The Common Good
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In Need of Grace

Our gospel lesson always raises strong feelings in me. For years I read it as a mini-contest between good and evil--the loving, needy, marginalized woman vs. the rigid, rich, judgmental Pharisee. I always followed it rather smugly to its conclusion, content in knowing that the Pharisee gets put in his place at the end. Jesus lets him know that the kingdom is for the poor and the outcast; for those who give radically of themselves; for those who know their need of God's grace.

Then one Sunday I was scheduled to preach from this passage. I was sitting on the small back porch of a Sojourners household on a Saturday afternoon, preparing my sermon. Several children walked by in the alley, and I waved hello and chatted for a while. Then my next-door neighbor pulled up in his fancy sports car, unlocked the iron gate to the fence that he had put around his property, punched some buttons on his alarm system, and walked into his house. I didn't greet him. I didn't even know his name. I only knew that he was one of the "gentrifiers"--wealthy whites who were moving into my low-income, inner-city neighborhood and displacing people who had lived there for generations.

I had trouble with my sermon after that. The message that I thought I had to preach suddenly didn't seem right anymore. As much as I might want to see myself as a Christ-like figure who would welcome the woman to the table, I couldn't get over feeling like the Pharisee.

My attitude toward the Pharisee in the story was exactly the same as the attitude the Pharisee took toward the woman: You don't belong. Perhaps the real surprise of the story for us is not that Jesus received the blessing of a "sinful" woman--but that he ate at the table of a Pharisee. He listened and taught and took the man seriously.

Many of us, it seems, find it easier to minister to people in trouble or in need than to listen to those with a different viewpoint--especially if, in our view, they are deemed among the "oppressors." Our unwillingness to engage or listen leads to just as much brokenness as theirs. Judgmentalism and self-righteousness are sin, no matter what guise they come in.

The message of Galatians is for us: We are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ, not by our works. The message of the gospel is for us as well: The kingdom is for those who know their need of God's grace.

Joyce Hollyday was associate editor of Sojourners when this article appeared.