The Nature of Forgiveness

Luke 7:36

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “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.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 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. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The Nature of Forgiveness

A young man went to a minister and said, “I have a confession to make."

"What is it? the minster asked"

"Well, I know that we are supposed to be humble, but twice a day I look at myself in the mirror and tell myself how incredibly handsome I am."

The minister took a good look at the rather plain boy with a big nose and ears to match.  She said, "I have good news. That isn't a sin . . . your mirror is broken."

People come to the church all the time about sin.  They want help in forgiving other’s sins, getting forgiven from God, figuring out their own sins.  We are, in fact, in charge of sin.  The culture may enact legislation and fix public morality, but when it comes to sinning, we get to say what that is.  Different churches have different ideas about sin, but the Judea-Christian heritage is all about sin.  When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, he might have thought Peter would use them to open the doors of heaven, but in fact, the church has often kept eternal life under moral lock and key.

Us Calvinists structure our traditional theology around five major points, the first of which is the total depravity of human beings.  Original sin, mortal sins, venal sins, sins of omission . . . The only title of a sermon you probably remember is Jonathan Edward's 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.'  Churches spend much more energy labeling and chasing sinners than saving them.  Even in the liberal prophetic traditions of Protestantism, social ills are gleefully pointed out with less enthusiasm for actual fixes.

We have to be sinners.  The Christian church is in a bit of a bind, since it has made Jesus the sacrificial lamb for our sins, if our sins aren’t all that we have made them out to be, Jesus isn’t quite as necessary.  If the only reason Jesus is around is to forgive our sins, sinning had better be pretty important. 

Today, some of what I say may be a bit heretical, but I am only trying to get at a basic position of Jesus.  I’m going to discuss how sin is a decision of the church, how Jesus questions that system of judgment, and how humility is the heart of forgiveness.

Sin is a decision of the church.

Of course, we try to base our deliberations on the Bible, but the Bible needs interpreting.  And we have interpreted things differently over the years.  For example, the church was a champion of the anti-slavery movement, but the Bible doesn’t seem to have much problem with slavery.  Paul even sends a runaway slave back to his master.  Another example: there could be no clearer provisions in scripture than those outlining how to keep the Sabbath holy, but most of those are winked at now by almost every denomination.  Those are really sins anymore.  We say.  There are churches that have their whole identity wrapped up in the identification and demonizing of gay and lesbian people as sinful.  And even though there is no hint of abortion in the Bible, it is the sin of the day for many churches.  Churches choose their sins.

Which brings us to the story of Jesus in the gospel lesson.  Jesus is being adored by someone who has been labeled a sinner by a church leader.  We never get to know exactly what her sin is, but the fact that this sinner is loving Jesus is bothering the good church elder.

Jesus saves his most damning remarks for those who judge others, especially the scribes and Pharisees.  “Woe to you,” Jesus says a few chapters after our reading, “because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”

And always remember good friends, that when we read about the scribes and Pharisees, that is a story about us.

For Jesus, forgiveness questions the law as much as the offense.

For example, when you see someone steal your favorite shirt out of the backseat of the car, do you arrest him?  Perhaps forgive him?  No, says Jesus.  You give him your coat as well.  What is at stake here?  Nothing more basic than the nature of ownership.  God owns everything.  Who are you to suggest that someone who steals from you needs forgiveness?  Of course this approach is impractical.  Jesus never claimed to be practical.  He claimed to be of God.  And does God care whose shirt it is?  This is just an example of the many times Jesus raises the question of the nature of forgiveness in a setting of bad laws and worse judgments. 

We understand unjust laws in our political system.  Most people understand that there is unevenness in the criminal justice system.  There are thousands of examples of the strangeness of our state and national laws.  Like the church decides who the sinners are, the state decides who the criminals are.  Drug laws of the poor have heavier penalties than designer drugs. In Saudi Arabia it’s against the law for a woman to drive a car.  In Arizona, you can get arrested for looking like an illegal alien and not having papers on you.  

We have tried punishment and blame for so long.  Isn’t it time for something else?
Jesus called the whole thing into question.  Jesus knew that the whole system had problems and blaming any individual was often cruel and self serving.  For this insight, he was tortured and killed.

Who can judge when we all are to blame?

Even if we are right about what sin is, we are on thin ice when we apply those ideas to anyone but ourselves.   It is possible that some of our ideas of sin are off, but the big problem is the fact that we use these frail ideas against people when we judge them.   When we think people need forgiving, we have already judged them.

How can we even know what sin is, when we have logs in our own eyes?  We have finite views, self interested positions, conflicts of interest.  We have been stockbrokers making money off the distress we cause.  No one is in a position to judge who the sinners are or even what sin is.  As Paul says in Romans, only Jesus is in a position to judge and he is interceding for us.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Let the one without sin cast the first stone.  Let the person who does not have any investment in the current economic system cast the stone against those whose poverty forces them to steal bread.

We are sinners when we make and maintain a world that creates sinners.         

Humility is the heart of forgiveness.

The true nature of forgiveness is not condescension or forgetfulness or even rehabilitation, it is humility.

Humility is quick to love and slow to judge.  Humility may not even see the need for forgiveness.  “How have I caused this?”  Is always a legitimate first question to ask of any behavior problem.  “How can I help this?”  “How can I love this?”  “How would God’s love change this?” There are many many questions to ask before we might get to “How can I punish this?”  or “How can I protect myself from this?”

But let’s get back to Jesus.

So do we need Jesus?  Oh yes.  Jesus saves us all right.  Jesus saves us from our sins as much through his model of absolute humility as through any moral calculus.  Jesus, although perfect, did not let it go to his head, did not count equality with God a thing to get all puffed up about.  As he is being killed he wanted God to know that it was ignorance that caused his murderers to torture him and his friends to abandon him.  “Forgive them for they have no idea what they are doing.”  Now that is a perspective worth living for.

Let our own actions be just, let our hearts be filled with mercy, let us walk humbly with our God.

(c) William H. Levering 2009