Forgiven Debtors

Scripture:  Luke 7:36-50

Every country has things that make it unique, and that is true for the United States as well.  Some of the things that set us apart from other countries in the world are odd and surprising.  For instance, yellow school buses are uniquely American.  Some of the other differences are positive.  Visitors to the United States tend to report being impressed by how good and safe we are at driving. Unfortunately, not everything that sets us apart is a positive.  For example, the number one financial worry that Americans have is related to expenses from a medical emergency and that is not a worry found in a lot of other places.  Medical debt is an American problem, with one quarter of households reporting they have difficulty paying for medical expenses in the past.  To help address these problems and fears, there has been a trend among churches over the past few years.  It is not a standard practice, but it is a growing one and that is churches getting into the business of forgiving medical debt.  For instance, in 2019 mega-church Northview Christian in Carmel, IN paid off $7.8 million in medical debt for almost 6,000 families.

The Carmel church did not raise almost $8 million to do this, what they did was bought unpaid debt from medical institutions.  They were able to buy the debt at pennies to the dollar, and then instead of trying to collect the church forgave the debt.  For instance, Pathway Church in Wichita Kansas is a large church that had 3,000 people attend on Easter Sunday in 2019.  The church took the money collected on that Sunday, about $22,000 and they were able to buy and then forgive 2.2 million in medical debt for 1,600 people in Kansas.  Normally, it is just larger churches that have the leverage to pull this off, but this kind of generosity is not restricted to mega-churches.   For example, in 2020 St. Andrews UMC, a church of about 400, in West Lafayette was able to raise funds to forgive $6 million in medical debt.  Also, in 2019 Acton UMC in Indianapolis, a church with an average attendance a little over 100, was able to help cover $2 million in medical expenses.  As more churches have engaged in this radical act of loving neighbors, there have been criticisms.  The biggest criticism is that the debt forgiven often belongs to people who are poorer and do not have the means to pay unexpected medical bills.  The critics will say it is unfair to only help the poor, because after all having medical bills forgiven would be helpful for anyone.  Another common criticism is that this action, while charitable, does not directly evangelize.  Often the families are informed who was responsible for the debt forgiveness, but the critics state this is not the same thing as a direct invite to church.   I think perhaps that those critics should read this morning’s scripture.   Jesus could have used a lot of ways to express his main point, but he intentionally chose the idea of debt and debt forgiveness. Not only does this reveal what has been motivating the church to buy and forgive medical debt as an act of godly love, but it also points to our relationship with Christ.   This scripture reminds us that it does not matter how rich or poor we are, how long we have been a Christian, or how righteous we act.  All who claim the name of Christian are a forgiven debtor.

From a bible study point this morning’s scripture is interesting, because it is a story that appears in all four gospels, kind of.   All four gospels contain a story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet.   The gospel of Mark even identifies the incident taking place in the house of a man named Simon.  However the other three gospels place the story in Bethany outside of Jerusalem and they place it close to the crucifixion of Jesus.   The gospel of John even identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha who does the anointing.  This creates the interesting question:  Is the story in Luke the same story that occurs in the other gospels.   On the one side it seems to be as there are plenty of details that are the same.  On the other side though, the story in Luke takes place at a much different time in Jesus’ ministry and arguably different location than it does in all the other gospels.   There are two possible answers to this.  The first is that the story in Luke is a different occurrence, and a similar event happened at least twice.  The other option is that Luke, placed the story here because it better fit the narrative.

Our modern day approach to history is very linear, we want to know what happened and when it happened in an exacting chronological order.  Ancient writings were not always as concerned with following a chronology as they were with communicating the greater message.   The story of Jesus being anointed is not the only time a story is out of place in a gospel.   For instance, the gospel of John places Jesus clearing the temple at the beginning of his ministry while other gospels put it at the end.   It is also possible that Luke received this story from a source without context so placed it within the ministry of Jesus instead of as part of the build up to the end of his earthly ministry.  Regardless of whether there were two events or whether Luke placed this story here for literary reasons, the   emphasis in Luke is different.    In Luke’s gospel the emphasis is placed on forgiveness.

In fact it is worth pointing out that in Luke’s gospel, verse 48 is the first time Jesus is recorded as saying your sins are forgiven.   Up to this point, Jesus had been traveling, teaching, and performing miracles.   However, it is at this point in the narrative that it is revealed that Jesus is more than just a good teacher, and Jesus can do more than miraculously heal bodies.  It is revealed here that Jesus can heal souls and mend hearts.  It is revealed here that faith in Jesus repairs our relationship with God, forgives our sins, and ultimately is what saves us.

One of the aspects of Luke’s gospel in the telling of this story is we do not know who this woman is, but clearly meeting Jesus impacted her and changed her.   The actions she takes to express her gratitude and love in a way that requires her entire self.   These are contrasted by the actions Simon did not take.  Jesus tells us that while Simon extended hospitality to invite Jesus in he did not offer to wash his feet, he did not greet him with a kiss, or anoint him with oil.  Simon was not required to do these things, but they all would have been customs at the time that he could has used to express his appreciation to Jesus and honor him.   Simon did nothing wrong in how he treated Jesus, but he did the bare minimum.  In contrast the woman did all she could to honor Jesus and express the depth of her gratitude and love for him.  Jesus plainly states the greatest reason for this difference in verse 47, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-as her great love has shown.  But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”  The question that this scripture should prompt us to consider, is what does the love we show communicate?   Do we love little like Simon or do we love fully like the woman?  How much do we claim and realize our forgiveness of sins, and how do we show that?

The reality is that we are all in debt to God.   Our sinful behavior has written checks that our soul cannot cash.   When we sin, when we willfully do what we know is wrong then we break the relationship and distance ourselves from God.  No amount of good deeds can span that distance.   No amount of good works balance our ledgers and earn us salvation.   There is an old story that illustrates this. The story goes that after a good and long life a man dies and finds himself before the pearly gates of heaven.   An angel greets him and explains that heaven uses a points system to enter.   It takes 100 points to enter heaven, so the angel ask him what did he do on earth to earn points that would count to a heavenly reward.   This man had been a faithful believer his entire life, and he was a little taken back.  He grasped for what he might have done.  He said, “Well, I attended church all my life and I only missed a couple of Sundays each year.  From a young age I volunteered as an usher, I read scripture, and I sung in the choir.”   The angel consulted his records and agreed before informing the man, “yes that is worth 1 point.”  Exasperated the man said, “Well I also spent a number of years teaching Sunday school to children.  I even taught a couple years after my own kids aged out, surely that is worth something?”  The angel nodded in agreement, “Yes that is all worth one point.”   Getting nervous the man then added, “Well what about the times I called and sent cards to the shut-ins or visited people in nursing homes.”  Once again, the angel confirmed that was worth one point.   As the man took stock of his life, he knew that there is no way he had accomplished enough in his life to get to the 100 point total.  Frustrated he cried out, “Well then I have nothing else, other than claiming the forgiveness and new life offered by Jesus Christ.”   At that, the gates swung open and heaven laid before the man.   “That” the angel said, “Is worth 100 points.”

Especially in our modern times we tend to emphasize the most positive Christian doctrines, but one of the uncomfortable beliefs we hold is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  We believe that come the day of judgement we are going to stand before our creator with a bill we cannot cover, and the only thing that can is the precious blood of Jesus.  In this morning’s scripture, the Host Simon as a Pharisee, probably thought is righteous living and strict adherence to the law put him in a good standing with God.  He was not aware of how much he needed Jesus.  The woman on the other hand, who had been written off as sinner, who had jokes about her past choices made at her expense, she knew.   She knew she was powerless to save herself, she knew that Jesus forgave her debts, her trespasses, and her sins.   She was honest with herself and that is why she reacted the way she did.   Simon’s fault in this scripture was not extending Jesus the right hospitality.  His fault was believing that he and the woman were not in equal need.   The reality is the foot at the ground of the cross is level.  It is not a matter of sinners and saints, because we all have an outstanding debt of sin we cannot pay.  But thanks be to God that at the cross Jesus’ love ran red so that our sin were washed white, and that we all can stand in grace as forgiven debtors.

So how do we express our love for the all that Jesus gave for us?   We cannot pour ourselves out at the literal feet of Jesus like the woman did in this morning’s scripture, but we still can respond in love.  We can express our love for Christ through how we love others.  This is why I am quick to point to this morning’s scripture in response to criticisms of church paying off medical debt.  If Jesus forgives our debt of sin, then giving ourselves to forgive the debts of others is the perfect response to the love of Jesus.   While not every church is in the position to help forgive medical debt, we all have ways that we can give of ourselves to love others.

In this morning’s scripture, Jesus said those who have been forgiven little, love little.  If you have accepted the forgiveness made available on the cross by Jesus, if you consider yourself a Christian, then friend-you have not been forgiven a little.   You have been fully forgiven, the debt full paid.   May we be more like the woman in this morning’s scripture and less like Simon.   May we not be smug in our own self-righteousness, but may we realize just how in need of forgiveness we truly are.   May your love-the love you have for Christ and the way you love others because of that love, truly reflect the gratitude you have.   This scripture reminds us that we are all forgiven debtors, so may our lives express how thankful we are for that reality and may we be quick to treat others with the same grace we have been shown.

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