The unmistakable theme of our lessons this morning is forgiveness.
“Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is put away.”
Jesus observes the great love and devotion of a woman known for her sinful life, and announces this is so because she has been forgiven.
“I tell you her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; this is why she has shown such great love.” She is on the path to recovery.
Luke has combined the story of her anointing, with its parable of being forgiven a debt worth two years’ wages, with a brief notice about the women who had been cured of evil spirits and healed of spiritual diseases. They are now part of Jesus’s company with the Twelve as he journeys through Galilee. They have been forgiven. This frees them to give of themselves, to have new lives alongside him. One, Joanna, is the wife of a high official in Herod’s Court. Having been forgiven much, they have much to give.
It’s one of those enchanting brief notices which hide a wealth of detail. Why are you and I here today? What caught us up in the love of God in Jesus? Who are the Susannah and Joanna and Mary Magdelene in us? High officials and lowly people. Who, Luke tells us later, stand at the foot of the Cross with the man who changed their lives. I’d like to have seven demons driven out of me…Elizabeth says she can count only a couple.
The stories this morning are not about our forgiving others, we should note. That’s a story for another day. They are about the radical nature of God’s forgiveness of us. A forgiveness extending even to David, who was exposed as a murderer and adulterer. And also about the less dramatic ones, bringing twelve men and a retinue of women into Jesus’ close company.
Usually, high crimes are accompanied by high denial. Obfuscation, blaming others.
Given what we know of public figures we expect David to say: “Hey, she was bathing on the rooftop.” “Her husband should have obeyed my command to sleep with her and no one would have been the wiser; it’s his fault.” “I’m king. It’s hard. With great power comes great temptation.” “Can I tell you about my troubled upbringing? I was just minding the sheep and I got picked for this job over my older brothers.”
Confronted by the prophet Nathan, and exposed before God, David comes clean: “I have sinned against the LORD.”
The stories also put us on the spot. They reveal our ready default system that is superb at noting sin and injustice in others, yet forgets about our own failings. David is outraged by the rich man who had everything but stole a poor man’s lamb to feed a guest. He pronounces a death sentence. He demands restitution fourfold. “He showed no pity, that scoundrel.”
To which Nathan responds: “You are the man.”
In the Gospel reading Simon the Pharisee condemns the sinful woman and Jesus, for not knowing the company he is keeping. But Jesus knows precisely that it’s the lost, the unhealthy, the habituated sinner, the tired and confused who most need him and his forgiveness. Simon and his company are a tough case. He gets the parable and answers right. Though a bit reluctantly. But he is up against a force that disrupts his world just too much.
“Who is this who forgives sins?” Only God can forgive sins. To which Jesus responds by ignoring Simon and turning to the woman. “Go in peace.” “Join the others who have come to the end of themselves and have been forgiven much.” The power to forgive sins is my most loving self.
An obvious message lingers. Are we forgiven much? You and me? It sounds like this is an important question, from what Jesus says. It lies at the heart of our walk with him. It is the grand motivator that frees us to love Jesus and our neighbor. And lets him love us.
One thing that may get in the way, as we reflect, is our understandable sense of justice and fairplay. How can Jesus seemingly lower the bar without creating a mess of indulgence and sloppy conduct.
In “A Christmas Oratorio, For The Time Being,” WH Auden gives this speech to King Herod after the visit of the Magi, who announced that grace and forgiveness had entered the world and Herod’s realm with the birth of the child Jesus:
Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces the job [of undercutting authority, discipline, and standards] has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The world is saved. Nothing else matters.”
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole empire and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should…
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself, “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue. “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”
But of course this is not the kind of forgiveness Jesus extends. This woman was broken on the wheel of her own sinful life. She came to the end of herself and is exposed in her need, prepared to walk even into a home where she is unwelcome and where she knows a stern judge awaits in Simon. But because Jesus is there she accepts the risk. He is where the source of health and a new start can be found. She throws herself at his feet and her tears flow, showing the sure path of her healing.
Auden himself reflected hard on the character of sin and forgiveness.
“A neurotic, an alcoholic, let us say, is not happy; on the contrary, he suffers terribly, yet no one can relieve his suffering without his consent and this he so often withholds. He insists on suffering because his ego cannot bear the pain of facing reality and the diminution of self-importance which a cure would involve.
If there are any souls in Hell, it is not because they have been sent there, but because Hell is where they insist upon being.”
Simon the Pharisee is not forgiven much because he has not welcomed the kind of love and life Jesus is coming to bring. He prefers to sit in judgment instead of at Jesus’ feet. If ever you think of Jesus as meek and mild, take stock of how stern he is with Simon. His arms are open, but the cost for some will be high.
A second reality about forgiveness we see clearly in the David story. People may be tempted to think David got off easy. But as God said on the day he confronted and forgave him, the sword would never leave his house. His sin is put away because God accepts the penitent heart. There is no crime too great that Jesus won’t forgive. Still David loses the boy born to him, and he will also lose as well his son Amnon and then his beloved son Absalom. The fight for succession wreaks havoc with David and his household, and costs him enormously. Much of the pathos of the Psalms reflects this forgiven but also challenged David.
I was raised in the American south and in boarding school read a lot of William Faulkner. He wrote a brilliant novel called “Absalom, Absalom” where we see the sword never depart from the house of the hero, Thomas Sutpen, in a biblical adaptation set in rural Mississippi. Faulker observed, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. It lives with us every day” This is a man who also said, “a mule will work for you for ten years for the privilege of kicking you once” and “a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired.” He also knew his Bible well enough to know that forgiveness and love can lift a man out of the mire and create a new path forward, even if scar tissue remains.
The psalm of David for today tells the truth about God’s gravity system. “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away…then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I confessed my transgressions and you forgave me the guilt of my sin.” There is a mystery here. If we hide our sins he looks on them. If we speak our sins to him, he looks on us and loves us.
I’d like to be in the company of Jesus, as he makes his way through the Galilee of my life, healing and teaching and rebuking and bringing new life from old bones. The ticket he tells us is being forgiven by him. Putting aside worries about justice and righteousness, confident he can handle that department just fine on his own. The ground at the foot of the cross is level ground. We see in David not the measure and rule of what it means to be just, or to never make mistakes, but what it means to be forgiven.
And if we are having trouble forgiving others, a good place to start is with reflecting on God’s forgiving us. If we can get that right, the crimes we sense will start to change their proportion and their sting.
Paul has his own way of talking about this. The law showed me to be a failure, so I let it slay me that I might be alive to God. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God. I handed myself over to him as did the woman who anointed his feet. I stopped trying to justify myself before him, and instead asked him to make me new. He’s good at that. He loved me and gave himself for me. Paul. It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
That sounds like a good place to be. As we gather at his table we gather as forgiven and loved, prepared to be made new by his Body and Blood.