June 16, 2013, Pentecost 4 – Indebtedness in the Kingdom
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A few weeks ago, when the girls and I were heading off to North Carolina to visit family, I was waiting in line at Enterprise Car Rentals. The man ahead of us was renting a car while his own car was in the shop for repairs. He was an older man, and the spiffy young man behind the counter asked him for his credit card. “I don’t have one,” he told the young man, “I don’t believe in ‘em.” “But we are required to have a credit card on file for you, sir, if you’re going to rent a car.” The hero of our story just stood and waited quietly, until the young man tried again. “How about a debit card?” “I don’t have a debit card,” the man said, “I don’t believe in ‘em.” To make a long story short, eventually the puzzled young man did go ahead and run this man’s paperwork, without a credit or debit card, and it was my turn at the counter. But I must admit, I really admired that man. There is definitely something enviable about being free of the lure of “plastic money” and especially about living entirely without debt. I think pretty much all of us aspire to attaining that kind of financial integrity, although with student loans and medical bills and mortgages and car payments, not to mention our credit cards, very few people are able completely to live up to those ideals.
Still, it is an ideal for us to be debt-free, and at various times in our lives we are more or less successful at that. We aspire to get our debts paid off on time, or, better, ahead of time. We are troubled by the enormity of the national debt; and depending on how gracious we feel, we are either horrified by or scornful of corporations and individuals who carelessly amass huge debts and find themselves facing ruin and bankruptcy. And it isn’t just a matter of finances. To be debt-free, not to owe anyone anything, seems to be one of the higher virtues. There’s an old expression “to be beholden”– we don’t like to be beholden to another person. We think of the person who owes another as the lesser person. To be in debt to another person – whether financially or in any other kind of debt – means that we are dependent. And independence is a good thing that we Americans hold in the highest honor. BUT – as so often happens, once again the wisdom of the kingdom turns our worldly wisdom on its head. Because if we really hear the story from the gospel today, we find out that the biggest debtor is the one who wins the jackpot.
Jesus is at a dinner party at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Everything is going just fine until a notoriously sinful woman crashes the party and makes a big scene, weeping and pouring out expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet. And it’s clear right away that Simon had his suspicions about Jesus all along, because the first thing he thinks to himself is that Jesus must not be much of a prophet after all, or he would have known that this woman is bad news, and he wouldn’t have anything to do with her, let alone allow her to wipe his feet with her hair. Of course the ironic thing is that Jesus is a prophet, and so he knows exactly what Simon is thinking, and he replies to Simon’s unspoken criticism with a parable about two debtors. One of the debtors owed a huge debt, the equivalent of almost two years’ wages, and the other owed what a person might earn in just two months. As it turned out, though, neither man was able to pay his debt and so the moneylender cancelled both debts. That’s where Jesus stopped the story, and he turned to Simon with what must have seemed an odd question. “Which of these two men will love the moneylender more?”
I don’t think people back in biblical times probably considered loving moneylenders any more than we do today; it was a strange thing for Jesus to ask. But Simon knew, or thought he knew, what Jesus was getting at, and so he gave the obvious answer. “I suppose it would be the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” “You’re absolutely right,” Jesus answered him, “and look, when I came to your home today you gave me none of the courtesies a host owes to his guest: no water for my feet, no kiss of greeting, no oil for my head. But this woman, great sinner that she is, has given me all that and more, because of the love she has.” And then Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.” And he says, “Your faith has saved you.”
Simon looks at the woman and sees only one who has broken rules, probably the laws of Moses as well as the rules of respectable society. But when Jesus looks at these two, the woman and the Pharisee, he sees into their hearts. The Pharisee is independent, secure and self-contained in his righteousness. He keeps to the letter of the law. He doesn’t feel that he owes Jesus anything, not even the common courtesy of a host to his guest. But the woman knows her debt; she recognizes how far she has failed to love and honor God, and somehow she recognizes Jesus as the one to whom she can go to pour out her love and her repentance. And she wins; because she acknowledges her great debt, she is saved.
Listen to what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: In chapter 13 he wrote, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is own, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything – and up to that point we’re right on board with you, Paul, until he writes – EXCEPT – strangely enough, there is an exception – Owe no one anything, Paul says, except for one thing – to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. And he goes on to explain: all those commandments, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet, in fact, all the commandments, are summed up in this one word “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love never does wrong to a neighbor, therefore, love, Paul says, is the fulfilling of the law.
It is, I think, a very different way of looking at the law than we are used to. We think of the law as a set of rules for each of us to follow: I have to do this, this and this, I have to NOT do this, this and this. But Jesus and Paul tell us to see the law in a different way. The law is all about – not just partly or mostly, but ALL about – what we owe to our fellow creatures, and that is love. I owe it to you to love you, and that means I don’t lie to you, I don’t do any harm to you, I don’t even desire any harm to come to you, and when good comes to you I don’t wish it was mine instead. And in the same way, you owe a debt of love to me. If we loved one another perfectly, we would have fulfilled the whole law, but there is always more to love, always more that we owe one another. I have not yet loved you perfectly and completely, and you have not loved me perfectly and completely. Sin is not and never was a matter of breaking the rules; sin is a failure to love. And that is why, when Jesus taught us how to pray he taught us always to remember that debt of love we owe one another: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
Go to the Father, Jesus tells us, and ask him to bear with you in your failure to love him perfectly, just as you bear with your brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors day by day in their failure to love you perfectly. We don’t have to wrack our brains when we pray the Lord’s Prayer to see if there is someone who has done something specially annoying or hurtful that we haven’t yet forgiven – everyone we know is in our debt, because none have loved us perfectly, just as we are in their debt because we have not loved them perfectly. We are always in debt to the people around us, and they are indebted to us. And the beginning, the source, of the debt of love we owe to one another is the infinite, bottomless debt we owe to God our Father for his love to us.
Yesterday many of us attended the 50th wedding anniversary of Dcn. Pat and Rick Lavine. It was so moving to witness their love as they renewed the promises they made to one another half a century ago. And I think if you asked them, they would tell you that the debt of love they owe one another has only become bigger and deeper, greater with each passing year. When we fall in love with our husband or wife, when our children are born and our grandchildren, and we hold them in our arms, when our relationships with good friends deepen over the years, we allow ourselves to be “beholden” to these dear ones in our lives. We say that we “give our hearts” to the ones we love, but truthfully we can’t give our hearts because they are a part of us. Instead we pledge our hearts to these people, and that means that we acknowledge our debt of love to them.
And sometimes we joyfully pay our debts, and there are days, since we are far from perfect, when we pay grudgingly, or even withhold the love we owe. But the wonderful thing is that our hearts are like a super-duper platinum MasterCard with no credit limit, because the love that we owe doesn’t have a limit; there is no limit to the people to whom we are called to owe this debt of love – not just our families, not just our good friends, not just our close neighbors or people who are like us or people who deserve our love – that is just the very beginning. Love is never Paid in Full. The truth is that we were created to owe a debt of love to all children of God, everywhere, though that is a work in progress for us all.
And unlike all other kinds of debt, the bigger our debt of love is, the greater and richer we become, because we become more and more like God. Like the sinful woman in Simon’s house, the greatest debtor is the most like God because this debt of love is the stamp of his image. We were created in the image of the one who is Love, and that means that the mysterious life of the Trinity is an ongoing and joyous celebration of a debt that is never paid because there is always more loving to be done, the love of the Father for the Son, and the Love of the Son for the Father, and the Love of the Spirit that goes forth from the Father and the Son. I think that is why the Burning Bush was such a perfect sign of God’s presence – all that bright, burning passion that never destroys and is never consumed but only keeps on giving light and warmth to everything around it. The one who tries to keep himself free from this debt, who, like Simon, hedges himself in with keeping the rules and observing the proprieties, only isolates himself. He deceives himself, but not only that, he impoverishes himself because he cuts himself off from the joy of knowing what it is to be beholden to another in love.
The woman who fell at Jesus’ feet wept tears of love and joy because she had found the one to whom she could express the depth of her failure to love. No more avoiding the calls of the bill-collector for her, no more pretending the check was in the mail, she was simply beholden to Jesus; she owed a debt of love too great for her to pay. And in admitting her debt she found that everything was alright. The sins that made her a notorious woman were forgiven her; Jesus proclaimed that she was “saved.” But the love that she owed to Jesus was all the greater for her joy and gratitude. That is the wonderful paradox of our debt of love.
And at the end of this passage about the dinner at Simon’s house, did you notice Luke tells us about a group of women who traveled along with Jesus and the disciples, women of means who had come to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, and who continued to give of themselves in love and gratitude – not to “pay off” their debt to Jesus, but because the debt of love only grows greater as we love more. Since Luke mentions this right after the story of the dinner party, I think it is very likely that the woman who came in disgrace to Simon’s home became one of these women, no longer an outcast, no longer disgraced, but one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, growing more and more indebted in love as she traveled in the company of our Lord..
Paul exhorted us, “Don’t owe anything to anyone EXCEPT to love.” I am indebted to you, and you to me, and we are up to our eyebrows – have you heard that expression? – up to our eyebrows in debt to our Father. It is the mysterious way of abundant life, the most un-earthly economy of Love, the economy of the kingdom of our God who is Love itself. Amen.