Forgiveness is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all. For the sinner, forgiveness has the character of “in spite of,”. For the righteous forgiveness is endowed with the character of “because.” Unlike the righteous, sinners cannot transform the “in spite of” into a human “because.” They can’t demonstrate evidence because of which they should be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. There is no condition whatsoever in a person which would make you are me worthy of forgiveness. If forgiveness were conditional no one could be accepted and no one could accept their own self. We know that this is our situation, but we hate to face it. It is too great as a gift and too humiliating as a judgment.
I like a good story and Luke is a great story teller. Our story for today is from Luke 7. It is a story that has a story within it. It is the story of the silent woman who at a banquet dries her tears from Jesus’ feet with her hair, kisses his feet and then anoints his feet with expensive ointment. To most of us it sounds like similar stories in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and John 12 – but this one is quite different. The other gospels place their version of the story quite late in Jesus’ ministry and tell it in anticipation of Jesus’ death. Luke, on the other hand, places it very early in Jesus’ ministry.
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. 37And 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. 38She 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. 39Now 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.” 40Jesus 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. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then 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. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, 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.” 48Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This story is a window into the live of two extraordinarily different people. It presumes that each of them have had some prior encounter with Jesus. Simon the Pharisee is pretty sure of himself and he is curious to know more about this increasingly popular itinerant rabbi and possible prophet and is looking forward to a stimulating evening of conversation. He knows Jesus well enough, at least by reputation, to invite him into his home.
From the extraordinary acts of enormous gratitude she performs the woman also has a history with. The story leaves no doubt that she is a sinner. Tradition is that she was a prostitute known to Simon and his guests. From that you can bet that she would not have been a welcome guest at Simon’s dinner party. Yet she takes the risk of entering a male-only gathering in the home of a Pharisee. Driven by having been forgiven by Jesus she pours out her gratitude in tears, kisses and perfume. She seems oblivious that her behavior; the letting down of her hair and extravagant use of expensive ointment, is shocking to those gathered. Her gratitude is too great to be contained within ordinary boundaries.
Paul Tillich in his treatment of this story reminds us that we should not disregard the way Luke characterizes these two people. The woman, the sinner in the story, is not excused of her immorality. There is no sociological or psychological explanation that absolves her. She is simply and without reservation a sinner. Jesus isn’t ignorant of the factors which determine human behavior. He is keenly aware of the demonic splits in the souls of people which produce self destructive behavior and of the economic and spiritual misery faced by people. But his awareness of these factors does not deter Luke from calling her a sinner. Our increased insight into the conditions of human existence should not undercut our courage to call wrong wrong. In this story and in the included parable the sinner is seriously called sinner.
And in the same way the righteous Pharisee is seriously called righteous. We would miss the spirit of our story if we tried to show that the righteous are not truly righteous. The righteousness of Simon the Pharisee is beyond question. Such righteousness is not easy to attain. It has required self-control, hard discipline, and continuous self-observation. As for Simon, he is willing to engage Jesus in a teaching situation and is declared “correct” by Jesus the teacher. The story does not expect that we should despise the righteous one. How is it that of the traditional Christian view has allowed the righteous Pharisee to become representative of everything evil? In their time they were the pious and morally zealous ones. Their conflict with Jesus was not a conflict between right and wrong; it was a conflict between an old and sacred tradition and a new reality which was breaking in and depriving the old of its of significance. The Pharisees were the guardians of the law of God in their time. Living a righteous life in that time or this should be honored not vilified.
So, the sinner in our story is seriously called sinner and the righteous is seriously called righteous. When Jesus brings his parable to bear on the situation the question isn’t who is the sinner and who is the righteous one, that has already been made clear. Hear it again: “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Let’s clarify the love thing. What is made clear is who is the more grateful. Jesus presents gratitude as the medium of expressing the forgiveness one has received. Acts of love grow from this sense of ones gratitude.
The woman’s state of mind, her inappropriate behavior, her ecstasy of love, witness to the fact that something life changing has happened to her. And what greater could happen to a human being than to be forgiven. For forgiveness means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected. When Jesus accepts the woman’s attention, Simon decides that he cannot be a prophet after all. He is shocked by Jesus’ attitude to her. He receives the answer that the sinners have greater gratitude than the righteous because more is forgiven them. It is not the gratitude of the woman that brings her forgiveness, but it is the forgiveness she has received that creates her gratitude. By her acts of love she shows that she knows that much has been forgiven her, while the lack of love in the Pharisee shows that to his mind little has been forgiven him.
Forgiveness is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all. For the sinner, forgiveness has the character of “in spite of,”. For the righteous forgiveness is endowed with the character of “because.” Unlike the righteous, sinners cannot transform the “in spite of” into a human “because.” They can’t demonstrate evidence because of which they should be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. There is no condition whatsoever in a person which would make you are me worthy of forgiveness. If forgiveness were conditional no one could be accepted and no one could accept their own self. We know that this is our situation, but we hate to face it. It is too great as a gift and too humiliating as a judgment. We want to contribute something, and if we have learned that we cannot contribute anything positive, unfortunately we try, at least, to contribute something negative: the pain of self-accusation and self-rejection. Then we read our story as if it said: This sinner was forgiven because she humiliated herself and confessed that she was unacceptable; because she suffered about her sinful predicament she is made worthy of forgiveness. That is a dangerous misreading. If that were the way to our reconciliation with God, we would have to produce within ourselves the feeling of unworthiness, the pain of self-rejection, the anxiety and despair of guilt. There are many Christians who try this in order to show God and themselves that they deserve acceptance. They perform an emotional work of self-punishment after they have realized that their other good works do not help. But emotional works do not help either. God’s forgiveness is independent of anything we do, even of self-accusation and self-humiliation. Forgiveness creates repentance–this is declared in our story and this is the experience of those who have known forgiveness. We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our gratitude.
As long as we feel rejected by God, we cannot love God. God appears to us as an oppressive power, as one who gives laws, judges and condemns according to God’s own pleasure. But if we have received and accepted the message that God is reconciled, everything changes. Like a fiery stream this healing power enters into us; we can affirm God, our own self, others from whom we are estranged, and life as a whole.
On the other hand, the righteousness of the righteous ones is hard and self-assured. They, too, want forgiveness, but they believe that they do not need much of it. And so their righteous actions are warmed by very little gratitude. They could not have helped the woman in our story, and they cannot help us, even if we admire them. Why do children turn from their righteous parents? Why do husbands or wives turn from their righteous spouses? Why do they turn to those who are not considered to be the righteous ones? Is it because they want to escape judgment? Is it because they seek a love which is rooted in forgiveness, and this the righteous ones can’t give? Jesus gave it to the woman who was utterly unacceptable. Each of us who strives for righteousness would be more like Christ if we could acknowledge the more that has been forgiven us, if we loved more and could better resist the temptation to present ourselves as acceptable to God by our own righteousness. It’s interesting, isn’t it that the church seeks to be righteous—and would have been called so by Jesus, and righteous church most likely would join Simon the Pharisee in criticizing the attitude of Jesus towards the woman in our story. How do we balance that with the church’s need to take its religious and moral obligations seriously?