When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, there was one thing I wanted and never had — a doll house. Whenever we visited the Smithsonian, I would stand in front of the museum’s magnificent one. Really, it was a doll mansion, the home of a huge doll family, complete with servants. I loved the tiny piano and sideboard, the teeny-weeny dishes, the miniature paintings and the assorted dogs and cats.
Most of all, I loved the dolls. I loved to imagine moving them from room to room and telling their stories.
Down the street from my home in Alexandria lived a little girl with a beautiful doll house of her own. Even with a child’s eyes, I could see that no expense had been spared. The lights worked, and the doorbell rang, and the exterior had lifelike landscaping. A hinged roof raised up to reveal the elegant rooms inside, where lived a family of classic 1960s dolls, with hard heads and bendable bodies, the limbs wrapped in what looked like tiny little ace bandages.
I wanted one of those dolls, very badly.
There were so many of them.
How could it possibly hurt anyone if I slipped a little doll into my pocket? Maybe my friend would think the doll was just lost.
There’s a truism that all sins are the same; no sin is worse than the others. Coveting your neighbor’s doll is bad; is taking it worse? I suspect that given a list of sins, we would all be inclined to rank them just the way society ranks crimes and their punishment. It may sound fine in theory — a sin is a sin is a sin — but wouldn’t it be worse to steal something more valuable, or to harm a person rather than property?
The ancients had their own ways of trying to make things right with God. Many of the Psalms serve the ritual purpose of a prayer of confession, creating a means for opening the channels of communication with the Lord, for confessing wrongdoing and receiving forgiveness.
Selah. It’s a word you wouldn’t read aloud in Hebrew. It indicates a pause, like a rest in music. It’s a space for the impact of the words spoken to sink in deeply. In Psalm 32, we find the word three times, marking the movement of the reader through the process of confessing. The Psalm begins with a claim that the forgiven are happy, and then offers the contrasting image of losing health and strength by keeping silent.
I took the little doll home with me, hidden in my pocket. I slipped my hand in as I walked to feel her. At home, I snuck a look at her in my room, touched her red gingham dress, and then hid her again.
“For day and night your hand was heavy upon me.” (Psalm 32:4a)
It isn’t for God’s sake that we confess. When we hold on tight to things that are not good for us, we suffer.
Sit with that.
When Jesus went to dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house, a strange incident occurred. A woman in the city, a sinner, arrived carrying an alabaster jar of ointment. A woman in or of the city means a sex worker, and in the hierarchy of sins in that time and place, hers were pretty bad. There was no system in place to take into account her circumstances and no ministry to get her into a shelter or job training.
Besides, why give up a line of work that enabled her to support herself well enough to buy a valuable jar of expensive ointment?
Yet something stirred in her when she heard about Jesus, stirred her enough to put herself at risk. She entered the home of an upright citizen, a Pharisee, without an invitation. She entered the home to meet Jesus. Simon knew very well who and what she was, yet he did not stop her. He took the opportunity to test Jesus. He let her come into his home, this stranger, this sinner. He sat by while she bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. He sat by while she cracked open the beautiful jar and filled the air with the aroma of extravagance.
We read in the Psalm, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said ‘I will confess my transgressions to The Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Ps 32:5)
She didn’t need words. Her tears and her tender service told a story The Lord already knew.
Sit with that. Let it sink in.
The woman stayed there at Jesus’ feet, showing her love and her desire for something new to happen to her. She sat quietly. The men did all the talking, over and around her, but they did not ignore her. Jesus knew Simon had been playing with him, and he played right back, telling a story illustrating the gratitude we feel when a debt is forgiven. Jesus acknowledged that the woman had sinned greatly, but he also made note of Simon’s sins of omission. Simon failed to show the proper hospitality due any guest, and he did not apologize for it.
I imagine the air crackling as the conversation unfolded. Still, the woman sat wordless. Her prayer might have come from our Psalm:
“You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” (Ps 32:7)
Hoping to be delivered, she sat at his feet.
I couldn’t play with the doll. She didn’t belong to me. I knew I had done a bad thing. I tried to tell myself I had only borrowed her, but I could not convince me long enough to do anything other than look at her furtively. She might as well have been on fire; I could not hold her in my hand.
The woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party could not hold on to her life anymore, not the way it was. I wonder if she burned inside while Jesus and Simon were talking. “Her sins, which were many,” said Jesus. Yes, she must have thought to herself. My sins, which are many, have been my sins for a long time. In this moment, the deliverance she desired came to her. “Your sins are forgiven,” said Jesus. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
Don’t go because you are being chased away. Go out in peace, knowing you are loved and forgiven by God.
Jesus also said, “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He’s not saying that better-behaved people are less grateful. Because Simon did not ask for forgiveness, he received no forgiveness. He held onto his judgments and prejudices. He held onto the sense of superiority of a person who plays the game by the rules and thinks he can never lose. He never understood what Jesus meant. This story is about more than the woman’s gratitude for Jesus’ mercy. It is about the mercy we miss when we cannot admit we are in the wrong.
In Psalm 32, after the third pause, the confession is over. In the final verses, God instructs the one who prays, assuring guidance for the future, while warning against stubbornness. “Do not be like a horse or a mule…”
I held on to the idea of keeping the doll for what felt like a long time to a little girl. I couldn’t play with her, but I couldn’t take her back. I was mulish. I was stuck.
“Many are the torments of the wicked.” (Ps 32: 10a)
It *felt* like a long time, but it was really just a few days later that I asked my mother if I could go and play at my friend’s house again. I tucked the doll into my pocket. I put her back where she belonged.
I knew where I belonged.
“Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.” (Ps 32:10b)
There are lots of things that keep us away from that steadfast love. We may not have a doll hidden in our pockets, but there are other things we take that don’t belong to us, other things we do that betray God’s intentions for us, other things that make us reluctant to walk in and sit down with Jesus.
A sin is a sin is a sin. The truism is actually a truth. For God, any sin we confess is a sin forgiven. They are all alike.
Be joyful, beloved children of God. Let mercy and grace pour over you, as fragrant as the ointment from the alabaster jar.
(A sermon for Pentecost 4C-June 16, 2013–Psalm 32; Luke 7:36-50—St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Mechanicsburg, PA)