Don’t you love a good story? And today, we have two.

Story Number One: Evil villain, Queen Jezebel. Innocent victim Mr. Naboth.  He has a vineyard next to the Ivory Palace where Jezebel and her nasty husband Ahab live.  They are such a repulsive couple that her name has come to mean shameless and morally unrestrained, and his name would be given to the insane sea captain that Moby Dick eventually destroyed.

So yeah: they’re kind of bad.

Jezebel is the Cruella DeVille of the Bible. The Devil wearing Prada.  She was the Princess of Sidon, which made her Phoenician.  Her father the King of Sidon married her to Ahab, the Prince of Israel.  Neighboring kingdoms. They became king and queen when Ahab’s father died, and they moved into some luxurious digs.  The Ivory Palace sat on a choice piece of real estate alongside the main highway that linked Egypt and what we now call Iraq. But pesky Mr. Naboth had his family vineyard right next door, and Ahab offered to buy him out or give him a better vineyard.  The king wanted to tear out Naboth’s great-grandfather’s vines and plant vegetables.

Naboth said no thank you, your highness. His answer ruined poor Ahab’s appetite! Jezebel told him not to worry.  Soon Naboth received an invitation to a banquet.  Maybe he thought the king would try to get him drunk and trick him into signing something.  But what happened was worse, and Naboth ended up dead, and dogs disposed of the evidence.  There was not even a body to bury.  This was the very humiliation Jesus’ disciples feared after his crucifixion.

To the rescue comes our hero, the prophet Elijah, too late to save Naboth, but furious with the royal couple. Elijah had made them look bad before, so Ahab greeted him: “Have you found me, O my enemy?”

Found him indeed. Elijah promised that dogs would eagerly lap up Ahab’s blood one day soon.  And they did.  He died, not long after this, falling out of his chariot.

And Jezebel, within the year, dressed in her finest clothes, with mascara, eyeliner, and lots of perfume, was defenestrated by the new king.

The dogs did their usual thing.

Story Number Two: Jesus, as we keep hearing, was always the guest. He was at a dinner party, reclining on the floor with his head near a little table and his feet stretched out behind him.  People leaned on their left elbows and ate with their right hand.  There was space where servants could bring the food and drink.  Now there isn’t really a villain in this story.  No Jezebel.  No Ahab.  But there is a Pharisee named Simon, more of a foil than a villain.  There are nine Simons in the New Testament.  This one—Simon Number Six–only appears here.  He is the host.  Maybe the most religious guy in town.  His eyebrows go up when an uninvited guest comes into the room and starts giving Jesus the spa treatment.

From Simon The Pharisee’s point of view, she is the villain.  A well-known sinner in the city, which probably means she was part of the oldest profession.  Quite unwelcome in proper houses like this one.  In her expensive jar, she had expensive emollients.  Ironically the same perfume that women would bring to the tomb on Easter morning.  Maybe the same myrrh that the three kings brought the baby Jesus.  The perfect gift for this remarkable person.

She was weeping enough tears to wash the dust off of Jesus’ feet, and then dried them with her hair. The host watched with disgust.  This woman was always doing indecent things.  No one would ever marry her.  She had no shame. OK, so she was crying. Maybe she had a little shame.  But still, everything about her was impure.  And the Pharisees did not like impurity.

In the first story, Elijah tells the powerful king what God thinks of him taking advantage of poor Mr. Naboth. In this story, Jesus tells Simon what God thinks of the sinful woman and her tending to Jesus’s dusty feet.  In the first story, God’s on the side of the little guy, and vows to take the king out.  Simon would have been totally cool with that.  Pharisees did not like royalty, either.  But when Jesus comments on the sinful woman, it’s not at all what Simon expects.  It’s not judgment.  It’s mercy.

Jesus sees her shame, where Simon sees her shamelessness. If she were really a shameless hussy–showing off for the men in the room and daring the host to kick her out–if she was really that brazen, Jesus would have yanked his feet away from her.  But her tears said it all: she was sorry, she was embarrassed, she wanted to honor him.  She was kissing his feet!  Humiliating herself.  And Jesus seemed to understand. His little parable explained why: only people who have done a lot of wrong and been forgiven for it are able to love so outrageously.

And just in case Simon missed the point, people who have only had tiny sins forgiven probably don’t have the faintest idea how big the human heart can be. Forgiveness makes your heart bigger.  Did this guy Simon ever even kiss his wife?  Or his children?

King Ahab, in Story Number One, should have been ashamed of himself, but he never was. The woman of the city was too ashamed to even talk.

“Do you see this woman?” asked Jesus. Of course the host sees her.  His blood pressure has been mounting ever since she came into the room.  Invading polite company!  Polluting a fine household.  Stinking up the place with her ointments!  We will have to scrub the whole place down when she’s gone!

But do you SEE this woman? No.  You don’t.  You see a hussy, a sinner.  You see a Jezebel.  You don’t see this woman.  She’s ready for something new.  She’s like the Prodigal Son, coming to his senses in the pigpen.  She wants to turn around.  Start over.  Make amends.  Make an honest living.  Why can’t you see that?  All you see is her reputation.  Her past.  Her many sins.

So Jesus now answers her silent plea: your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.

In one unwelcome visit to a house, with one intimate act she knew would be misunderstood, using the very perfumes she usually put on herself, she honored the person she hoped would understand. Her heart was telling God, I believe I can change. These people are watching me.  They despise me, but this one man does not.  You, O God, are my witness, and so is this teacher, Jesus.

 

Now the obvious moral of this story is that faith saves us, not deeds. But how would we know of her faith without the deed?  The most famous preachers of faith over deeds are two:  #1, St. Paul spent the first half of his life as a very religious, judgmental prig.  And second half of his life feeling unworthy of God’s love, after the Risen Christ rescued him.  And #2, Martin Luther sometimes spent six hours a day confessing his sins, knowing quite well what a mean, cold-hearted man he basically was.  Both Paul and Luther kept asking themselves, what wondrous love is this?

The other obvious moral is that {annoying teacher voice} in the Old Testament, God is a Judging God. In the New Testament, God is a Loving God!

My Jewish friends are truly puzzled by this. They know that God is both just and merciful: the Old Testament says so over and over. And Jesus has plenty of judgmental parables we liberal Christians like to gloss over: weeds being burned at harvest time, children being turned against their parents, and eternal punishment waiting for those who do not believe.

These two stories are a lot richer than those two usual morals. We need faith and the courage to do faithful deeds.  We deserve judgment when we are wrong, and mercy when we come to our senses and begin to make things right.  And we cannot do these things merely in the privacy of our own consciences.

So I won’t give you a Moral. But I will say this: there is a bit of all these characters in each of us:

  • Like Naboth, we cling to something like our family vineyard, which can get swept away by powers bigger than we can withstand.
  • There’s a bit of Jezebel and Ahab in us, flexing our muscles and cheating people, taking advantage because we can,
  • Like Simon the Pharisee, we try to be good people, but sometimes are unable to see that other people are trying, too.
  • At our darkest hour, we are the tearful woman with the jar of perfume, so full of shame that we can’t look anyone in the eye, nor say a single word. We wish we had never been born.
  • There is a bit of Elijah in us, every heroic once in awhile, knowing right from wrong and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed, using our privilege rather than simply acknowledging it.

And thank God there is a bit of Jesus in us, too, generous, willing to see the best in others, and willing to let others do something embarrassingly good for us, not because we deserve being honored, or fussed over, or spoiled, but because letting people care for us is really hard to do.

Jesus does say it is more blessed to give than to receive, but here is an exception: it is more gracious to accept someone’s repentance than to be embarrassed at how it makes you feel.

It’s more loving to let someone do you a beautiful favor than to get all self-conscious and think that the favor is just about you.

Sometimes, the best response to a gift is not, “you shouldn’t have,” or “I am not worthy,” but just what Jesus did:

“Wow. Thank you.”