On Love and Forgiveness
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.
Theologian Karl Barth preached regularly to the inmates of the prison in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Knowledge of that context adds poignancy to the sermons. Here was an audience of people who had been officially judged and condemned as guilty. One of the sermons is based on Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." He illustrated by retelling a Swiss legend:
“You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe!”
I like Barth’s analogy. Sinful humanity is unaware of its sinfulness; blinded to sin (our rebellion against God) by sin. Indeed, it is like the rider crossing the frozen lake oblivious to the danger. In the course of rescuing us from that condition God discloses our condition to us. In the bright light of day the rider now safe sees where he has ridden and sees the danger. Another way to say this is that in the course of curing the disease God discloses us the diagnosis of the disease we were unaware was eating away at us.
Now, we may be tempted to think that Barth’s message might play well to a group of convicted felons. Telling a group of criminals of their sinnership seems self-evident. But what about at a gathering of society’s finest upstanding citizens? How would it be received at the service club; on Parliament Hill or at Queen’s Park; the local business network meeting; the Law Society of Upper Canada? This question brings us to the heart of our gospel story where Jesus has accepted the dinner invitation of a respected Pharisee named Simon—one of society’s finest citizens.
1. Here is a little thought exercise I invite you to engage. The next time you pick up a newspaper and read an editorial or opinion piece see if you can spot the assumptions about who the presumed good guys are and who those are who still need some work. In fact, a quick read through the any newspaper and it will not take long to see those who are considered to be on the “right” side of various issues and what the “right” side is. Typically, those writing such opinion articles consider themselves to be on the good side of the particular issue.
The upstanding of any society see themselves as being, for the most part, on the right side of the important issues—even as promoting the good. All of this involves calculation; a calculation against the backdrop of those who do not promote nor live according to the societally defined goods. You can hear it in the things that people condemn in others. There is the perceived underclass of reprobates who need to be resisted and even condemned. But the upstanding consider they have this all under control. I may have this or that reprobate action but for the most part have it in check.
Using the gospel term of sin we could describe this thinking in terms of classifications. The bottom category are “sinners” who we exclude from consideration as having anything human to contribute. Up the scale might be “middle-class” sinners—mostly ok but in need of some improvement. Then there is the upper crust who have their act together promoting all the right causes and held as examples of how to live.
Come with me now to this dinner at Simon’s house. As a Pharisee he is regarded, societally, as one of the good guys. Clearly he considers himself to be such. He knows himself to be on the right side of all the issues; he keeps the law meticulously; beside his name he believes God has placed a gold star. He has some curiosity about Jesus of whom he has heard so much—enough curiosity to invite him to dinner.
A woman who was a sinner shows up because she has heard that Jesus is at Simon’s house. What does Simon see? This woman is clearly not a person to him—she is a sinner. We are not told the nature of the sin but sufficient that Simon sees her as unworthy of any attention; an outcast and deservedly so. So much so he considers Jesus a fraud because any prophet worth his salt would know what sort of woman she was; it was scandalous enough that Jesus would permit a woman to touch him in this way; anathema that he allow this woman’s touch—a known “sinner.”
It is always important to note that Jesus’ question for Simon—and by implication all of us in how we make such societal calculation regarding the worth of people—is not our question. Jesus would have us consider something else; something that exposes the poverty of all our calculating. Jesus asks us something about the relationship of love and forgiveness.
“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 cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.” Whatever our system may be for assessing the right things of life and our personal calculation of our own standing in relationship to that assessment tool, Jesus wants to ask us about our perceived need for forgiveness. Ouch.
Clearly Simon does not perceive himself to need a great amount of forgiving. In the terms of Jesus parable, Simon considers his debt to God small and believes himself capable of paying it off. It is evident in how he treats Jesus—the one in whose name forgiveness of sin is preached. He loves little. Herein is the great challenge for humans with respect to the gospel. We do not perceive the danger of our sin nor what it means to God. At the cross we get a glimpse and what we see shows us that sin is horrific. And it is a hard message for some to accept. Jesus does not relent for Simon to soften his challenge to Simon.
2. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that Jesus 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.
It is likely the case that this woman has had contact with Jesus before this moment. Perhaps she has heard him preach explaining that the kingdom of heaven was at hand inviting her along with all hearers of Jesus’ message to repent and believe. Think about this alabaster jar she brings of expensive perfume. Luke tells us that the woman had received from Jesus a great forgiveness and a great deliverance; now her heart swelled with a great love. So hearing that Jesus is at Simon’s house she comes to honour him for the forgiveness she has received.
In knowing the customs of the day scholars tell us that her intention was to pour this perfume on Jesus’ head. The alabaster jar was designed for such anointing. But when she walks into the room Jesus is reclining at the table, as was the custom, so that she is standing at his feet—Jesus head is not immediately accessible to her. On seeing him she is overcome with emotion and tears well up in her eyes and fall on Jesus’ feet. Distraught by this impropriety she has to clean it up and so let down her hair to wipe his feet. She finds that his feet are dusty—recall that Simon had not provided the courtesy of foot washing—so she cleans them with the perfume and kisses his feet.
Do you ever think about what it will be like the first time you see Jesus face to face? That initial moment that the Apostle John describes as “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) When faith becomes sight and for the first time we see the One who gave his life for us. I can imagine tears would easily flow.
This woman likely sees the world in much the same way that the Pharisee does. The shame she carries has pushed her to the fringe of society and has her looking up from a lonely place—a place she probably thinks is as it ought to be. Calculation is common on both ends of the spectrum. Whatever draws her to Jesus must be stronger than what threatens to expose her. Those considered “sinners” in this world always found in Jesus a ready welcome.
Notice that while the world sees great impropriety in the actions of this woman and in our Lord’s acceptance of her devotion Jesus sees great love pouring out of a heart that knows a great debt has been paid and is gone. Think about the relief you feel when a debt has been retired. Each April when the previous year’s income taxes have been agreed upon and satisfied I feel relief—short lived by relief nonetheless. As we walk in company with Jesus, year by year coming again to Good Friday, hearing the gospel centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ, the rescue from sin grows in clarity for our focus and we too know the relief this woman knows.
Notice how Jesus turns from speaking to Simon to her. He has been speaking about her with Simon but now turns to her and looks her in the eye. “You sins are forgiven. Your faith as saved you; go in peace.” Notice our Lord’s care for her—he wants her to be sure she knows herself forgiven. Freed from the power and penalty of sin. Like many of us we need to hear this word more than once. Perhaps she heard Jesus say this in his preaching and even though she believed she comes again—it is hard sometimes to appropriate God’s forgiveness. Not so easy to own it in our hearts. Our Lord assures her again. And this word isn’t just for her but for any who would believe the good news.
Simon must be wondering what others are about Jesus—who is this who even forgives sins? Simon’s self-perception of “little” or “no” debt does not alter the fact that he too stands in need of God’s forgiveness. Will he too reach out to our Lord? Will he be put off because he sees Jesus as way too accepting of those he considers lowlife?
Last century a profound Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, used to speak of the Christian life as a life motivated and directed by what he called “the expulsive power of a new affection”. Chalmers had noticed one thing above all else in his years of ministry: berating people to do this or that (or stop doing this or that), cajoling people, browbeating them, embarrassing them — it was wholly sub-Christian and hopelessly unproductive. Chalmers had noticed that when people knew themselves cherished by Jesus Christ and flooded with his love, their hearts exploded in love for him. As love for their Lord became the characteristic of their lives, lesser loves, lesser affections, lesser attachments — whatever it was that characterized them previously — these were expelled coincidentally and forgotten forever as they dried up and withered away.
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”