“What’s with the singing?”

A year or so ago I was talking with a non-Christian whose husband had started coming to my church, and she was very skeptical of this whole Christianity thing.  Of the many questions she asked, one surprised me a bit until I thought about it.  She asked, “What’s with the singing?”  In other words – “I don’t get you all worshiping, singing songs to and about someone you can’t see or touch; it doesn’t make any sense to me.  That’s just weird.”  And it does seem odd, until you get inside it.  But when you do, you realize it’s a basic human thing.  We all worship – the only questions are what and how self-aware are we.  It’s easy to say, “I don’t worship anything.  I’m an enlightened, 21st century person.  Worship is the stuff of premodern, superstitious people.”  But that’s just a lack of introspection.

In 2005 the writer and professor David Foster Wallace gave a remarkable speech at Kenyon college, where Wallace, not a Christian, said “There is actually no such thing as atheism.” He went on to explain:

There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

When we give something that level of importance then by any practical definition of the word, we’re worshiping it.  When you think about it that way, we’re all worshipers.  Sadly, as a great literary loss and as a terrible occurrence in any human life, Wallace succumbed to suicide at age 46.  No one will ever know what was in his head when one of these things – or something else – failed him.

The amazing thing is that we often end up worshiping things we don’t even love, maybe don’t even really like.  A drug can be that way, so can a job, so can a reputation. We end up worshiping counterfeits that will never really satisfy but will instead prove hollow.  Tom Brady gave a famous interview to 60 Minutes after he had won his third Superbowl, an interview he apparently hates Christians using in sermons, by the way.  Here’s what he said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me?  I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.  I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’  Me, I think: ‘God, it’s gotta be more than this.  I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.  I mean, I’ve done it.  I’m 27.  And what else is there for me?”  To which, CS Lewis, writing generations earlier said this, “If you find in yourself a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, then the most probable explanation is that you were made for another world.”

By any normal definition of the word “worship,” we worship lots of things.  Most primarily, it’s what we’re always thinking about; it’s what our life revolves around.  That means we can, in a very real sense, worship a drug or a drink.  And that means most of us worship our cell phone and our to do list.  But we’ve got to get under that.  We don’t really worship the drug or drink – we worship the feeling of release they give us.  We really don’t worship the phone – we worship the idea of getting all our email answered and being on top of things, the Facebook likes it shows us, or the images that make us feel like we’ve been accepted because we saw something that ought to be intimate.  In the end, the problem is this: many things we worship end up consuming us.

But there is an alternative!  If we worship rightly, it gives us life.  Luke 7 recounts the story of two people – one who “gets it” and one who doesn’t.  But the oddity of it all is that the one who “gets it” is the one that most people would think had missed it.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36–50, ESV)

An Outlandish Event

It starts with an outlandish event at a dinner party.  A religious leader – that’s what a Pharisee was – invites Jesus to dinner at his home, and then someone unexpected shows up.  A woman arrives, a woman whose very presence was a bit of a scandal.  The text doesn’t explicitly tell us what it is that makes her a scandal, just the reference that everyone knew she was a sinner.  Most people suspect she was a prostitute, based on this reaction, but we can’t be absolutely sure if that was it. What we can be sure of is that everyone knew she didn’t belong, that it seemed scandalous for her to show up.

The way these dinner parties worked was that people laid on couches on their sides with their feet extended backward, away from the table, so as this woman of ill repute moved through the gathering, it wasn’t difficult for her to come to Jesus feet.  And that was when the evening went from awkward to just odd.  She took a flask of perfume and started bawling.  Tears were dripping off her face and down onto Jesus’ feet.  And remember their world – dirty, dusty streets full of animal droppings, walking around in sandals.  Jesus’ feet would have been filthy from the day.  As the tears landed, little drops of water smeared the dirt and grime.  It wouldn’t have been enough to clean his feet entirely, but it would have started to wet the caked-on dirt and grime.  Seeing this, and not having a towel, she used the only thing she had to try to dry the muddy mess, which involved letting down her long hair.

This was just never done in their society.  A woman letting down her hair was an intimate act.  Certainly not done at a public dinner party, but also certainly not done to wipe dirty feet.  And then she started kissing those feet, even though they were still gross.  And she took the perfume – an incredibly expensive thing in their world – and covered his feet with it.  At that moment, Jesus was more important to her than any other thing in the world.  More important than her money, more important than her time, more important than her reputation, more important than social approval, even more important than her own self-respect.  At that moment, Jesus was the most important thing in the world to her.

In other words, she worshiped.  That’s what Christian worship is, when Jesus is the most important thing in the world to us.  More important than our money, more important than our time, more important than our reputation, more important than social approval, more important than our own self- respect.  It’s when Jesus is the most important thing in the world.

An Outlandish Explanation

And that outlandish event led to an even more outlandish explanation.  Simon, this Pharisee, scoffed at what he saw.  “If this man were a prophet, he would know who this is and wouldn’t let this go on.”  In other words, “Jesus is no religious leader, no man of God, because this is inappropriate.”  And look what occurred.  Jesus replied with an outlandish explanation.  He told Simon a short story, called a parable. He said, “Simon, imagine there were two people, both of whom owed money to someone else.  One owed him 50 denarii [which was a unit of money], the other 500.  Neither of them could pay back their debt, so the moneylender cancelled both debts.”

Then Jesus asked Simon a simple question – who would be more grateful?  It’s a fairly obvious answer, and Simon gave that answer in v.43 – “Well, I suppose the one who was forgiven the bigger debt.”  “Right,” Jesus said, “so, Simon, let me tell you what that means for our conversation right now.”  In the explanation, Jesus lets us in on more detail – Simon wasn’t just inviting him for niceties.  It turns out this wasn’t a friendly “Hey, would you like to come over for dinner?”  Instead, Simon had invited Jesus over to put him down, to show this rabbi who was really boss.

Simon had, in fact, systematically dishonored Jesus.  He had pointedly NOT done all the things you obviously and customarily did in their society to welcome a guest.  Because everyone’s feet were always gross, a host would have water to wash someone’s feet when he arrived.  But Simon hadn’t done that for Jesus.  A host would give a kiss as a means of welcome, but Simon had refrained.  A host would provide a small amount of perfumed oil to dab on someone’s head, because it hid the scent of everyone’s unwashed body, but Simon hadn’t given Jesus that oil.  Nor were these optional things.  They were what any host of Simon’s stature did for every guest at a dinner, but Simon had excluded Jesus from all of these things.  In other words, he had brought Jesus over to publicly make a fool of him and scorn him.  To put him down.

And his reaction earlier had already tipped the reader off – “If this man were a prophet…” – this was an invite of skepticism, designed to show up and unmask this rural rabbi.  The invite was a trap, a trap meant to show that he understood religion and Jesus didn’t.  Now we see why the woman was weeping.  She was weeping at how Jesus was treated.  She knew he deserved better than this.  And so her tears served as the water, and her hair as the towel, and her kiss as the welcome, and her perfume as the oil.  She was ready to embarrass herself and to be scorned to make Jesus great.  Even more, she wept because the one being treated this way was the one who had forgiven her sin.  She knew her sins and had repented – so she wept for both grief and for joy.  She wept out of grief that she was a sinner and out of joy that Jesus had forgiven her sins and then again out of grief that the religious leaders were ignoring him and scorning him and shaming him.

She worshiped Jesus.  Simon worshiped his own authority and position.

Who Do I Worship?

This is one of those stories that divides the world very bluntly into 2 parts, a story that divides everyone into one of 2 classes of people – people who worship Jesus and people who worship something else.  Sometimes that’s not a wise thing to do.  Often a binary division of things, forcing it to be A or B, oversimplifies a complex issue.  But at other times it’s important – because asking the question this way gives us no wiggle room – it’s either A or B.  So here’s the point: We can worship ourselves or we can worship Jesus.  (Of course, you could also worship some third thing. We’ll save that for another article.)

There are two people in this story – a sinful woman who worships Jesus and Simon, the religious leader who won’t.  And what’s the difference between the two?  One has had her sins forgiven, with the implication that the other hasn’t.  So how do we tell which one we are?  Because here’s the deceptive thing – Simon was the religious one.  He was the respected religious leader, yet here Jesus is saying that this scorned, sinful woman is the one who really knows God.  That raises the disturbing possibility that we could be a life-long church attender and be Simon, not the woman, the possibility that we could be a long-term volunteer, giver, teacher – all that – and still not know the gospel of sin forgiven.  So how do we figure out which one we are – Simon or the woman?  Well, realize the order – her sins were not forgiven because she did these things, but instead she did these things because her sins had been forgiven.  The order is everything.

And if you look closer at the parable, you realize that Jesus is actually doing something quite profound, attempting to adjust Simon’s worldview.  The parable started with difference, but when you listen more closely it actually levels Simon and her.  Look at the similarities – yes, her debts were bigger, but both had a debt.  Neither could pay it.  Both debts had to be simply cancelled.  Neither person was deserving.  Jesus is saying this to Simon, “You scorn this woman, but you’re really just like her. The difference between you and her is degree, not kind.  The moneylender stands in for God, and both people have a debt to God, their sin.  Neither can pay the debt.  ALL need forgiveness.  Simon, you can’t depend on your religious observance, your reputation, your giving, or anything else to make you right with God.  You have a debt to God, called your sin, just like she does.  Sure, hers is more public, but yours is just as unpayable.”

In other words, no human can pay their debt to God.  Here’s why – we all sin.  Whether as Simon or as this woman or in our 15 trillion creative ways to sin.  And sin is, by definition, an unpayable debt.  And if the debt can’t be paid, the bible says the wages of sin is death.  It’s a debt that has to be paid with our very lives.  We can’t pay for our sin without dying eternally.  And therefore this same Jesus, the one talking to Simon, would, a couple years later, hang on a cross, dying – to pay for sin.  And then he would, three days after that, rise from the grave to show that he had completed the payment, paid the debt, and risen victorious to eternal life.  And the question that really divides Simon and this woman is this – will you die for your own sins, or will you receive Jesus’ death as forgiveness for sin?  She trusted Jesus to forgive her sin, and it changed who she worshiped.  Simon hadn’t yet, so he scorned Jesus.  Would he later in life?  We don’t know, but that’s not the question. The question is “Will I?”

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Meet Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove