Today is World AIDS Day. So I’ve chosen for today’s text Luke 7:36-50:
One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.
Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Teacher, speak,” he said.
“A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”
Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Too many Christians believe in a pernicious Theology of Deserving. It talks about karma instead of grace. It says we get whatever we’ve got coming to us. Those who are rich, healthy, and privileged are that way because they are faithful, and God has blessed them. Those who are poor, sick, and oppressed are that way because they are sinners.
But blessing does not come to us because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Remember Jesus’ most famous sermon? “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who make peace… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” None of these did anything to earn God’s blessing.
In the same sermon, Jesus says God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the wicked and the good.
Job’s friends certainly believed in a Theology of Deserving, and they told Job he must have sinned for such terrible things to happen for him. God rebuked them for their lack of understanding.
I grew up as the AIDS epidemic blew up in the 80’s. I heard—and believed—a lot of the most hateful and misinformed rhetoric around the transmission of HIV. Some of this came from the church.
In the mid-90’s, I remember walking in to the church I served as an assistant youth pastor. I said to the youth director, “I just heard on the radio that researchers may only be a decade away from a vaccine for HIV.” She replied, “Oh, no! Then nothing will keep these kids from having sex.”
I just stared. I didn’t know how to respond.
Since they often presumed that people acquired the disease through some kind of immoral sexuality, some churches became barriers to God instead of bearers of God. Like Simon, they presumed that some people were not worthy of Christ’s attention. They found justification for their oppression of LGBTQ persons.
But there were also churches who acted like Christ. Places like GLIDE Memorial UMC saw AIDS as another opportunity to show Christ’s unconditional love. One church I attended, Trinity UMC in Huntsville, was one of the first organizations in the city to develop an AIDS outreach in the 1990’s. And in their ministries they often found Christ was already alive and active among those who the church had neglected.
I’ve certainly changed my mind a lot about theology, sexuality, ethics, and public health since I was a teenager. I am grateful that God has forgiven my sins of being unloving and ungracious.
Let us firmly rebuke the Theology of Deserving with the Theology of Serving. We are not blessed because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are sick, and those who are oppressed are those who will be vindicated by God. This is the Good News we share.