Growing up in the South, as an evangelical, my entire life was informed by stories from the Bible; it couldn’t be helped. Narratively speaking, if narratively is a word, those stories were the in the very air I breathed. They formed the background of my life so that all my thoughts about ethics, morality, and even culture were influenced by them. One thing that was continually reinforced by these stories was the idea that the world was full of sinners and saints.*
While it now seems to me that Christianity began as a decidedly counter-cultural revolution, a solid defiance against doing things the way they have always been done, a cry for the oppressed (mostly labeled as "sinners" by society and often themselves) against the self-satisfied, the rich and the religious, often self-labeled as the "saints". And the thing was, as I grew up with those stories, I simply assumed that they supported the status quo. Those of us who were happy and living good lives were the "saints" and others were the "sinners." (There is nothing wrong with having a happy and stable family life by the way...which I did to an extraordinary extent. The problem comes in when contentment and stability are seen as signs that God is blessing you and conferring sainthood upon you.)
At any rate, for those of in the sinner versus saint business, Jesus wasn’t the guy who came and said, “Hey! You’re doing it wrong! Come with me and we will change everything. This whole thing (including you, unfortunately) is broken. Let’s fix it!” Instead, Jesus was the guy who said, “You are really lucky! You ended up believing the right stuff and your world is comfortable because of it.The rest of the world would be comfortable too, if only they were just like you.” This is not to say that I didn’t know some incredibly sweet, religious people, people who were kind and wanted to help others. But on the whole, the stories I heard were almost never used to criticize “things as they are,” merely to reassure us that we were okay now and to try to herd others into our safe little box.
We liked to rub off the edges off those stories to fit them in the box of comfort and social stability. Or maybe it was just me. I could have misinterpreted a lot of that stuff, being of a rather contented and self-satisfied nature. But that’s how it felt to me growing up with those Bible stories. Believing them should lead to contentment and happiness, white houses with picket fences, happy children and societal order. Convincing “sinners,” by which we often meant people who didn’t attend church or worship as we did, that they should believe as we did was for their own good. Most people believed in the practicality and common sense of religion as much as they believed in its goodness. A saint was a sensible person who knew what not to do and who not to hang around with and where to be on a Sunday morning.
But sometimes, I manage to wake up just for a moment and realize that it is possible that my self-satisfaction and contentment with the “way things are,” may have contaminated my understanding of the Biblical stories of my childhood. For just a second I rouse myself and realize that these stories (about a man who was so annoyingly unacceptable to society and the status quo that society just decided to kill him and have done with it) should be changing my understanding of the culture and my place in it, not propping up all the things that make me feel comfortable. Sometimes I look at one of these childhood stories and realize maybe I never quite understood it.
There is a story of Jesus, in Luke Chapter 7, verses 36 – 50 of a woman who comes to him while he is dining at the house of a Pharisee. I probably heard that story a million times when I was a kid. The woman washes his feet with her hair and her tears and then takes expensive perfumed ointment and pours it on his feet. Simon, the Pharisee, a member of a religious sect that was notable for its strict observances of religious law and tradition, questioned Jesus about this act, noting that the woman was a sinner. He felt that Jesus should be appalled at her touch, that her sins, whatever they were, might taint Jesus himself. (And he felt that if Jesus was a prophet he should know what kind of sinner the woman was). Jesus responded to Simon’s disgust in his typical nonlinear way by telling Simon a parable about a moneylender who forgave the debts of two men. One owed him 500 denarii and the other owed him fifty. Jesus asks which man will love the moneylender more. Simon replies that he supposes it will be the one who had the larger debt cancelled. Jesus then gives Simon a hard time for performing none of the customary acts of hospitality for him when he arrived, like washing his feet, unlike the sinful woman. Jesus then compares the woman to the debtor who owed the 500 denarii. He tells Simon that her loving acts reflect her joy at forgiveness and that her faith has allowed her to be forgiven. The end of the story and its moral do not reflect quite so well on Simon, although we are not told how he responds. (I picture a slight eye roll and a sigh of exasperation.)
What is most interesting to me, having been brought up in an Evangelical milieu, both in my home church and in the larger culture surrounding it (I grew up in the town that headquartered the Church of God and the Church of God of Prophecy), is the idea that bubbles below the surface of this story for us good “church-going” people, the "saints". I have never heard anyone talk about it, although surely someone has, but there in the story itself is an out for the saints. We don’t have to feel quite so needy, quite so forgiven as the sinful woman. It’s an out that we Evangelicals take all the time. When Jesus says to the Pharisee, Simon, that he who has been forgiven little, loves little, I believe that somewhere at the depths of our souls we sigh with relief. The woman, possibly a prostitute, but certainly considered a sinner by the surrounding culture actually needed more forgiveness than the religiously observant Pharisee. Please follow me here. We think, we really think that someone less “religious”, someone who commits sins that were probably sexual in nature, needs more forgiveness than those of us rule-following church going good people. We are inclined to breathe a little sigh of relief. We play by the rules. We will pay our 50 and congratulate ourselves for knowing how much to borrow in the first place. How very sensible and saint-like!
But Jesus never tells Simon that he needs less forgiveness. He merely notes that people who have been forgiven less, love less. I don't know if Simon necessarily sees himself in this scenario at all but if he does, he would certainly have believed that he was the man who owed 50 denarii. He was a better person than that "sinner." He definitely owed less.
Here is what I am going to tell you….that’s utter and total BS. Who is the lucky person in this scenario? The woman who wants to change her life, the woman who wants to be filled with the kind of love that Jesus had somehow shown her. The woman who understands that like all humans she is broken, that she doesn’t treat herself or others in the right way. The woman who wants to be better and express love and gratitude. The woman who has decided to do something, even if it’s still something the pious won’t approve. Simon is the one who simply doesn’t understand. And if Simon thinks that his religious lifestyle was somehow preventing him from requiring more forgiveness then he apparently wasn’t listening to all of the other things Jesus had to say. Because, Jesus didn’t preach very often, if at all, about deviant lifestyles or swearing or any of those things. He didn't have a list of words to avoid using. Jesus’ main target was, in fact, the religious people and the rich people who thought they were the best kind of people. The people who thought they didn’t need to change because they were just fine. The people who would love their neighbors when their neighbors got a clue and stepped up to follow the rules.
Here's what I think about "sainthood." If you think for one minute that you know what you are doing…if you think you have this being human thing handled…if you think following a few rules about things you shouldn’t do is an adequate expression of love towards your fellow human beings and you will love them when they start doing the little things you require (in love for them, of course, it would be wrong to hang with them until they meet the standards) and that lets you off the hook and makes you a decent person…then you are missing the boat completely and don’t even know that you are drowning.
The older I get, and the more I screw up and flounder and struggle back to the surface, the more I know that there is one thing that makes a passable human being and that’s acknowledging that you’re broken. Yes you. You are screwed up, broken…a sad case, just like me and everyone else you know. You are no better than anybody else and you have no idea what circumstances might turn you into the exact same kind of loser as the people you see around you. If you think you’ve got things figured out…congratulations…you are far more likely to oppress others, annoy others, and generally be incapable of fixing the things that are wrong with you. Put it on your application for dictator. They love that stuff at the dictator employment office.
Whatever sins the woman in the story had committed (and we don’t really know), what we do know is that she was capable of seeing herself as broken. She was capable of wanting to change…not the people around her…not “those people” who are ruining society and bringing God's wrath on the rest of us…she knew that the microcosm of evil and horror and war and nastiness was in herself. This is not to say that she would not henceforth care about justice and goodness and how other people were being treated. If you needed help, who would you go to, the sinful woman or Simon? The woman was far more likely to be among people who needed her help; people who were capable of acknowledging that they needed help.
Simon’s very "sainthood" was the thing that prevented him from having compassion for others; his satisfaction with his religious observation prevented him from doing any of the kind of things that Jesus required. It prevented him from hanging around people who were dirty or who cursed or who were sick or poor…some of whom might have taught him a thing or two. It prevented him from taking his part in making the world a better place. It prevented him from seeing that even in his most compassionate moments, maybe even when he gave alms to the poor, he was full of self-righteous crap. The key here is that Simon thought there were two categories of people, sinners and saints. I think maybe that's one category too many.
*I realize that I am using sinners/saints in an atypical way. I believe that the way I am using them is fairly well defined in the post.