Monday, June 6, 2016
Although I'll head back to Decatur this Sunday for the Bishop's Visit (can't miss that!), I'm in Sewanee for the next three weeks taking classes. This is my first time here for the summer program, so I don't really know what I'm getting into, but I imagine it will involve a lot of reading, a fair amount of writing, and considerable conversation and debate with other student-priests over cups of coffee and glasses of beer. One of the topics that is always on my mind comes up in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 7 36-8:3). I want to know how forgiveness works.
Again this Sunday, Luke presents an encounter unlike any of the other gospel writers. The others have versions of a woman wiping Jesus' hair with her feet, but only Luke recalls this moment as taking place in a Pharisee's house. Likewise, only Luke tells us that the woman was "a woman in the city, who was a sinner." The contrast is intentional. Here, at the dinner table of a religious man defined in the community by his religiosity, kneels a street woman defined in the community by her sin. And, of course, Jesus is right in the middle of it all.
We recall how the story unfolds. The woman anoints Jesus' feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with perfumed ointment--perhaps the kind she saved for her best customers. The Pharisee is confused and angry, trying to understand how this ostensibly holy man sitting at his table would let this woman do this terrible thing. Jesus interrupts Simon's silent thoughts and tells a story about forgiveness. At the end, the answer is obvious: the one who is forgiven more loves more. And Jesus uses the parable as a lens for Simon to understand what has happened between Jesus and the mysterious woman.
And that's where all my questions start. The parable tells us that the two debtors are forgiven their two debts--one large and one small--and the implied response to that forgiveness are two expressions of love--one large and one small. Forgiveness first, love second. But the woman's devotion comes before Jesus' pronounces that she is forgiven. Is she trying to earn the forgiveness? Surely not. Perhaps she had confidence that Jesus would forgive her. Perhaps she had heard a rumor that this radical forgiveness-giver was dining nearby, and she ran and did all that she could, anticipating--knowing--that forgiveness would come. I like that better, but I also like it when all the pieces fall into place, and that won't happen here.
When it comes to God's forgiveness, I like to push the envelope. I like to take his unconditional love to its absolute end. Partly, that's because I am firmly rooted in a theology of God's impassibility, which is to say that God is not affected by the created order; God does not change; we do. God always loves because that is his nature. God always forgives because that is his nature. Any appearance of transaction--temple sacrifice, wiping of feet with tears and hair, even the cross itself--is for our benefit and not God's. (Yes, I know that creates lots of challenges for a theology of atonement, and, yes, eventually it comes out in the wash, but that's another post for another day.) I want to take this story in Luke, therefore, and recast it in an extreme way. I want to take the woman's forgiveness as an a priori fact and then let the rest play out.
Imagine that Jesus' forgiving nature is so complete and total that women like this prostitute know that they will be forgiven even before they ask. Consider how Jesus' radical, fringe-living reputation has secured him a band of followers that raise lots of eyebrows. Consider how this woman may have approached Jesus knowing already the fullness of her forgiveness and that the wiping of Jesus' feet is exactly like the debtor who shows greater love. And then imagine that that's how the Christian life looks.
We are not forgiven because we ask for forgiveness. God has already forgiven us. We ask to make it real to us. We ask to remember it. God's love was never in doubt. Going to church or saying our prayers shouldn't be an attempt to "get right with God." Instead, they should be moments when we bathe Jesus' feet with our tears of gratitude and wipe them with our hair. Jesus' final words to her--"your faith has saved you"--doesn't represent a transaction that has happened in the moment. They point to a faith that brought her into the room in the first place. So come to the feet of Jesus knowing that you are already forgiven. Let your tears of thanksgiving flow. Offer yourself with a spirit of overwhelmed gratitude like that of the forgiven debtor. You have already been forgiven. This isn't the time for penitence. It's the time for thanksgiving.