Jesus found himself in an awkward moment. On the one hand, he was the invited guest at an honored household, one of the tables where everyone coveted an invitation to dine. I wonder if he thought this could be a sign that he had earned recognition for his teaching! This would be a place to watch his words carefully and seek to win favor. His teachings might get an in-road among the Jewish leaders if it went well for him this evening.
You look skeptical. Don’t you think Jesus had feelings like this? I do. He was fully human. He would likely have gone to this dinner in hopes of these powerful ones hearing his word, understanding and changing their lives, becoming disciples. What an incredible opportunity!
Then it got awkward. A woman from the town also came to the gathering, uninvited. I know this sounds impossible in our world. But meals were often taken on a portico, or rooftop. The meals could be quite public, quite showy. It would be like you having a barbecue in your front yard, where anyone walking along the street could come sniffing, hoping for a small tidbit, and would often receive one.
That seems to be what happened on this evening. A woman of ill repute heard about Jesus being at dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Jesus was minding his own business, reclined at the low table as was the custom, feet out toward the street, propping himself up on one elbow, leaning into the conversation. Then all of the sudden, someone was messing with his feet! I am sure he was startled. Turning around, he may have recognized this woman as someone who had heard and responded to his teachings. He may have recognized the woman as someone he had healed, or saved from stoning. I wonder if he just tried to ignore her. But in the course of conversation, he finally has to talk about her.
And how did he do that? With a story, of course. Jesus was so clever with his stories! He used them so well to make a point and to make people squirm! This one is short: A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii (about 500 day’s wages), and the other fifty (fifty day’s wages). When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42)
The answer is obvious. Simon the Pharisee has no choice about how to answer.
Now we could spend our time talking about how Jesus made Simon squirm. And we would probably enjoy it. I don’t like Simon. I was going to say, ‘I don’t like Simon very much,’ but truth be told, I don’t like Simon at all! Honestly, don’t you agree? He’s kind of a bully. Arrogant, judgmental, self-righteous, he looks down on everyone else.
When a self-righteous know-it-all gets a dressing down, one kind of feels like he had it coming. But as I think these thoughts, I realize that I’ve become just like Simon. I have delighted in judging, rubbing another’s pain in their face. I have been just as judgmental as Simon. In doing so, I have displayed as much arrogant pride as Simon did.
It is easy to judge, actually. It comes naturally to us as law-making humans. Remember the morality plays and melodramas? It was always obvious who was the villain and who was the hero. I guess it is obvious in this story too. But I wonder if Jesus would have encouraged the boo’s and hisses. I think he might have said something more like, “whoever is without sin among you, feel free to boo and hiss.”
Jesus is all about forgiveness. I think that is why this story comes so early in Jesus’ ministry. That house built on a rock, remember it? I think that rock is forgiveness. And forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do! It is the way we act out love.
When we receive forgiveness, we are left with gratitude. This woman, weeping and massaging Jesus’ feet is so full of gratitude. She knew she was the one in the story who was forgiven more.
As I wrote that sentence, I wondered if it was true. Yes, the woman believed that she was the one forgiven more in the story. But I wonder if there wasn’t a whole lot more forgiving to be done for Simon and his compadres. Simon and friends, sitting in judgment from their portico on the world, they may have actually been the ones forgiven more.
From the place of gratitude for our own forgiveness, we can forgive others. And here is an interesting, confounding dynamic of forgiveness.
The divorce recovery group really resists any conversation about forgiveness. We want the spouse who betrayed us to suffer and we want to know that one is suffering. But to hold that resentment changes us, imprisons us. I ask them if they know any bitter old people, and they begin to smile, because they all do! And it breaks the ice which has kept their resentment like a hard rock in our souls. We want the other to suffer, or at least to come sniveling to us asking for forgiveness. But oddly it doesn’t work that way.
D. Patrick Miller, in his book, A Little Book of Forgiveness, observes: “It might seem a lot easier to forgive someone if only he or she would show signs of changing. The paradox is that we are unlikely to see signs of change in others until we have forgiven them. This is true for two reasons: First, resentment is blinding…. Second, a subtle but crucial function of forgiveness is that it tacitly gives others permission to change. We are not nearly so separate from each other as we generally experience ourselves to be” (p. 13).
When we forgive, it releases others from their bondage and allows them to change. When we release our rage and bitterness, something shifts and a new spirit is released into the universe. A spirit of healing and forgiveness. The poet Rumi has a short poem that goes like this: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, / there is a field. I’ll meet you there. // When the soul lies down in that grass / the world is too full to talk about.”
Beyond the judgments of right and wrong, there is a place for the soul. Forgiveness leads us there. It is like letting a bird out of a cage. We keep a lot of people in the cages of our expectations, of our righteous indignation. Our judgment is felt by them, drawing out defensiveness and resistance and entrenchment. But when we forgive them, we no longer have anything against them. The negative energy stops flowing at them. They are free. Free to change, if they choose. Free to be their best selves.
When you’ve been forgiven, all that’s left is gratitude. And when you forgive others, all that’s left is freedom and possibility.
I know that I preach about love a lot. It is probably the greatest theme of the Bible. But it is hard to know how to love, especially how to love our enemies or those who have hurt us. Forgiveness it the key. It builds a bridge between people. It heals. Yes, we can attempt to get our lives perfect in the light of the law. The Pharisees had a belief that if the whole people of Israel would just keep the law perfectly for one day, the kingdom would come. But we just aren’t perfect! As much as we look to the law to guide our lives, it isn’t enough. Love provides the motivation for obedience, but even love is imperfect. Forgiveness is the missing piece.
So, how do we forgive? I can talk about forgiveness all day, and the truth is, we don’t really know how to do it. Saying the words, that is a beginning. Just letting time dissipate the pain, that will help too.
Rob Voyle, who teaches Appreciative Inquiry, teaches people how to forgive, using a very specific process. I have a short article of his available for you in the back today. And here is a quick summary.
1. Discover what resentment is: it is demanding that the past be different than it is. Obviously this is impossible, but we think about the past like this all the time. As long as we demand a different past, we cannot forgive. So, accept the past as what it was. For example, ‘It is not fair that you walked away from this relationship and got everything you wanted.’ I live in a demand for justice.
2. Turn the demand into a preference. Just say: I would have preferred for you to act in a different way – and be specific. What would you have preferred? “I would have preferred that you had listened and felt compassion for me.’
3. What value are you protecting in your preferred action? Consider that value. Do you want to keep it? Or is it not a value you really need anymore? This step affirms who you are and who you want to be, what you will carry into your future as a learning from this act of forgiveness. In our example, ‘I value being a person who listens, who responds with compassion. I know what it feels like to be written off. So, I will seek to live with compassion for others as a high value. I learned from this mistake.’
4. Wish the other well. Don’t define what that might look like. That is putting them back in the cage of our expectations. Just release them to the love of God and all that they might be. ‘I wish my ex-spouse well, may he/she be blessed.’
Note: it is important to remember that wishing them well does not mean reconciling with them. Forgiveness and reconciliation are completely different things! [http://www.appreciativeway.com/]
We can also use this process if the person we need to forgive is ourselves. It is sometimes the hardest work of all to forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness is the only way out of our cages of revenge, punishment, retribution, and self-recrimination. Learning to forgive is just plain the most basic life skill we need in the way of Jesus. It isn’t easy. It takes time. It cannot be forced. And we may not be successful in our first attempts. We may find ourselves back in the soup of bitterness. And from there, we are called to choose the path of forgiveness over and over and over again.
Let us consider today: What in our lives might need forgiveness? Or, what have we been forgiven lately that creates in us a deep sense of gratitude? Or, who do we need to forgive to be free and whole again?
Forgiveness – it’s the whole story, it’s the whole Gospel. It is the bedrock of Christian character. It is how love gets lived. In the end, it’s all about forgiveness.