Sunday, June 16, 2013

Forgiveness and Transformation (Luke 7:38-50)

Yes, yes, this story is similar to one that John tells, but it's slightly different and happens in a different location and setting. That obviously means the gospels were made up and don't tell us what happened in Jesus' ministry and life. Or it means that by the time Luke heard the story, the person who told it to him had grown a little fuzzy on the details. Or it means that the story of the original incident spread throughout those who followed Jesus or heard about him, and a second woman performed the same gesture with the intent of conveying the same love and devotion.

We don't know which, but my point is that people who want to lean on this as some kind of gospel-falsifying inconsistency find themselves relying on a weak reed indeed.

Anyway, we have Jesus eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This sounds weird at first, until we remember that the Pharisees began some hundred years or so before Jesus as a group of people whose main message was that followers of God ought to act like it. Legalists and hair-splitters had taken over much of that message, but the core remained and many members of that party found quite a lot of common ground with a man whose first proclaimed message was a call to people to change their lives because the Kingdom of God was at hand.

While he's there, a woman anoints his feet with perfume, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair. Simon notes this and figures Jesus doesn't know what kind of woman she was -- otherwise, there's no way a teacher would allow himself to be ritually defiled by her touch. Jesus knows Simon's thoughts and offers to tell him a story. Simon agrees -- formal dinners in this culture often featured some kind of discussion led by the guest.

Two men owed a banker some money, Jesus says. One owed a bunch, the other not so much. The banker forgave both men, so which one does Simon think will love him more? I can imagine Simon shrugging, since the answer is obvious: The one who was forgiven more. Exactly, Jesus says, and so this woman is showing much love since she has been forgiven much. Jesus contrasts her actions with Simon's, which really didn't measure up to cultural standards of hospitality.

That last little bit may fall hard on our ears. Especially for the majority of us who understand we haven't really been forgiven all that much. Most of us have not committed great harm or done great wrong to others. So if those forgiven little love little, then we would seem to be among that number. And we don't want to be! We want to show great love to Jesus! In fact we want to show more love today than we showed yesterday and show even more tomorrow! We don't want to show little love, whether we've been forgiven lots or little.

And there's part of the key to dealing with what Jesus said. We want to show great love, and we can do exactly that. How much you want to bet the next houseguest Simon entertained had not just one basin to wash his feet, but one for each toe? If Jesus ate there again, how much would you like to bet that Simon met every last obligation he had as a host and then some?

Of course the person forgiven much feels more gratitude! But feeling is only a piece of that puzzle. If we want to show great love for Jesus, we can do so even if we are aware of being forgiven for far less than someone else might have been. Jesus' words to Simon are a warning against complacency on the part of those who live more or less upright lives.

And then there's another part that we ought to address, although we'd probably rather not. In reality, the idea of being forgiven much and forgiven little is something that only appears from our side of things. Whether we admit it or not, most of us like to see some difference between us and other people not like us. Folks who haven't hurt people or committed great errors like to see ourselves as more respectable than those other kind. Folks who may own up to serious wrongdoing like to see themselves as more honest about things than folks who don't have as much to own up to.

But the condition of sin is not a matter of totaling up a list of sins to see if it crosses some kind of border between God-land and World-land. Sin is separation from God, and from God's point of view, any separation is too much. Had there been one sin in the entire world, committed by only one person, Jesus would have offered himself just as he did.

In reality, we've all been forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.

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