The Preacher’s Study
4th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
John W.B. Hill
1 Kings 21.1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Luke 7.36 – 8.3
The second reading for this Sunday takes us to the very heart of the Gospel according to Paul, the good news revealed to him on the road to Damascus. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
What provoked this passionate self-disclosure was the memory of his dispute with Simon Peter over table-fellowship with Gentiles (the preceding four verses). For Paul, this was an issue of ‘justification.’
Some of the most critical questions about Paul’s gospel hang on the translation of passages like this. “We know that a person is justified not by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Or is it ‘through the faith of Jesus Christ’ (NRSV footnote)? And J. Louis Martyn argues that ‘rectified’ would be a better translation than ‘justified’, and ‘Torah observance’ would be better than ‘works of the law.’
Yet beneath all these questions lies one reality we all know well: our ‘old self’ (the “I” that Paul refers to) which is self-serving and self-justifying through our appeal to accepted social conventions. In Paul’s case, Torah observance was the accepted social convention he used to ‘justify’ his old way of being, including his violence against disciples of a crucified messiah (who was therefore a ‘cursed’ pretender – Gal. 3:13). In the king’s case (the first reading), ‘royal privilege’ was the accepted social convention he used to justify theft and murder.
Ahab’s case (the semicontinuous reading) is particularly interesting: he ‘justified’ his generous proposal to Naboth on the grounds of a clever new value system that converted everything into monetary terms (does that sound familiar?), and he ‘justified’ the elimination of his enemy by resort to the blasphemy law (after all, had not Naboth virtually cursed the king by defying him, and hence implicitly cursed the god whom the king represented?) That’s the nature of our ‘old self’ with its self-justifying instincts. Elijah’s role as a prophet is to recognize and name the abuses of power which society simply takes for granted.
But the crucified and risen Prophet not only exposes the deceitfulness of this kind of selfhood; he obviates my need for this kind of ‘justification’, offering me forgiveness instead, and he summons me to accept his way of being as my own new selfhood.
The gospel reading mirrors Paul’s contrast between the old selfhood and the new. In the eyes of religious people like Simon and his guests, that woman of the city is a sinner beyond forgiveness (condemning her is another form of self-justification). In the eyes of Jesus, she is a person who loves greatly because she has been greatly forgiven (Jesus refuses to define himself over against us sinners). And Jesus is more than a prophet, for he also offers himself as mediator between these two visions. He does not criticize Simon for judging the woman; he simply tells a parable, gently opening Simon’s eyes to a possibility Simon has never imagined. Then he points Simon to this spectacle of love born of forgiveness, who stands weeping beside the table.
Our natural instinct for self-justification only serves to sharpen our conflicts: privileged versus poor, Jew versus Gentile, religious versus sinner. The Gospel of the crucified and risen One opens our eyes to such self-delusion and empowers us to become what Torah always intended to preserve but could never create: a new way of being, without envy or resentment, a being-in-love.
John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada. He is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.