Entitlement through social status

Luke 7: 36-50; Genesis 15: 1-12; 17-18

Entitlement: the theme of today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, a Pharisee with a well-developed sense of entitlement invited Jesus to dinner. A woman from the city was also there, but she wasn’t an invited guest. We don’t know who she was or how she got in. Luke identifies her as a sinner. Many writers have claimed that she was a prostitute, but we don’t know that. She bathed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then rubbed oil into them.

The Pharisee was scandalized. He was a respectable man, probably a leader of his local synagogue. Heaven knows what the neighbours or the rabbi might say. “Will they think that I’m running some kind of bawdy house? Doesn’t Jesus realize what kind of woman she is?”

Jesus’ parable about entitlement and forgiving sins

Jesus told a parable.  He compared  forgiving a large versus a small debt with forgiving a large versus a small sin.  “Look”, he said to Simon the host, “you invited me to dinner, but you did not greet me warmly (with a kiss) or wash my feet (a normal courtesy because everywhere was dusty). Yet this woman kissed and bathed my feet, and anointed them. Whatever sort of person she is or was, she has shown me love.  You did not even show me ordinary courtesy.” Then Jesus told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”

Luke tells the story in an exaggerated way

The woman’s tears flow so freely that they wash Jesus’ feet; her hair is long enough to dry them. Luke contrasts the Pharisee, upright and proper, but lacking in human kindness, with the woman, a sinner, the lowest of the low, who showed love.  And she showed more hospitality to Jesus than Simon the Pharisee, who was the host!

Entitlement today

I began by saying that the story spoke to me about entitlement. The Pharisee thought that his position entitled him to sneer at the woman – a mere low-life. The human condition seems to be hard-wired to entitlement. Fans of Downton Abbey can’t help but notice how Lord Grantham and his family treat the servants with entitlement; the servants exist simply for the comfort and convenience of the family.

In real life, the #MeToo movement has called attention to powerful men (they are usually men) who believe that their position entitles them to prey on subservient women. Just this week the Australian Cardinal Archbishop George Pell got six years in prison for child abuse – another person of high rank with an out-sized sense of entitlement.

We should not be smug

It’s all too easy for us to feel superior – and even an entitlement to feel that way – about people who are different from, or less fortunate, than ourselves. I have commented before that the expression ‘Check your white privilege’ is ugly and deliberately offensive. But it has an underlying truth that we are privileged in many ways.

We have privilege by birth, which we can do nothing about, but which was completely unmerited.  Most of us have nice homes, jobs, or pensions. We may well have worked hard all our lives, but we had luck along the way.  We have privilege because we live in Canada – think of the comments Donald Trump has made about African countries.  Or because we are Christian, if we think that Christianity and our sacred Scriptures make us superior to people who do not worship Jesus Christ.

If you forgive only little, you love only little

The New Testament has much to say about love: in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment to love one another. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that love is kind and patient, not boastful, conceited or rude. But the point of our story today is that love can be found in unlikely places, and shown by unlikely people.

There are three characters in the Gospel story – Jesus, the Pharisee, and the woman. The woman shows unexpected and extravagant love to Jesus. Jesus shows love to the woman by forgiving her the sins that we do not know about. They contrast with the Pharisee, who cannot show love. His sense of entitlement is the source of his hardness of heart.

The hymn My song is love unknown has the line, ‘love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’ Jesus showed love to the sinful woman, an outsider, almost a definition of ‘loveless’. She became lovely herself by showing extravagant love to Jesus.

A connection between entitlement and today’s reading from Genesis

Abram (who will later be called Abraham) laments that he and Sarai are childless. It’s a disaster for them.  Abram is a wealthy farmer. It gnaws at him emotionally that without children, his death will erase his name and lineage from the history of Israel. Everything that he worked for – all his lands, his flocks and herds – will not go to a descendant. Eliezer, his household steward and distant relative, will inherit them instead.

I found it significant that Abram doesn’t seem to care about children for their own sake.  He’s mainly interested in his legacy. Abram displays entitlement when he says, “O Lord, what will you give me …?”

Infertility causes  sadness and loss for modern-day Ontarians, just as it did for Abram and Sarai three thousand years ago. That is why couples who are infertile petitioned the provincial government so hard to provide OHIP funding for in vitro fertilization. It raises the question of whether everyone has an entitlement to have children.

However, the story of Abram and Sarai made me think about a different kind of barrenness. The past few years have been barren times for our so-called main-line Protestant churches with continuing declines in membership.

Abram and Sarai looked into a future where they saw their lineage wiped out.  Many parishes, including St. George’s, stare into a similar future; a lineage stretching back through the generations might come to an end. One challenge is to ask how to make St. George’s healthy and fruitful in an environment where many parishes will disappear. Another is to realize that we have no entitlement to continue for ever,

The question is, “Is there anything we can do?”

God  rescued Abram and Sarai from childlessness. Abram had taken action in the way that was appropriate to his time and his culture – he made a sacrifice of animals. In return, God made a covenant with him.

What about parishes? What action must we take? Part of the answer is what is often called visioning – trying to imagine our parish five years or more down the road. But there is a catch. A vision sets goals but does not tell us how to reach them.  A vision is like a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show.  By definition, concept cars are different from the models already in production.  Their engineering drawings incorporate new ideas and new technologies. But the concept remains just a dream unless the new technologies are practical.

What we are doing

Our Corporation has put some possible ideas for the future to Bishop Susan for consideration. We hope that some of these new ideas will  be practical. Then, like Abram, we have to trust in God that everything will work out all right. But that will need hard work, rather than relying on entitlement.

In the 1940s, Archbishop Temple famously said that the Christian Church is an organization that exists principally for the benefit of those who are not – or not yet – its members.  Any parish that feels a sense of entitlement is nothing more than a comfortable country club.