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Sermon – June 13, 2010: Who Forgives Sins?

Sermon for Sunday, June 13, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Who Forgives Sins?

1 Kings 21: 1-21a; Galatians 2: 15-21; Luke 7: 36 – 8: 3

Behind every successful villainous man there’s a bad woman. That’s one of the

lessons of the story of Jezebel. King Ahab is peevish, selfish, and corrupted, but he

doesn’t have the courage of his lack of convictions. He wishes he could have his neighbor’s

vineyard, but the neighbor won’t sell, so Ahab is stymied. He sulks. If it occurs to him that

he could resort to murder to get his way, some part of him is unwilling to be that bold.

He turns out to be one of those weakling husbands who drive a wife crazy.

Jezebel, his wife, is disgusted by his moping around, and impatient with its cause. Once

again she’s going to have to show him the way to get things done. She arranges for

Naboth, the vineyard owner, to be charged with a crime, and has him convicted and

executed, and then seizes the property. After all, she feels, what’s the use of being an

absolute ruler if one can’t arrange to have what one wants? She’s a Lady Macbeth type,

but not so squeamish about blood on her hands.

Jezebel’s a foreign wife who has led Ahab into support of foreign religious practices

and the persecution of any Hebrew prophets who object–and they all object. Her

influence on her husband is always evil, and this matter of Naboth’s vineyard ends up being

the last straw. When she and Ahab finally are punished, it is the inevitable consequence of

heedless faithlessness.

This ties in with a dominant Old Testament motif. That theme is that kings who

support the sole worship of the God of the Covenant are a blessing to the land, and

everyone wins when they are on the throne; and conversely, that kings who permit the

worship of other gods bring calamity upon the nation. Jezebel is not only wicked in herself.

She is the worshiper of a false god, and an enemy of the true God, so she is completely at

odds with the way things are supposed to be. Her doing wrong is symptomatic of her

being wrong, and her unhappy end is not just poetic justice, but divine judgment.

Before speaking about our time’s religious anxieties about faithful leadership and

national blessing, there’s another important thing to point out. Jezebel doesn’t just seize the

property and say to its owner, “too bad.” She frames him, and liquidates him, and then,

when his rights to respect and his existence alike have been destroyed, she takes the land.

She uses the law to kill him, the way David later was to use a patriotic war to kill Uriah the

Hittite, so he could steal his wife. Rulers have power to arrange things, but they don’t dare

flaunt lawlessness. They want, when everything is said and done, to maintain the

appearance of proper results. Naboth was a bad man and forfeited everything, the fact that

the king got the vineyard is incidental. Uriah was unlucky in battle and David took

responsibility for his widow. That’s how it is supposed to look.

We didn’t read the David and Bathsheba story today but it parallels this story about

the vineyard, because in both cases this careful arranging, using political power, manages to

create the illusion that everything has balanced out-that a wrong has been redressed by a

right, and that is that. People are fooled–perhaps even the perpetrators fool themselves.

In both cases, however, a prophet shows up to reveal that God has not been fooled, and

that for the wrong to be made right, for the balance to be restored, somebody’s got to pay.

This notion that when something’s wrong, something’s got to give, is a basic

premise of the Bible. The Bible thinks it’s a universal human expectation–that eating of the

Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, having moral discernment, using judgment,

distinguishing right from wrong, marks us as something like God. This insight into what is

just, which is second-nature to us, is what makes us uneasy when things are too good to be

true, and what buoys our hope when things seem like they can’t possibly get worse. In our

hearts we expect that things should balance out, especially that wrong should be offset by

something which makes things right.

I mentioned religious anxiety about national leadership and God’s either blessing or

judging the nation. This Old Testament concept is adapted by people from both sides of

the political spectrum. What separates people of strong political conviction isn’t whether or

not they think the nation will be held accountable for the morality of its choices, but what

things they regard as so wrong as to invite judgment. What makes people conservative

seems to be feeling that God will punish America for sexual license and lack of personal

responsibility, and what makes people liberal seems to be feeling that God will punish

America for individual greed and institutional violence. Sometimes people say that the

religious language in so much American political pronouncement is a smokescreen, and it

certainly can be cynical. But I would argue that it’s fundamentally sincere, that Biblical religion

still has enough influence on our expectations that we see both our moral burden and God’s

corresponding hand upon us in national terms.

The framers of the Declaration of Independence felt, and took pains to show, that the

King’s rule over the colonies violated an insufferable number of customs and freedoms.

Things from their perspective were so out of balance that a violent separation and a new

beginning were necessary. If you read the Declaration past its familiar first lines you find it a

very long document detailing multiple instances of misconduct on the part of the Crown. It

makes a case for the radical choice imposed upon the Continental Congress, and shows,

yet again, that people believe that no wrong can persist without its being countered by

something which recognizes and neutralizes it. It also shows that not all political action is

undertaken for villainous motives, unlike the story we had about Jezebel–but that in all such

cases even people in power feel obligated to show that violence must be justified by

showing that it is required to offset worse circumstances.

Paul writes about justification in the portion of the letter to the Galatians which we

have for one of our lessons. In this letter Paul argues against other teachers who insist that

converts to Christianity from paganism must adopt some Jewish ritual practices in order to

get Christianity “right.” Paul’s approach, they have claimed, is misleading, and dangerous,

because it is lax. People are too free. This is a religious instinct which arises again and

again, and though it often is labeled “fundamentalism”, it’s probably better to think of it as

severity, because even religions which fundamentally repudiate earning salvation by good

behavior have their severe versions in which individual behavior becomes the key to

salvation.

This is related to the idea that some kind of balance is how things work. God’s great

kindness freely given is too good to be true–it confounds the expectation of fairness, so

people make sense of redemption by making it contingent on moral rectitude. Just like

Jezebel’s doom is a matter of just deserts, the pious person’s favor with God is a matter of

just deserts.

This is a popular notion, because we do have a sense of what’s fair, but it is not

Christianity. The gospels repeatedly deny that the righteous earn God’s approval and

sinners God’s hatred. This is made more clear by stories like today’s, in which Simon, who

is professionally good, let’s say, is contrasted with the fallen woman who shows up to

weep and cast herself on Jesus’ mercy. She is professionally bad.

The idea that things balance out, from Simon’s perspective, works like this: he thinks

he’s the right person to be in the presence of a great prophet, because he has done all that

God could expect. So he’s being rewarded. That’s fair. This woman who shows up is

bad and should continually be identified and treated as bad, because that’s fair–she does

wrong and is despised. Simon is puzzled because Jesus seems to accept the presence

and homage of this wrongdoer, instead of recoiling or pronouncing judgment, both of which

would seem like the right action-reaction thing to Simon. So Simon thinks to himself that if

Jesus really had the kind of antennae that holy men should have, he’d have this woman

figured out.

Well, Jesus does. It’s just that Jesus doesn’t see the balance thing the way Simon

does. Jesus also picks up on something else, and that is Simon’s feeling that Jesus should

judge this woman. Then Jesus offers a lesson in terms of balance to Simon. Simon didn’t

give Jesus water for his feet, but the woman provided her tears. Simon gave no kiss but

the woman kissed Jesus’ feet. Simon didn’t anoint Jesus’ head but the woman has

anointed Jesus’ feet. There are three deficits which can be charged to Simon which have

been made up by the woman.

Jesus says that to challenge the scorekeeping mentality. He also does it to support

his offering of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an alternative way to restore balance.

Someone with adequately great say-so–God, or God’s representative, for instance, can

offset wrong by generously declaring that it now will no longer be held against one. That’s

the key to Christianity, and for those who know themselves to be sinners, that’s the source

of profound love for God, and undying gratitude to God.

 

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