The Way of Sin and the Way of Grace
There is a way of life that leads to destruction. It’s one that is marked by qualities such as cruelty, deceit, and greed, qualities embodied by the characters of Ahab and Jezebel. In the story found in 1 Kings 21, Ahab wants something that’s not his, and when he can’t have it he pouts. His wife, however, who seems much more clever than Ahab, and having a keen understanding of power, achieves Ahab’s desire through deceit and craft. In the end, an innocent man is executed on the basis of false but scandalous accusations, allowing the king to seize the desired property. Enter the prophet Elijah, who declares to Ahab that a life such as his will lead eventually to destruction.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of a woman who was known to be a sinner – the nature of the sin isn’t recorded so it’s left to our imaginations, and you know where that leads. According to the Gospel, the unnamed woman enters the home of a religious leader, a pious fellow, who was hosting a lunch that featured Jesus as special guest. The host of the party, a Pharisee named Simon, is scandalized when she began to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears and with her hair – and Jesus didn’t object. Indeed, the real scandal in this case wasn’t the action of the woman, but those of Jesus, who didn’t reject her actions. The pious ones in the crowd, were scandalized that a holy man such as Jesus would allow himself to be defiled by the touch of a sinner.
In two stories, one from the Old Testament and one from the Gospels, we see expressions of sin. In the first story there is deceit and greed, in the second – self-righteousness. The woman is declared a sinner, but we don’t know the nature of her sin. By her faith, her trust in God’s grace, she is declared forgiven. But are Ahab and Simon ready to receive forgiveness?
Jesus shares a parable and asks Simon a question regarding forgiveness. He asks who is likely to be more grateful, the one who is forgiven much or the one forgiven little? We don’t know the nature of the woman’s sins, but we do know that at the very least Simon breached important signs of etiquette. Indeed, Simon showed complete disregard for his guest. Simon had not offered Jesus either the opportunity to wash his feet or the customary kiss of welcome. In other words, Simon had not acted as the host should. It was not, however, a mere faux pas, it was an egregious act of inhospitality, an intentional snub. As with Ahab, Simon receives a word of judgment.
In the third text from the lectionary, we hear a word from St. Paul. It is a reminder that we are all sinners, we all stand in need of forgiveness, and therefore there is no room for self-righteousness. We are, Paul says, justified not by keeping the works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith, we die to the Law and its external demands, so that we might live for God. Living by faith, we live by trust in the grace and love of another. This frees us from the weight of our transgressions, but it also frees us from the weight of self-righteousness. Forgiveness, it would seem, is the great leveler. May we live by faith, through the grace of God, found in Jesus Christ.
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor of Sharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write. With that in mind he is an avid and almost daily blogger at Ponderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blog Theolog.