Canceled debts

16 May 2013
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6C (RCL)
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36 – 8:3

With the reading from Kings this week, we get to the heart of Ahab’s sins. The worship of other gods (Ba’al and Asherah) lead directly into economic conflict. Ba’al and Asherah guarantee fertility, but they are also not connected to the land in the same way YHWH is. Ahab, taking the role of a monarch, tries to buy Naboth’s land. Naboth understands that the sell his land is to lose his presence on the land, and therefore his presence to YHWH, or to say it another way, his stake in God’s covenant with the people.

Jezebel, coming from Sidon and a worshiper of Ba’al and Asherah, doesn’t see the connection between land and covenant, and goads Ahab into acting just the way Samuel warned the monarchs would act: appropriating land, conscripting labor and all the rest. So, God sends Elijah (who has been hiding out up there in Zarapheth of Sidon, with a widow, an economically disenfranchised non-person) down to challenge Ahab, who has just turned the rest of Naboth’s family into economically disenfranchised non-persons. The author is making clear that the purpose of the covenant is precisely to keep people from falling off the edge (or through the cracks) of the economy of the land. Our economy of empire is not designed for that end.

The story in Luke’s Gospel presents the interpreter with a challenge. Luke seems to confuse cause and effect. The person forgiven the greater debt will love more, and it appears that the woman loves more and is therefore forgiven the greater sin. But, Luke sets up the story carefully. The woman, a sinner, hears that Jesus is at Simon’s house for a dinner party. She shows up and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, and dry them with her hair. The fact that her hair is down would indicated that she was “that” sort of woman, part of the entertainment. Note that Simon does not object to her presence; presumably there was entertainment there. He objects to the fact that Jesus (who should presumably be above such things) is not objecting to her touching him.

So Jesus does what people do at such a dinner party — he poses a question for discussion. The question at this point has no necessary reference to the woman, and in fact might seem to steer clear of her. It’s a simple economic, social question about the state of relationships within the village economy. Who will be most beholden to the local landholder when he forgives debts (perhaps as part of the sabbath year or Jubilee), one who owed five hundred denarii or one who owed fifty? Simon knows how the local system works: clearly the one who owed fifty.

Now, Jesus turns the conversation toward the woman: See this woman here? She has provided all the hospitality to Jesus that Simon failed to provide. She has been more faithful to the covenant (expressed locally in the village) than Simon has been. And now the financial nature of the metaphor makes sense: how did she get into the situation of needing to be a flute girl for dinner parties. She is probably also an economically disenfranchised non-person, who has fallen off the edge (or through the cracks) of the local economy. And she knows Jesus is going to cancel those debts (or perhaps shame Simon into canceling those debts), so she has loved much.

Jesus ends the encounter by pronouncing that her sins are set aside, and that her faithfulness to the covenant has made her whole (your faithfulness has saved you). If Simon was paying her to be at the party, he would then be shamed into setting her situation to rights, and she would then be beholden to him, restoring her to her place in the local economy.

Even though the RCL doesn’t chose Old Testament lesson and Gospel match thematically, nevertheless, the theme of economic covenantal relationship shows up in both, from opposites sides of the coin.

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