUTES AND PRODIGALS
The fourth in a series of eight.
The last time we had Sherman Elementary students as our guests, my sermon was about Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. If you remember the story at all you can appreciate it was a difficult one to tell with elementary school students in the audience. Abraham and Sarah would have been fine, but you throw in Hagar and it gets a little complicated. So, guess what! Look at my sermon title for today. I so seem to have the gift of impeccable timing. In case anyone one is nervous, what I’m going to be saying is G-rated. I even ran my notes by my wife for an independent review. She agreed.
I finally read my first Eric Hoffer book. I did it partly to honor my dad. I have a distant memory that he was a big Eric Hoffer fan. I’m not sure how many people have even heard of him today.
Eric Hoffer was a precocious youngster who was reading at an unusually early age. When he was five, his mother was carrying him down some stairs. She missed a step and took a terrible fall. She later died of her injuries. Her son, five-year-old Eric, was left blind. Ten years later, at age 15, his vision miraculously returned. He didn’t expect it would last. He figured he just had a short time before he would go blind again, so he read everything he could get his hands on like there was no tomorrow.
His father died shortly after that. He barely had enough money for a bus ticket from New York to Los Angeles where he lived on Skid Row for the next ten years. Then he became a migrant farm worker. Then a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. And then a writer. A brilliant writer. Before long, a famous writer.
He was a genius. Entirely self-taught. Going by his early biography, he was a nobody. And yet he was truly one of the great somebodies of the twentieth century. He had tremendous respect for America’s underclass. He was one of them. When someone would compliment him as a great intellectual he would say, “No, I am a longshoreman.”
Here’s one of the many gems from the book I read: “A man’s worth is what he is divided by what he thinks he is.” Think about that for a moment. We are what we really are divided by what we think we are. So if you think you are a ten but you are really a one, one divided by ten is one-tenth, a pretty small number. And if you think you are a one but you are really a ten, ten divided by one is ten, which is a hundred times bigger. In other words, truly great people don’t think of themselves as truly great people.
We are continuing our series today on Jesus as seen in Luke’s Gospel. Luke helps us see how Jesus had a special concern for the underclass. For nobodies. Jesus said something in Luke that sounds a lot like Eric Hoffer. “Whoever is least among you is the one who is great” (9:48).
Luke is the only Gospel that tells two of Jesus’ best known parables: the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This theme of nobodies and somebodies is found in both.
We have a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. He’s a nobody. Such a nobody that two highly respected somebodies, a priest and a Levite, walk on by and don’t even notice him there. Then along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were nobodies in that culture, but it’s the Samaritan who notices the man in the ditch and who stops and helps, thereby becoming the hero of the story. He is a “Good” Samaritan, strange as it would have sounded to Jesus’ listeners to put those two words together, “good” and “Samaritan”. So the nobody has become a somebody and the somebodies are shown to be nobodies.
And we have these two sons. The nobody son leaves home and quickly blows through his father’s inheritance. The somebody son stays home and does everything right. But when the nobody turns around and comes home, the somebody is resentful. So again the tables are turned. The lost son is now the found son and the son who never did anything wrong in his whole life is shown to be the son who is most lost.
This is the literary device Jesus often uses. There’s a nobody and there’s a somebody. But the one who seems to be the nobody turns out to be the somebody and the one who seems to be the somebody turns out to be the nobody.
We find this in the scripture we read for today. Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. He’s at the home of a somebody. And then, lo and behold, a nobody shows up. This uninvited guest is “a woman of the city, who was a sinner.” She is assumed to have been a prostitute.
For us today both these words, prostitute and Pharisee have negative connotations. But it’s important to see that Pharisees were highly regarded in Jesus’ day. People looked up to them. People wanted to be like them. They were not priests. They were part of a lay movement that was concerned that Judaism was not taking God’s law seriously enough. They were kind of a first century “back to the Bible” movement. The word “Pharisee” means “separated”. They separated themselves from sin and they separated themselves from sinners. What they cared about and what they devoted their lives to was pleasing God by doing all the right things.
No one questioned their devotion or their sincerity. What got them in trouble is what has always gotten people in trouble who try to please God by their own righteousness. There is a tendency to end up either in arrogance or despair. Either you develop a nasty case of self-righteousness or an equally nasty case of self-loathing. It took a Pharisee named Paul to finally figure this out. We are not and never will be good enough to please God. God’s love is a free gift, not something we earn or deserve (Ephesians 2:8-9).
There’s an article about Pharisees in the Jewish Encyclopedia. It points out that Jesus and the Pharisees really weren’t that far apart. They had a lot in common. Under the different circumstances Jesus might even have become a Pharisee. But here is the main difference: (This is a Jewish scholar who says this.) Whereas the Pharisees separated themselves from sinners, Jesus saw sinners as his mission field. Sinners like this woman who showed up unannounced at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party.
She shows up with “an alabaster flask of ointment”. In another version of this story we are told it was pure nard. Pure nard back then was kind of like pure gold. It was extremely valuable. It has been suggested that this woman’s life savings may have been held in that alabaster flask. And it’s been estimated that its value may have been $30,000 in today’s dollars. So what does this woman do with this extremely valuable substance? She pours it over the feet of Jesus. She is crying as she does so. Her tears mix with the nard. Her long hair flows down and gets in the way. So she uses her hair to massage his feet. Then she bends over further and kisses those feet.
And all the while Simon the Pharisee was watching. And seething. Simon whose whole life was built around avoiding sin and sinners. And now this Jesus, who claimed to be a man of God, was doing nothing to get her to stop. He was allowing, he was maybe even enjoying this sensuous act that bordered on indecency. He didn’t say it out loud, but we are told he said it to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
And Jesus must have heard what he was thinking. That’s a pretty neat trick, to be able to hear what someone else is thinking. He answered Simon with a parable. It’s about two debtors. One has a small debt. Let’s say he owes $100. The other has a large debt. Let’s say he owes $100,000. Neither is able to pay back what he owes. So the one who loaned the money forgives both debts. Neither debtor owes a dime now. The slate has been wiped clean. Who will be more grateful? Simon answers correctly. “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.”
Those who have been forgiven much love much. Those who have been forgiven little, those who don’t think they need any forgiveness at all, have a hard time loving. They have a hard time seeing and recognizing genuine love when it is given and received.
Jesus turns to Simon and says, “Do you see this woman?” It’s the perfect question. Because Simon didn’t really see her at all. That’s why he was so shocked by her behavior. All he could see was a prostitute, a sinner, a hopeless, worthless lost soul. He wasn’t able to see that she was somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s sister. He wasn’t able to see what may have led her to a life of prostitution. Rejected by her husband. No money. No way to make money. Or maybe she was sold as a slave by her parents. And then used to enrich her owner. When she was a little girl, she didn’t say, “I think I’m going to be a prostitute when I grow up.” No, she was caught up in something that was never her intention. She wants more than anything to be free.
“Simon, do you see her?” Simon saw a prostitute. Jesus saw a child of God.
Several of us got to hear Tony Campolo on Thursday. I have many Tony Campolo memories. One is of something I heard him say years ago. He told of a college class he was teaching. He asked his students to imagine what Jesus would say to a prostitute. One of his students raised his hand and said, “Dr Campolo, Jesus never met a prostitute.” He started to correct this misinformed student who obviously was not familiar with the Bible. He was citing scripture references including ours today, and then he stopped himself. It dawned on him what this student was saying. The student knew more than the professor. Jesus never did meet a prostitute. When he met those others saw as prostitutes, Jesus saw a child of God.
When God looks at you, God doesn’t see what you have been. God sees what you could be. God doesn’t see all your mistakes and regrets and broken dreams. God sees all your potential and possibilities and all your dreams come true. God sees past your sins to the person you can be. We have a God who looks at a prostitute and says, “You are my child and I love you.”
Here’s a letter written by a former prostitute:
I was raped at 15, became pregnant, was forced to get an abortion by my mother and my life spiraled into a depth of hopelessness and addiction. I met the wrong man, thinking he was going to be my boyfriend, but instead he beat me into prostitution. It was so robbing and demoralizing. I didn’t believe that God would want anything to do with someone like me. When I finally trusted in Christ, because of the vast darkness he brought me out of, I love him all the more and I will serve him all the days of my life.
Can you feel the gratitude in that letter? It’s like the gratitude felt by that woman who wept at Jesus’ feet. Who brought to him the gift she had that was most valuable to her. It was grace. Grace received and grace given.
If you’ve read Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? there is one story you will never forget. It’s about a prostitute. In the book she isn’t given a name. We’ll call her Holly.
Holly was a rebellious little girl. Her parents were a little stricter than they probably needed to be and that didn’t help. The older she got the worse it got. There was the tattoo. Then there was the nose ring. Then there was the night she didn’t come home. Her dad tried to talk to her. She screamed at him, “I hate you!” And that night she planned her escape.
Holly lived in Traverse City, Michigan. Way up north. She decided to move to Detroit. Her parents wouldn’t look for her there. They were too scared of the gangs and the drugs and the violence.
The second day there she met a man driving the biggest car she had ever seen. He was real nice to her. He bought her lunch, got her a place to stay, gave her some pills that made her feel better than she had ever felt before. He even gave her a job.
Since Holly was underage, men would pay a premium for her. She had all the money she wanted. Life was good. But not for long.
Something was wrong with her. She needed to see a doctor. When she told the man who drove the big car, he didn’t want to hear it. He told her he couldn’t take the chance. He didn’t want any of his clients to get what she had. Her services were no longer needed.
So Holly found herself living on the street. She was now self-employed. An independent contractor. But the men weren’t paying her nearly as much. And what little she got paid wasn’t nearly enough to support her new drug habit.
It was winter now. She was sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. She was sick and getter sicker every day.
One sleepless night, Holly’s mind was racing. She no longer felt like a woman of the world. She felt like a scared little girl, lost in a cold and uncaring world. Her pockets were empty. She was hungry. She needed a fix. She was shivering under the newspapers that were her blanket. And then she started thinking of Traverse City.
God, why did I leave? And she knew right then and there that more than anything else she wanted to be back home.
She called. Three times she called. Each time she got the answering machine. The first two times she just hung up. The third time she left a message.
Dad, Mom, it’s me. Holly. I was wondering about maybe
coming home. I’m catching a bus. I’ll be there midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, that’s OK. I’ll understand. I’ll just stay on the bus until it gets to Canada.
It’s seven hours from Detroit to Traverse City, including all the stops. Seven hours to think. Her parents must be out of town. They didn’t get her message. Or they did get her message and they didn’t care. That would be worse.
The bus rolled into the station. The driver announced they would have fifteen minutes in Traverse City. Fifteen minutes to determine the rest of her life. She walked into the terminal expecting the worst. And there she saw faces she recognized. It was a crowd. It was her brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and grandmother and great-grandmother. They were all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers. There were balloons. Taped across the wall was giant banner that read, “Welcome Home Holly!”
Her dad walks up to her. She looks at him through her tears. She says, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know . . . ”
He says, “Hush. We don’t have time for that.” And he takes her into his arms and he holds her. For a long time, he holds her. His daughter who was dead is alive again (pages 49-51).
That’s what our God is like. God says, “I know all the creepy things you have ever done and I still love you. I am crazy about you. Welcome home!”
God, we who realize how much we have been forgiven understand that the only fitting response is not shame and guilt. It is love and gratitude. There are no bigger or lesser sins. We are all equal, sinners saved by your grace. We are all nobodies who you have loved into somebodies. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done. You have the same message for each of us. “You are my child and I love you.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.