by David Baer, February 19, 2017
Text: Luke 7:36-50
There’s something really costly and precious that costs $233,610. No, it isn’t a Bentley I’m thinking of. Some folks are really into high-end cars, but I’m not one of them. So what else will almost a quarter-million buy you? If we lived… ahem… in another part of the country, it might fetch a decent-sized single-family home. But that’s not what I have in mind either. What could you buy for that price? If you found a New York City cabbie desperate to get out of the business, he might be willing to part with his medallion for a sum like this, but I have no interest in driving a cab. So what is it that’s both costly and precious, something that might fetch $233,610? Here’s a hint—I’ve got myself down for a two-fer, at double the price.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month released its estimate of the total cost of raising a child to age 18.1 And that cost is… $233,610. On the one hand, that’s a staggering sum to see totaled up for you in black and white. On the other hand, how do you assign a monetary value to family life? How do you give a price to snuggles and stories and discovery, growing, growing pains, surprise, disappointment, joy, consternation, and the blossoming of little people into mature but still-becoming human beings?
Some of us pay the full USDA price for the children in our families. Now, even though not everyone has children, we all do participate in the transfer of resources from one generation to the next: anyone who pays local school taxes is making a contribution that will never be paid back, at least not directly, in cash. You get paid back in younger neighbors that, as they become adults, have learned enough about the world to be able to think for themselves, to act and decide wisely.
Children are expensive. Children are priceless. Children are precious. It’s not too hard to stare a huge dollar-sign figure square in the face and say, “Yeah, totally worth it!”
Even if you don’t think very much about being on the giving side of this transaction, you’ve definitely been on the receiving side, because we’ve all been children. We’ve all received a valuable gift that we didn’t ask for or earn. And those of us who received not just the food and shelter and material support that factors into the USDA’s calculations, but also love, attention, laughter, wisdom, and so much more have known grace upon grace.
Now, it’s not as though we expect children to pay back that money—the very suggestion is as callous and absurd. So what do we adults expect, when we, collectively, give so much of our substance to children? Love? You can’t force love, and you can’t expect it. Gratitude? It’s nice if you can get it, but the inescapable fact is that children don’t ask to be born. No, when we bring a life into the world, or when we, as a community, shape and form that life through education, we can only hope that these children make the best of what they’ve been given. To color that in Christian language, we can only hope that our children become the people God calls them to be. And it’s because of my faith in the God who brings good out of evil, whose love always wins in the end, that I know this hope is solid. And that’s why I say it’s totally worth it.
I wanted to talk about this ordinary, but precious gift as a way of approaching our gospel lesson today. There we heard a story about what we do with a different kind of gift. We can never repay God for having mercy on us, for forgiving us and renewing our life. But Jesus teaches us that the way we live with that gift shows whether we really get it, whether we’ve really embraced it. As we give to our children, God gives to us in the hope that we’ll be changed, that we’ll love God, and channel that love into action.
Jesus is invited to dine with Simon the Pharisee. I know I’ve said this before, but the Pharisees really get a bum rap from Christians. When we hear the word Pharisee, we picture someone with a nasty expression, judgmental, intolerant, callous. But the basic aim of the Pharisees was to make the teachings of the Jewish law practical and applicable for everyone. They believed that you could draw close to God in your everyday life by practicing the Torah. They’re not bad or nasty people. It’s just that, like us much of the time, they have a limited imagination. They see God in their own teaching and practices, but they can’t imagine a God who is so much bigger and more generous than their way of life can encapsulate. But when it comes to their approach—bring the practices of the Jewish faith to the common people—they have a lot in common with Jesus, which is why he ends up at their dinner parties so often.
In any case, there is an incident at dinner. In ancient Palestine, people didn’t sit at a table—they lay down on couches. So Jesus is reclining with his host and the other guests, when a woman from the city, not named but identified as “a sinner,” crashes the dinner party. She sneaks up behind Jesus, carrying an expensive container of precious ointment. She is crying, and she bathes his feet with her tears, kisses them, and anoints them with the ointment. Just to be clear, this was not done. This was absolutely scandalous conduct. An upstanding rabbi did not associate with women, let alone allow someone with a bad reputation to touch him in public. Simon the Pharisee chafes at an episode he knows will be the talk of the town tomorrow, and he sighs inwardly, thinking, “Some prophet this Jesus is. He can’t even see this good-for-nothing woman for the sinner she is.” The text doesn’t say that the woman is a prostitute, even though generations of interpreters have made that leap. But maybe Simon thinks Jesus is being solicited right there in his dining room. At any rate he is furious with the woman for her lavish attention on his guest, and furious with Jesus for allowing it.
So Jesus tells a story, as he so often does when faced with others’ fury. There were two men who owed money to the same man, he says—one owed fifty and the other five hundred days’ wages. Neither one could pay it back, so the creditor forgave the debts of both men. Which one, he asks Simon, loved him more? Simon cautiously answers, “I guess it would be the one who owed more.” “Right you are,” says Jesus. And then he proceeds to compare Simon’s hospitality rather unfavorably with that of this woman. His point is that she’s been inspired to such an outpouring of affection because she knows how much she’s been given—forgiveness and a second chance with God. Jesus’ gift to her, whether it was his words or a healing he performed, or just his presence, transformed her from the depth of her soul, and so her gratitude goes deep as well. Simon doesn’t do these things either because he hasn’t received such a great gift, or else he doesn’t acknowledge that he has. A precious gift begets precious gifts in return.
Someone asked me a question once that I’ve found really challenging ever since. There have been times in history, and there are places even now, where being a practicing Christian can get you jailed or worse. So the question is this: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In other words, are there enough unmistakable signs in your life to show that you’ve encountered Jesus, and the encounter has transformed you? The nameless sinner defied the social customs of her community, risking disapproval and punishment to show her love and her gratitude to Jesus, defying the social customs of her community. Any jury would convict her in a heartbeat. But there are examples from our own time, too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor hanged by the Nazis for working to subvert their death-dealing regime—guilty as charged. A living beacon of our faith, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke out against the apartheid system as an abomination before God—guilty. Maybe you know someone whose faith touched you in an unmistakable way, whose faith is out there for all to see, who wouldn’t stand a chance against a charge of practicing Christianity. What about us? Where is the evidence against us? Will it convict us of the same love and gratitude toward God for what we’ve received?
God, the God who upholds the entire universe, the one who swirls the galaxies and follows every raindrop from the sky to the ground—this God chooses to call us children, to call us beloved. So often we repay this gift with indifference and ingratitude toward God, and with hostility and neglect toward the other children God loves. If God were to total up our account, we would owe a debt beyond all reckoning. But God loves us enough, counts us precious enough to be worth hurting for, worth dying for. In Jesus—his life, his cross, his rising from the dead—we see just how precious we are in God’s eyes.
A precious gift begets precious gifts in return. We know from the scriptures that God always loves us first. God forgives us before we can say, “I’m sorry.” But there are those like Simon who don’t see what they’ve been given, and then there are those like the nameless woman who do. And she is the one who fulfills God’s hopes. It’s her kind of faith, her trust, that saves, Jesus says. It’s those who convict themselves of love for God through their lives who cause God to say, “It was totally worth it.”
So know that you are forgiven and loved, no matter how deep your brokenness. But may you pick up this gift you’ve been given, may you embrace it, may it change you top to bottom, and may your life be one of precious, extravagant thanksgiving to God. Amen.
Mark Lino, “The Cost of Raising a Child.” USDA Blog. http://blogs.usda.gov/2017/01/13/the-cost-of-raising-a-child/. Posted 13 Jan 2017. Accessed 17 Feb 2017.