How Depraved Do You Have to Be?

Luke 7:36-8:3
© Stacey Steck

If you were here last Sunday you heard me talk about my ex-roommate Rhonda, and other people like her who are victims of the second most common crime in our country, the one called human trafficking, and as I described some of the abuse these victims, mostly women and children, have to endure, you may have found yourself wondering just what kind of sick individuals are the perpetrators of these crimes? How evil or greedy do you have to be to manipulate and abuse other people for your own economic benefit? How depraved do you have to be to be a dealer of human flesh? Well, the answer to that question is totally. You have to be totally depraved.

That terminology might ring a bell if you’ve been a Presbyterian all your life, because the theological doctrine of Total Depravity comes from the likes of John Calvin and his followers who were the founders of our brand of faith. The concept of Total Depravity is one of the cornerstones of our tradition, going back even farther than the Reformation, at least as far back as the fifth century to Saint Augustine, the originator of so many ideas to which the Reformers were attracted. In a nutshell, the doctrine of Total Depravity means that human beings are bound by sin so completely that it is impossible for us to escape it without God’s grace. There is nothing we can do, no amount of effort we can expend, no repentance thorough enough that we can ever not sin. Sin has its hold on every single one of us. Mother Theresa? Saint and totally depraved sinner. Billy Graham? Saint and totally depraved sinner. Dot Luther? Saint and totally depraved sinner. Theologically speaking, being totally depraved does not mean that we necessarily conduct ourselves like human traffickers. But it does mean that our human condition is one that is always at least inclined toward the same evil that those who abuse other people practice. Thankfully, enough of us are able to control our inclinations that the world is no more chaotic than it currently is. That’s because despite being totally depraved, human beings are not totally without goodness or unable to do good as a result of the fall. We still remain in the image of God, however distorted it may be. But interestingly, as the doctrine goes, our depravity is so total, that even our efforts at self-control, or repentance, or altruism, are really just other ego-centric, self-serving forms of the same sin in which we swim. It is only by the grace of God mediated by Jesus Christ, as the doctrine goes, that is it possible for us to find favor in God’s sight. It is only then that our total depravity is transformed into its highest and best form, an example of which we can see as we take a look at our story from Luke.

“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” Simon the Pharisee, reclining in the comfort of his own home, looks upon a sinful woman, and sees her as the very embodiment of depravity, and someone who is spoiling his carefully planned dinner party. In his eyes, she may just be about as close to terrible as we view those human traffickers. We are not told just what has made her a sinner, just that she is one, and the narrator of the story confirms as much even before Simon formulates his thought. But that lack of information hasn’t stopped generations of interpreters from deciding she was a harlot. Even so politically correct a Biblical commentary as the one I regularly use labels her a prostitute without providing evidence why. Read into that what you will. But whatever specific sins she has committed, or however inherently sinful she may be, she is well aware of it, as her approach to Jesus suggests. Just as Simon the Pharisee, the woman sees herself as the very embodiment of total depravity.

And believe it or not, so does Jesus. But how can that be? Jesus never looks on people that way! He’s too compassionate for that. He even says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Surely, he must have seen something in her that neither she nor the Pharisee could see, something redeeming, something of that image of God that we never lose. How could he still consider her totally depraved? Well, it’s not in that sense of the theological doctrine, that we are all, and always will be, totally depraved. Rather, it is that she embodies, that she literally expresses with her body, the kind of total depravity that he himself came to bring us.

OK, Pastor, now you’ve gone off the deep end. You’re telling me that Jesus is celebrating this sinful woman’s depravity? Well, indeed I am, and it’s the Good News of the Gospel. And this is how it works. The word “depraved” literally means, “completely crooked,” going back to its Latin roots. The use of the word has come a long way to include all we ascribe to it today, but back in the day, you could look at a tree branch, or a meandering stream and say it was depraved, that it was crooked, not in a straight line. And while both Simon the Pharisee and Jesus can both look at her and see the crookedness of her life, they see her through entirely different lenses. All Simon can see is the crookedness of her sin, her deviance from the norm, her defiling impurity. But Jesus sees the crookedness of her body, a body kneeling down bathing his feet with her tears, wiping them dry with her hair. He sees her hands, one clutching an alabaster jar, and the other cupped full of ointment anointing his feet. He sees her lying prostrate, making herself small and insignificant so as to avoid drawing attention to herself, as if that were actually possible. In those days, when you ate, you reclined at a low table sitting on a pillow, with your feet extended out behind you, and that’s where she was, away from the table. It says she “stood” there, but that must really mean that she “stayed” there, stayed at his feet, bathing, drying, kissing and anointing them, for as long as it took, as egocentric and self-serving as it may have been in a doctrinal kind of way. But in a Gospel kind of way, she was wonderfully and blessedly depraved, totally crooked, totally distorted, totally bent out of shape, in an act of worship and service that Jesus could not help but admire. You see, her posture, what she did with the body God gave her, was the faith that saved her.

“Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And the very next thing Simon says shows just how far he is from the kind of divine depravity Jesus celebrates in the sinful woman. You see, he calls Jesus “Teacher,” when the real teacher was the one lying on the floor about whom he certain Jesus knew nothing. And Jesus goes on to teach him who the teacher really is: “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 bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.’ ” Ouch. Not once during that evening did Simon do even what was expected of him as a host, much less anything more. Not once did Simon make himself crooked, or even uncomfortable, in service to someone else. He too may have been reclining at the table, but he may as well have been standing stiff as a rod with his arms crossed across his chest in judgment.

There are some Christian traditions, and some Christians individually, that focus almost exclusively on making your sin so clear to you that you have no choice but to acknowledge your need for Christ. They’ll tell you over and over again what a terrible sinner you are, and how much you need God, and how depraved you are. And even after you come into the fold, they’ll still only ever remind you of what a terrible sinner you are and how much you need God’s grace. But they never actually get around to even preaching grace, much less practicing it. Their version of the Good News is the bad news of your sin, for which they conveniently have the solution. They are kind of like Simon who sees this woman in his house in the midst of an act of repentance, but still can’t see her as anything but an unrepentant sinner. He can’t see that he should have been the one washing her feet, and welcoming her with a kiss, and anointing her head with oil, even if she was an uninvited guest. “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

It remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm among Roman Catholics that Pope Francis has generated has any staying power, but it is pretty clear to me that he has figured out that standing on a balcony pontificating in a fur-lined cape while allowing bishops and pedophiles to run amuck is the wrong kind of depravity to practice. So what did he do in his earliest weeks as Pontiff? He got down on his seventy-something year old knees and twisted himself up like a pretzel to wash the ugly feet of those whom the world saw as no better than the woman in our story this morning, instead of pedicured feet of his fellow clergy as his predecessors have done. He is rightly getting credit for practicing what he preaches. But that’s not why I mention him. It is not just that the things he is doing seem somehow less hypocritical, but rather by these actions, by his humility, by his reconsideration of some of the church’s core doctrines, Francis is casting a vision of the kingdom to which people are drawn, more so than by simply telling them how awful they are and how much they need God. Pope Francis is a divinely depraved individual and it is paying dividends.

Our story this morning begins a little mysteriously. There is no reason given why this woman seeks out Jesus and does the things she does. We don’t know whether he had already forgiven her sins and she is simply now expressing gratitude. Does she love because she is forgiven, or is she forgiven because she loves? In the context of the story though, Jesus, at the end, declares her forgiven. So what has prompted her arrival at Simon’s home, with an alabaster jar and tears in her eyes? Well, it wasn’t Simon and his attitude. If it were, she’d have been there a long time ago. No, I prefer to think that it was the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus had been casting to which she was attracted, like so many are being attracted to Pope Francis, and that she was willing to do whatever it took to be a part of it. All Simon can offer her is a standard of behavior against which she will always be trying to measure up, or will be measured up against by others. He doesn’t see it, but he too will bump into it over and over again, because that is all the doctrine of total depravity is really good for without a meaningful doctrine of grace to go with it. But Jesus offers something different. He offers an image of a world of grace, a world of second chances in which sin isn’t the final word. Simon is playing some complicated game like chess, but he can’t enjoy it because he’s too busy making sure everyone is playing by the rules. But the game Jesus plays is more like Twister, in which getting all tangled up, and barely keeping your foot in the right place, and falling down on top of one another, and laughing until your sides are splitting is the point of the game, not an indicator of failure. Which game would you choose, especially if you weren’t very good at playing by the rules in the first place?

As we know, Jesus will go on to wash the feet of his disciples in the last few days of his life. He will get down on his hands and knees, bend himself up like a pretzel, and do for them what this woman did for him in Simon’s house. But that won’t be the only time he became completely crooked for us. No, that’s how he came out of the womb, and that’s how he carried his cross to Calvary, and how he lived every moment in between, because how much more crooked can God get than to become a human being? A totally depraved human being. But it is God’s willingness to get bent out of shape over us that transforms the total depravity of humanity into the divine depravity that makes the world a place worth living in. So go out and be depraved, and make your minds, bodies, and spirits crooked enough to hug someone, to get down on your knees to get face to face with a child, to fold your hands in prayer, to build a house in Colombia or Jamaica, to stop a pimp in his tracks, or in whatever way you can to cast a vision of the kingdom of heaven that helps people to see that we follow a blessedly crooked savior who forgives them and loves them no matter how crooked their lives have become. How depraved do you have to be to be a follower of Jesus? Totally. Amen.