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To Forgive is Human...

June 17, 2007

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 3     2 Samuel 11:26-12:15     Luke 7:36-8:3


Ever notice how cartoons are good at bringing us up short. Take the one I saw recently showing a seminar of honeybees. The bee at the podium was saying “I am here today to show you the face of evil.” On the screen behind him is Winnie the Pooh.


Being nicknamed Pooh years ago by my family, I was shocked!


I was brought up short, not unlike David being told by Nathan he is the thief or Simon the Pharisee when Jesus chides his lack of hospitality compared to the so called ‘sinful’ 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. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet…


A London newspaper once asked its readers, “What is the cause of all the world’s ills?” The next day one reader answered, “I am.”


While II Samuel and Luke are making quite different theological points, there is one obvious commonality. We all need forgiveness: David, the woman, Pooh, you and me.


To that profound insight the average teenager would probably respond, “Duh!” Even though we prefer confessing our neighbour’s sins, our common need for forgiveness is not up for debate.


But how do we get forgiveness?


Nathan sees forgiveness requiring punishment. This view equates forgiveness with being reconciled. David sinned by murdering Bathsheba’s husband out of his lust. Confronted by Nathan he owns up and does the whole sackcloth and ashes bit. Nathan responds, “David, God appreciates your grovelling remorse so He’s done you a favour, you won’t die, but your son will.” That’s his bill for sinning and even then, once paid, things will never be quite the same between Yahweh and David’s line. Full reconciliation has not been accomplished, but David has been forgiven.


By a certain logic this exchange seems reasonable and just, except, of course, for David’s kid. Crime and punishment just go hand-in-hand. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth still feels like the fairest kind of justice. You caused me to suffer. Your punishment causes you to suffer. Suffering evens the scales. When the offender has suffered enough in the victim’s view, forgiveness is earned, but you are still beneath me. How low are you? Lower than a cockroach’s knees.


As a counterpoint to this view, we have Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party. He has invited the talk of the town as the guest of honour, so his friends can check this Jesus dude out and be ever so envious of the host. Only Paris Hilton could have caused a bigger stir. Well, maybe her first century equivalent did. Certainly Simon hadn’t invited this woman with such an unsavoury reputation. What would his friends think? She clearly crashed the party. Then she has the chutzpah to monopolize the honoured guest’s feet. When Simon tries to discreetly point out to Jesus his faux pas in accepting her attentions, Jesus forgives her her sins. Not only has he assumed God’s prerogative; he has done so without requiring any suffering, only faith, courage and generosity. Hasn’t he read his Scriptures? How can he so casually free her from her sins without first balancing the scales? Can there be forgiveness with out justice? If King David had to be brought low, certainly she did. Just as Simon and his friends are murmuring themselves into a real serious case of self-righteousness, Jesus tells a story that put her behaviour above Simon’s.


I’m sure when word of Jesus’ crucifixion reached Simon, he thought it was too good for him. But at least justice had been restored.


Does that idea bring you up short? The crucifixion was just?


As horrible as that sounds that was the conclusion of the Church. The Church lost the plot early on, even before the first Gospel was written. Being good Jews the first Christians went to synagogue for Passover and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both events required the sacrifice of innocent lambs. The Passover service reminded them of the power of lamb’s blood that protected their first-born sons from the Angel of Death on the first Passover. It is a ritual to address our anxiety about death. We have sinned against God. So, we deserve to die. To be saved someone else has to die in our place, like David’s son saved David. How about instead of killing our children, we kill a lamb?


On Yom Kippur, Israel confessed it sins and as an act of atonement it sacrificed an unblemished lamb in the Temple, hoping it a suitable, placating gift. Hope God likes roast lamb with mint sauce. If not the priests probably did. It is a ritual to acknowledge our yearning to be one with God. Since part of being human is feeling separated and alienated from God and our neighbour, it must be true. Kill a lamb and maybe we won’t feel so alone.


Pretty early on the Jewish Christians, in trying to sort out Jesus’ unseemly death, came to see him as both the Passover and Yom Kippur lambs. God’s “Son” paid the price for us to be saved from death – the Passover Lamb – and reconciled us with God the Father – the Yom Kippur Lamb.


How guilty does that make you feel? Do you feel better now? If forgiveness is ultimately about being set free to be who we are intended to be, how free do you feel now that God killed the second person of the Trinity for your sake?


I know it doesn’t do a thing for me.


This understanding reduces the crucifixion to an accountant’s ledger. The balance sheet of our souls is out of whack. Our debts have to be reconciled. We couldn’t do it, so God made payment in full with Jesus’ life. Considering their context it was a reasonable leap for those first Christians to make. Yet, I can’t help thinking it’s too bad they didn’t have Luke’s story of Simon and the woman of ill repute to reflect on. We might have been spared two millennia of blood sacrifice and Christian imposed guilt.


In this story we see forgiveness and reconciliation, but neither are divine acts. However, the story is not without divine action. Bishop John A. T. Robinson once described Jesus as “the human face of God.” In this story Jesus reveals that face not by forgiving the woman’s sins, but by not condemning her in the first place. Love doesn’t condemn. And by that logic we can conclude that God doesn’t forgive sins either. It is the human Jesus who forgave her sins. Forgiveness and reconciliation are human activities. Love and compassion are divine actions. It is Nathan, Simon, the honeybee, you and me who condemn, not God. It is we who feel separated, not God. It is we who fear death, not God. While God does not forgive us because God has never condemned us, the love and compassion that is God are what enable us to forgive and reconcile.


Need forgiveness? Look to yourself and one another, not to God.

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