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FORGIVENESS: THE PATH TO GRATITUDE AND GREAT LOVE
LUKE 7: 36-50
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. 37 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. 38 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. 39 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.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 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. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 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.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This is a scripture chosen for its applicability to the theme of hospitality and I will try to make some of those connections. But first I want to point out the parallel literary use of the word ‘seeing’. Simon and Jesus saw this woman very differently. Likewise Simon and the woman saw Jesus very differently. In both cases, how these people saw and were seen made a huge difference to the outcome of the narrative.
This passage fits into a larger context in Luke in which Jesus is being asked ‘Are you the one?’ or “Should we continue to wait for the coming one, the anointed one—the messiah? Simon, the pharisee, asked Jesus to join him for a meal. As the story unfolds, it appears that Simon wanted to ‘check out’ Jesus as much as he wanted to host him. It reminds me of ordinary occasions in real life where a woman’s family invites her new beau over for dinner to meet the family. Or perhaps a business lunch during which a possible deal is being considered with new investors. In any case, the presenting reason, sharing the meal, is a vehicle to tend to other agendas.
Early in the meal a woman, specifically identified as a sinner, shows up and begins to offer the most lavish form of deference and welcoming that any host could offer. Don’t get sidetracked with what kind of sinner the woman was or with how she had such easy access to the dinner party. The single detail we are sure of is that she was a known sinner. She was known in the community and she did not belong at such a gathering. Yet Jesus allowed her touch and allowed her adoration.
We spent a fair amount of time in FIRL speculating what brought this woman to Jesus. Was it his reputation? Had she personally experienced Jesus’ acceptance and was now showing immense gratitude? Was she coming because of Jesus’ promises—the promise that no one was outside of God’s care? The whole scene reminds me of people who go to AA the first time. Nobody goes because it is a good idea. People go because they are desperate and because there is a glimmer of hope. And there, like this story, when desperate outcasts discover they can be received, new life is possible. The woman saw in Jesus, someone who might be able to save her. She saw the messiah in Jesus. He was the one who could bring hope and new life. And because she saw Jesus in such a way, in her lavish gratitude, she literally anointed him.
The woman saw Jesus as a savior. Simon saw Jesus as a false prophet. (“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.”) It is way too easy to only see the outside of a person. It is way too easy to see what confirms our view of the world. We make assumptions all the time that blind us. The minute Jesus allowed this sinner to touch him, Simon disqualified him as a savior. I tell the story often that if you are raised in a house that cooks pancakes everyday and then stacks them in the front closet, you will think it quite odd that other people eat them. We are bound by our history and by our past experiences. It is both good news and disturbing news to have such assumptions challenged. But then again, it is the only way such a person can discover that pancakes can make a wonderful breakfast. Jesus saw something wonderful and holy in this woman. Simon could only see someone unclean and unacceptable.
That preaches and it is preached often. Don’t be like the Pharisee. Look for the holy in every encounter. I believe that but in real life, it is more complicated. My sister came to visit my parents (who are now living with us). She has a reputation in the family for being strong willed and opinionated. She also carries a label—she is bipolar. Within 24 hours of her arrival, she was yelling at my father that he ‘needed to face’ the fact that his wife was declining. She was trying to force her perceptions and she showed no interest in any other view. She very much needed to be right. There are more details but it was ugly.
I was actually in a FIRL meeting at the time but was thoroughly distracted by the uproar in the background. I left the meeting, tried to find out what had happened and became as angry as I have been in many years. I told my sister she had crossed a line and she was no longer welcome in my home. I told her I wanted her to leave. This was not discussable. I had already tried that and such discussions had failed completely. She left the next morning. So much for looking for the holy in every person.
You are, of course, only hearing my side of the encounter. I know that— and I know I will rapidly counter ‘her side’ of the story. I am actually not interested in ‘her side’. My attitude could be a sign of wisdom. In real life there are certainly times when our attempts to balance sides allows unacceptable behavior to continue. Or, my attitude could be a sign of my sinfulness. I may be precluding seeing the holy in my own family because I have judged and categorized her.
I am not looking for people to choose a side. Look instead at how seductively easy it is to draw lines self righteously. In real life, drawing lines between people is very very complicated. We can only do what we can do. That applies to my sister every bit as much as it applies to me. She viewed me as ‘overreacting’ and unwilling to discuss the matter as an adult. She was indignant and a victim of my bad behavior. She was only trying to help. As much as I wanted to explain my decision, I saw us at an intractable dead end. That is when I ask to leave.
The problem is, while I would make exactly the same decision, that does not mean I am right. Hospitality always requires a mindfulness of the other person. It always asks us to see beyond what we expect. We must be careful not to become the Pharisee by judging the Pharisee. In real life, we have all walked in his shoes. It is one thing to make judgments based upon our best discernment and quite another to believe we are right and thus become judgmental. Jesus calls us away from our certainties. He complicates life by calling us to love. Jesus did not condemn Simon. He simply pointed out that Simon’s assumptions and certainties blinded him. He could not see the woman. Nor could he could not see that the man he was talking to brought good news. He could not see what the woman could see—someone who could love and accept her. It is true of me—and it is true of all of us—that when we stop looking for God in the ‘other’, we turn away from God. We, like Simon, will fail to see Jesus. We, like Simon, will turn away from God. We become the sinners we condemn.
It is in the pastoral offering of hospitality in this story that we discover the theological faith claim that Jesus saves. There is room in God’s kingdom for identified and shamed sinners and there is room in God’s kingdom for the self righteous and self satisfied. That means there is room for us and every child of God. But you have to know you need forgiveness. That is something that the woman knew but Simon did not. I believe that is what Jesus wanted Simon to see. It is the doorway to grace. If we ever come to know that about ourselves, we too will be bringing oil to thank and to anoint.
As Jesus said: “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Our self righteousness cuts us off from accepting forgiveness and ultimately, cuts us off from God. The response to forgiveness is great gratitude. If you’ve ever followed the spiritual discipline of creating a gratitude list, you know that making such a list will slowly, but surely, transform you. If you feel genuine gratitude, your heart cannot help but soften—and genuine gratitude begins with the forgiveness we have been given.
Life is found in accepting forgiveness. We all need it. Let it be so.