June 13, 2010
William G. Carter
"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.”
I will guess that Simon went to a lot of trouble. It's not every day that Jesus comes by for dinner. As with every honored guest, you pull out the finest china, polish the silver, and press the linen napkins. Simon the Pharisee had a closet full of such things. He was an influential man with a beautiful home. In his employ were a number of well-trained servants who knew when to serve the soup and when to replace the salad forks. And also around that lovely home of his, there was a high fence with a single gate.
Now Luke does not mention the fence with the gate. That was an inadvertent omission. Luke meant to say it, but forgot to say it. There had to be a fence. Every really nice home has some kind of fence around it. Sometimes it is electronic and marked by little flags, to keep the family pets from wandering too far. Usually it is tall and imposing, to keep the undesirables out.
If Simon was a rich and influential person, as most first-century Pharisees were, there was a fence around his house. And about the time he expected Jesus to show up for dinner, he told one of the servants to go and unlock the gate. That's good old-fashioned, down-home, Middle Eastern hospitality. When you expect a guest: you open the gate.
Jesus is welcomed into his home. He is invited in through the gate. But apparently it was left open for a little too long – because look what else wandered inside. It’s a woman. We don’t know her name, but apparently everybody in town knew who she was. Luke calls her a “sinner.” We never learn what kind of sins she committed - - but we can probably guess. There’s probably a big capital “A” stitched to her smock.
Simon knows who she is. He has been watching her for years from behind his fence. He doesn’t know her name – or at least he never says it. But he is clear about her reputation. He regards her as trash, blown in from the street, and makes a mental note to close the gate more quickly next time. But on this occasion – his charitable invitation to Jesus might serve him and his purposes.
The fact is, Jesus has been troubling the Pharisees for two whole chapters of this story. They come to hear him teach, and then they see him heal. He announces the forgiveness of God – and they question this. A paralytic starts dancing – and they are amazed. Then Jesus goes to a dinner party at the house of a tax collector, one of those scurrilous collaborators with the Empire, and they complain that he is not very careful about his righteousness. He eats with the wrong people. He doesn’t stick to their rules.
This is a section of Luke’s Gospel with a number of controversies like that – and then Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to his table, in through his gate. And while they exchange pleasantries and pita bread, that woman walks in. She caresses his feet. She rubs perfume on his toes. A man’s feet are private. They are not for the massaging hands of a sinful woman. In his mind, Simon the Pharisee is very clear about what she is doing. He says as much to himself – and our modest Bible translators have cleaned up the language in English.
Do you know she is doing? To put it literally, she is “starting a fire.” She is crossing a moral boundary, right there, in a Pharisee’s house! So Simon says everything he’s been told to say, everything he’s been told to believe – that this woman was a sinner, that this woman is a sinner – she is trying to ignite some passion right there at his dinner table. It’s disgusting, it’s inappropriate. If Jesus were a real holy man, he would know what kind of person she is. And he would keep her on the other side of the fence.
This is a common approach to religion. We learn the lesson early. There is right and there is wrong. If you are right and others are wrong, some kind of fence should be erected.
When I was growing up, we were told very clearly who the sinners were. They were the people from Spencer Avenue who sat on the church lawn on Saturday nights, smoked cigarettes, and drank Genesee Cream Ale. They left the empties behind. As the ushers began to hand out bulletins before Sunday worship, an angry deacon went around the front yard with Hefty bag, scooping up the beer cans. More than once I learned the lesson: “those people are not welcome in our pretty little church.” They are sinners.
At one memorable congregational meeting, somebody stood up to declare it was the minister’s job to yell at those people, to chase them away. After all, he lived in the house next door that the church provided. You couldn’t expect one of the professionals who lived in a big house up on the hill to drive down and police the church yard. They were busy – they had plans to go to the country club and knock down a half dozen cocktails. That’s what the respectable people do. They do not mingle with sinners.
I like how Jesus handles this embarrassing moment. He tells a little story. It seems that every time he finds himself in an awkward situation, he tells a story. “Once upon a time,” he says, “there was this banker. She had two people who owed her money. Both of them defaulted. One owed about $70,000. The other owed about $7000. Neither one of them could pay. So she canceled both debts. Which one of them will love her more?”
Well, that’s easy. That’s a softball question. If you have been forgiven a huge debt, you’re going to love your banker a lot more than if you were forgiven a modest debt. Isn’t that right?
Why, just imagine if you needed a major operation that you could not afford? You really needed that operation or else you would die – but you couldn’t afford the operation. And then, the surgeon said, “Listen, I’m going to handle the cost of this. Don’t worry about a thing. I will cover it myself, because you really need that operation.” And he is good for his word.
Now, isn’t that better than owing somebody twenty bucks, and they say, “Forget about it”? Of course it is.
Jesus simply tells the story and asks the question. The answer is obvious. Whoever is forgiven a great debt is probably going to love the person who forgave them! That is the point of the story . . . and it’s dangling out here. Nobody seems to get it.
When I was fifteen or so, I had dinner at my minister’s house. His son Jonathan was one of my good friends. They were planning a cookout, as I recall, so Jonathan invited me for dinner. As his father, the pastor, was putting burgers on the grill, his mother called out, “Jonathan, I thought we had more hamburger buns. Go down to the corner market and pick up a pack. Take Bill with you.” We cut through the back yard, went along the ancient cemetery, came around the alley – and there they were, sitting on the church steps: six burly people, smoking cigarettes, and drinking Genny Cream Ale. They looked rough. They had dark hair and tattoos. They hollered, “Hey! What are you doing?” We ran all the way to the market and made our purchase.
Then we had a moral dilemma: we had to return the same way. Jonathan liked to act tough, so he took charge. We walked around the corner, right up the church steps, and he looked them in the eye, and said, “How are you doing? Nice night, isn’t it? My name is Jonathan.”
One of them said, “Hey, you’re the minister’s kid – I didn’t recognize you before. I thought you were just a couple of kids getting in trouble.” Then he looked over his shoulder and said, “This is a peaceful spot. We like it here – even if some of those church people are uptight. But your dad, he’s alright. Sometimes he stops by to talk to us. Never chases us away. So we sit here on Saturday nights and guard the place from hoodlums like you. It feels right.”
It was a strange conversation. And the next morning, right before worship, as some uptight deacon scowled while retrieving the one green can that the squatters had forgotten to collect, it seemed that he was overplaying his part. Did you ever notice? Some people are so darned righteous that they become obnoxious. And some of the people they would so quickly shoo away are kind, and protective, and strangely benevolent. Something has happened in them, but it really hasn’t happened in the so-called righteous person.
At the center of God’s Kingdom is the announcement of forgiveness, the cosmic cancellation of debt. It is the news that every single one of us has had a great debt canceled. We were in over our heads. There was no way we could pay – and God, the Rightful Owner of Everything, out of great mercy, said, “You are forgiven. You are free. Enjoy the grace of the kingdom.” There is only one way to respond – and that is with love. If we know that much has been forgiven, we will show great love.
Monday, October 2, 2006 was a bright beautiful fall day. The children at the West Nickel Mines School were surprised by a man who backed his truck onto the school property. A few knew him – he normally drove the milk tanker to some of their farms. This day, however, something was dreadfully wrong. He pulled out a gun, rounded up the children, and started firing. As state police stormed the schoolhouse, he turned the gun on himself.
This was a tragedy that should never, ever happen. The 24/7 news media descended on Nickel Mines, not really understanding that it is an Old Amish community. There were few interviews with the townspeople. No access was given for armchair psychologists. The Amish Christians would bury their dead with dignity. They would not invite CNN or Fox News to push their news cameras into their grief.
And then, a few field reports began to surface. There was word that within hours of the shooter’s rampage, some of the Amish families had gone to his home, to sit with his widow, to speak words of comfort and consolation. They held her hand, looked her in the eye, and said, “We forgive your husband for what he has done.” And not one visit, but many visits – followed by gifts of food and money from the Amish – as a way of announcing that there would be no revenge, no retribution, no more damage in response to that great sin. They forgave him, and released him from what he did.
On Wednesday at 5:30 a.m., two days after the tragedy, the grandfather of two little girls who had been killed was walking by the schoolhouse. He was reflecting on his loss. All of a sudden, a news team jumped out of the bushed, turned on lights and camera, and held a spontaneous interview. The reporter asked, “Do you have any anger toward the gunman’s family?” He said, “No.”
“Have you forgiven them?” He said, “Yes, I have forgiven them in my heart.”
“How is that possible?” He said, “Through God’s help.” The world just couldn’t believe this. It became the major story of the day: AMISH PEOPLE FORGIVE THE SHOOTER. And their mercy was expressed in more than words. When the gunman’s family gathered for his funeral at the end of the week at a nearby Methodist church, more than half of the seventy-five mourners were Amish. They believed it was the right thing to do. They joined in prayer, sang the hymns, and spoke of their love and support for his widow and family, and their forgiveness of him.
One theologian who wrote of the occasion did his best to explain to the world. When forgiveness is the ongoing practice of Christian people, it shapes everything that they do. They are able to forgive because they know themselves to be greatly forgiven. Because they believe God has forgiven them so much, they are free to forgive others and show great love. And a small piece of Lancaster County looked like heaven on earth. (Donald Kraybill, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy)
This is the kind of faith that saves us – a faith that we are forgiven greatly, and therefore called upon to love greatly. This is the faith that saves the whole world – and sends us out in peace.
(c) William G. Carter
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