The woman came uninvited. She came into the midst of the invited guests, including Jesus, at a dinner, a feast, but she did not come to eat. She came because she had heard about this rabbi, this healer, this bearer of God’s forgiveness. She came not to ask anything of him, though. She came out of the sorrow of her sins, whatever they were. She did not ask for his forgiveness. In fact, she brought him a gift, oil to anoint his feet, which were dusty from the day’s travel on unpaved roads. In this way, she gave him more than the host, who should have provided for his feet to be washed, or done it himself. She, unnamed and unknown, greeted Jesus with kisses of honor, while the host did not greet him with such honor. She was a sinner, but then aren’t we all? And she came simply because it felt like the right thing to do because of the sins that must have tormented her. Jesus gave her forgiveness and praised her faith. The others present, not realizing that they were in the presence of the Son of God, questioned his ability to grant forgiveness.
“To err is human, to forgive divine,” is a quote many of us have heard much of our lives. It is credited to Alexander Pope. Forgiveness is indeed divine in that it is a major theme of the Bible. Abraham pleaded with God not to destroy the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, saying: “Suppose there are 50 righteous (and later reducing it to 40, to 30, to 20, to 10) in the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the righteous who are in it?” (Gen. 18:24) Jacob told Joseph to forgive his brothers for the awful deed that changed his life when they sold him into slavery because of their jealousy of him. Even the evil Pharoah asked for forgiveness, though perhaps it was not sincere. After the 8th of 10 plagues (the locusts consuming all the land), he said to Moses: “Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the Lord your God that at least he remove this deadly thing from me” (Exod. 10:17). Moses himself bargained with God several times on behalf of rebellious people, asking God to forgive their sins. In Solomon’s prayer for the dedication of the temple, he repeated over and over, “Hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your people Israel” (I Kings 8:34, 39, 40, 49-50).
There are prayers seeking forgiveness in the Psalms:
“Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” (Ps. 25:18)
“When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.” (Ps. 65:3)
“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.” (Ps. 79:9)
Sometimes the prophets were so angry at the behavior of the people that they asked God NOT to forgive them! “And so people are humbled and everyone is brought low – do not forgive them!” said Isaiah (2:9). “Yet you, O Lord, know all their plotting to kill me. Do not forgive their iniquity, do not blot out their sin from your sight. Let them be tripped up before you; deal with them while you are angry” ranted Jeremiah (18:23).
But it is perhaps in the New Testament that we see the theme of forgiveness most clearly. Jesus, after all, taught us to pray, saying: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). And when Jesus healed, often he said to the one healed, “You are forgiven.” This may seem a bit odd to us, but maybe Jesus knew that those who came to him for physical healing also needed mental, emotional healing. For along with physical healing could come such trials as isolation, rejection, ridicule, shame.
If I had to name a favorite book from my years of study for church work (2 years at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 4 years at Duke Divinity School), I would have to say that it was Embodying Forgiveness by Gregory Jones, who served for a while as the dean of Duke Divinity. It is subtitled, “A Theological Analysis,” so it is a heavy book, not light reading. In 300 pages, it looks at forgiveness in the Bible, in theological discourses such as Bonhoeffer’s definition and condemnation of “cheap grace.” It looks at the nature of the God who forgives, the grace that transforms, and at ways to practice grace, especially in community. But one or two things from this book have always stood out for me. One is near the end of the book, where he says the best way to form communities and people of forgiveness might be to focus not on Good Friday or on Easter, the penultimate day for Christians, but on Holy Saturday, the day between the horror and death of the cross and the glory and new life of the resurrection. Jones says “It is a day poised between the destruction and death of Good Friday and the forgiveness and reconciliation of Easter Sunday, between our recognition of our own betrayals of Jesus, and the judgment of grace that we receive from the risen Christ, restoring us to friendship with God and with one another and inviting us to an Easter feast” (Jones, p. 300). It is, he is telling us, the ability to sit with the darkness of Holy Saturday, the in between. It is the ability to endure, to take enough time to recognize that for which we need to be forgiven, that makes accepting forgiveness all that more joyful and fulfilling. Forgiveness “is not easy,” says Jones; “it is costly. It is not quick; it is a lifelong struggle…It is not a commodity; it is the investment of the entirety of our lives” (Jones, p.300). Forgiveness, he says, “is a habit that must be practiced over time with the disciplines of Christian community” (Jones, p. 163).
I would venture to say that forgiveness is not as popular in today’s society as it used to be. People no longer flock to churches to be forgiven. In fact, many people seldom think they have done anything for which they need to be forgiven. Society is also not very forgiving. If we watch the news, our leaders and politicians and others, and many TV shows, we see people who are quick to blame, to criticize, to name-call, or to judge, rather than to forgive. Forgiveness seems to have gone out of vogue as a societal value. And that is unfortunate, and sad.
If we are truly the church community, though, we will find ourselves immersed in the truth of the gospel story of the Christ who calls us to be a forgiven and forgiving people. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you,” Jesus said. (Matthew 6:14). “Peter asked Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times,” (Matt. 18:21-22), indicating, really, an infinite number of times. Forgive over and over and over again, just as we are forgiven over and over again. In John’s gospel comes perhaps the most compelling word telling us as disciples of the power and responsibility of forgiveness. The risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit upon the disciples as he prepared to leave them, and said to them: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain them, they are retained.” (John 20:23). Forgiving, as a Christian, then, is not really an option, it is a calling, it is a responsibility given to us. We are forgiven, so we also forgive, and we do so out of the same love given to us by God in the act of forgiveness.
Yet it is not easy. And Jesus makes it even harder by saying things like, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged,” and “Love your enemies.” It is hard enough sometimes to forgive someone who asks for forgiveness, but to forgive those who do not ask, or whom we dislike, or those who do things we find disgusting? That seems just wrong.
Again, the church community can and should be the place that leads us to practice forgiveness, even when it seems difficult. We have all seen the news stories of the Amish community in 2006, when a man entered one of their schools and killed 10 girls before killing himself. Surprising most everyone, the Amish community reached out even to the killer’s family. They visited his family to comfort them, and the news reported that there were more Amish mourners at his funeral than anyone else. They even invited the Roberts family to the funeral of the girls. They forgave because that is how they felt Jesus would want them to behave.
And then more recently, just about a year ago, we watched the horror unfold on the news of a young man who sat in a Bible study in a church in Charleston, and then opened fire on the very people who had prayed with him. The relatives of the slain asked to address the gunman when he first appeared in court. “I forgive you,” they said to his face. “I will never, ever hold my loved one again. You took something precious from me. But I forgive you.” It was remarkable to watch. But they too forgave because that is how they interpreted the words of Jesus.
Practicing forgiveness does not mean we continue to allow hateful or hurtful things to happen. Forgiveness does not mean the abused spouse has to stay with the abuser. It does not mean we continue to endure letting anyone and everyone have access to guns so that there are more and more senseless shootings of innocent people. Forgiveness has no place for revenge or cruel punishment.
But forgiveness does dictate a new way of life to us, one that urges us to stop, to look and to pray, to consider the words and actions of Jesus before we judge or act. If we work hard enough at it, we begin to embody forgiveness; it becomes a part of who we are, individually and as a community.
And so every time we worship, we confess our sinfulness, as a whole people, and as a community, and we start by asking why we do this together, and the answer is: “Because we are a community, a covenant people.” This art of forgiveness, like any other art, takes practice; it takes work. We may not get it right each time, but we keep working at it, and we do so together. The bigger the act for which we are forgiven, or we forgive, the greater the love in return, Jesus told us. There are times when we all long to hear, “you are forgiven,” and “your faith as saved you; go in peace.” Everyone needs to hear those words, and to believe them in their heart.
May we, as a covenant people practice this art of forgiveness, over and over again, seventy times seven, so that perhaps one day, we might get it right.
Thanks be to God. Amen.