We must acknowledge that God is present in, with, and under all creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
2 Samuel 11:26—12:10; 12:13–15
Psalm 32 (5)
A noticeable lack of discussion of the concept of forgiveness of sin in works of ecological theology implies an irrelevance of this Sunday’s readings to care of creation, since forgiveness of sin is the theme that binds these readings together. While all theological loci clearly cannot be made relevant to our concern for care of creation, this lack is troublesome in view of the fact that for those traditions in which the forgiveness of sins is the defining issue of spiritual life, the Lutheran tradition obviously among them, care of creation easily falls into place as only one among many issues with respect to which the forgiven person might exercise their “faith active in love.” Our aim in this comment is to challenge this appearance of “irrelevance.”
Emphasis on the reality of personal faith as the basis for forgiveness of sins typically focuses on the relationship between the individual and Jesus or God. So here in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, one might focus on Jesus’ word to the woman “Your sins are forgiven” as his response to her faith, faith that is expressed in her extravagant acts of hospitality. David Tiede, for example, uses Luke’s contrast between the woman’s actions and those of his host and the others at table to show how the encounter reveals both her faith and his lack of faith in this “prophet.” Tiede avoids the trap of the “debate about whether her forgiveness was a ‘result’ of her faith or her love was a sign of her previous forgiveness” as a “scholastic confusion of the story.” Nonetheless, he wants to assure his readers that “the ‘loving” and “forgiving” that occur in the encounter “are all bound up in the kind of trust in Jesus which is truly saving,” and that her “implicit faith” in him “does not wait for the word of forgiveness (v.48) before displaying an extravagant love” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 161).
What such interpretation generally leaves out of consideration is the impact of the conflict over her actions on the occasion in which they are all engaged, the banquet sponsored by Simon the Pharisee. With regard to this meal, we might ask, what exactly about her faith and Jesus’ response is “saving”? Over against the faith, or lack thereof, on the part of the Pharisee and his company—also implicit—the exchange is, at least in the first instance, seriously disruptive. It exposes the deep rift that divides those gathered. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, the event fulfills the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35 that Jesus would reveal “the inner thoughts of many:” “That a prophet can see the heart is axiomatic (see John 4:19). The irony here is not only that Jesus does know the woman’s heart, but also shows that he can read Simon’s thoughts!” And those thoughts, we might observe, have as much to do with the significance of the meal as they do with whether or not Jesus is God’s prophet.
Indeed, the significance of the occasion of the meal and Jesus’ identity are two aspects of the larger question, one embedded in the narrative, of who is acceptable to God. As Tiede points out, questions about table fellowship
. . . are important to both Jesus and the Pharisees. As will become even more crucial in 14:1–15:3, the discussions about banquet etiquette are fundamentally about who is acceptable to God. Who are the “elect” on the guest list of the messianic banquet? The tension in the story over the behavior of the woman and Jesus is more than the violation of propriety, as if that were not enough. The separation of the elect from the sinners of the world is challenged by this “prophet” who knows full well what kind of woman is touching him (Tiede, p. 160).
Concern for faith gives priority to the woman’s acceptance of Jesus. As Johnson points out, “in the sinful woman we recognize again a member of the outcast poor, rejected by the religious elite as an untouchable, but like the poor throughout this Gospel, showing by her acts of hospitality that she accepts the prophet Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 129). At the same time, however, in Jesus’ act of forgiving her sins, we see God’s acceptance of her, an acceptance which so startles those at table as to provoke them into wondering about Jesus’ identity.
In contrast to the woman, as Johnson also notes, “the Pharisee invites Jesus to table, but violates all the rules of hospitality, and thereby shows (as he does also by his thoughts) that he does not accept Jesus as God’s prophet.” Nevertheless, we further note, “those who were at table with [Jesus] began to ask among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (7:49). The import of the question will be recognized by the reader of Luke’s Gospel, who at 5:17-26 would have encountered an earlier exchange concerning the power to forgive sins, also with “Pharisees and teachers of the law,” in connection with the healing of a paralytic. “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” the Pharisees ask. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” To which in response Jesus asserts his “authority on earth to forgive sins” as Son of Man. Whatever the specific meaning of the title “Son of Man” has for Luke—an issue the complexity of which prohibits our discussion of it here—the irony of the exchange cannot be missed, nor will it surprise a Christian assembly that it occurs in Luke within the context of a meal. God’s presence in Jesus, characterized here by Luke in terms of his role as prophet, is what affords the woman’s awareness of being forgiven her sins. Participants in Christian assemblies gathered around the table of the Lord will recognize themselves in her, even as they acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus, and his authority to forgive not only her sins, but theirs.
It is worth noting that a similar dynamic is involved in the accompanying two lessons. The prophet Nathan speaks the word of God to David, first to uncover his sin by means of the parable of corrupted hospitality of the rich man, but then also more directly in the voice of God to assure David of the forgiveness of his sin. God is present in and through the action of the prophet. So also in the controversy reflected in our second reading from Galatians. Again the question is, who is acceptable to God, as manifest in shared meals: those who do works of the law or those who have come to believe in Christ Jesus? In Paul’s view, it is those who have faith. It can’t be those who do works of the law because “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Those “acceptable to God” are instead those in whom Christ lives by of virtue their faith in the Son of God, “who loves them and gives himself for them” (Galatians 2:20). Again it is the presence of God in and through faith in Jesus that makes the person of faith acceptable in the company of God’s people. Though lived “in the flesh,” such a life is clearly lived in the presence of God (Galatians 2:19-20).
The significance of the exchange in the Gospel for care of creation comes into view in light of further consideration of Simon’s “thoughts of the heart,” namely the criteria by which Simon and the Pharisees would have judged her presence at the meal as unacceptable. In the background of the Pharisee’s concern is the Levitical principle of unclean touch, according to which “when you touch human uncleanness—any uncleanness by which one can become unclean—and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall be guilty” (Leviticus 5:3). Jesus knows that in Simon’s mind, he has indeed transgressed on this principle; as Luke emphasizes in vivid detail, he has allowed her to touch him: “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment” (Luke 7:38). On the other hand, in Simon’s view, if Jesus was aware of the woman’s uncleanness, as he would be if he is God’s prophet, he as according to this understanding himself become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God until he has participated in the temple ritual of atonement (Leviticus 5:5-6). We are reminded that central to the faith of ancient Israel was their access to God in the temple. As Walter Brueggeman puts it, in the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant, Yahweh had astonishingly provided “a vehicle whereby Israel’s sin is regularly and effectively overcome, both to make Yahweh’s presence possible in Israel and to make communion between Yahweh and Israel possible.” (Brueggeman,Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997; p. 666.). But equally astonishing, Luke’s claim in this narrative is that in the person of Jesus God has now done the same thing for the world beyond privileged access to the temple, where a woman such as came to their meal could not go. Here is the sharp division of the house that pervades the text: In Simon’s view, the touch initiated by the woman’s washing of Jesus’ feet, kissing and anointing them with oil is a source of contamination. In Jesus’ view, on the contrary, the woman’s touch is an expression of her trust in him, and her actions were an expression of her joy of being in the company of God. Such joy as is expressed in Psalm 32, appointed for this Sunday’s worship.
Which is it, here at this meal? Whose perception of what happens is correct? By what criteria would one come to a decision? Or is the reality perhaps only a matter of perception, that of Simon and his friends over against that Jesus and the woman? Is the distinction perhaps finally a matter of a purely subjective “faith,” and not reality? How does one tell? Answers to these questions, it strikes us, are relevant to both the relationship between members of the human community and the larger community of creation, otherkind as well as humankind. If such human touch would render Jesus himself unclean, and indeed threaten the purity of the entire company, it is important to note that also other kinds of touch could be a source of uncleanness as well, “any uncleanness by which one can become unclean,” as specified in Leviticus 5:2: “when any of you touch any unclean thing–whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing–and are unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty.” What Jesus has run up against in this meal, in short, is the notion that things in creation, whether human or other kind, can be divided into clean and unclean. Contact with them can accordingly also either contaminate or purify. Which it is rides, by analogy with the corruption of human relationships, upon whether God is truly present in and through the actions and the elements involved in those actions, here the woman’s tears and her alabaster jar of ointment: If God is present to the situation, there cannot be a contamination; if God is not present, there can. How then, lacking the weighty power of sacred space and covenantal tradition attached to the temple, are we to decide the question?
In our comment on last Sunday’s readings, we discussed a principle that is at least the beginning of an answer in the pattern manifest in the life of the people involved in our readings: It is the pattern discerned in last Sunday’s readings, the “drama of brokenness and restoration, which has Yahweh as its key agent,” and which “features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” The pattern is that which the Apostle Paul identifies both with Jesus’ life and his own that of death to sin and resurrection to new life (Galatians 19:20). It is the pattern which, as Walter Brueggeman observes, is also the pattern that the Christian church claims for itself, albeit too often in supercessionist mode, in its view that Jesus is God’s new “sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25), whereby alienation is overcome And it is finally the pattern encountered by a Christian congregation at worship in the presence of its risen Lord and placing itself under the authority and within the sacramentally enacted dynamic of his death and resurrection, which, in Brueggeman’s apt summary, “like ancient Israel, affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair” (Brueggemann, p. 563).
Within this pattern, the forgiveness of sins is significant as that moment in the relationship between God and people when, as Psalm 32 indicates, the community, through its leaders, acknowledges “its communal pathologies,” without which acknowledgment “healing is impossible and death comes” (Brueggemann, p. 254; cf. our comment on the readings for last Sunday for a fuller development of this theme). The point to emphasize here, however, is that the pattern applies to the relationship both between people and between people and all God’s creation, a coupling that regularly takes place when we are at table with Jesus in worship. Our incredible communal pathologies in relationship to God’s creation cannot be truly and fully healed apart from full acknowledgment that God is present in, with, and under all creation.
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288