"Forgiveness Has A Face"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 13, 2004

Luke 7:36-50


     This morning I want to talk about forgiveness as a process that is much different from the one we have been taught for centuries.  Our lesson for today illustrates this difference.  In Luke’s Gospel, we find a very touching drama between Jesus, a woman who may have misplaced her moral compass, and a fine, righteous, outstanding and highly respected Pharisee named Simon.  The setting of this story was the courtyard of Simon’s home.   

     Quite often the wealthy had spectacular gardens that surrounded a fountain in their courtyards.  People always ate outside when it was warm. They reclined on fancy pillows and took food and drink from a table which was low to the ground.  When a Rabbi was coming to visit, the Hebrew custom was to extend an open invitation to anyone in the community who wanted to hear the pearls of wisdom that might fall from the teacher’s tongue.            

     When a guest entered anyone’s home, three things were customarily done.  The host placed his hand on the guest’s shoulder and gave him the kiss of peace.  That was a mark of respect.  This act was never omitted when the guest was a visiting Rabbi; the title that Simon had given to Jesus. (Verse 40)  Second, the host would always supply cool water to pour over his guest’s feet to cleanse and comfort them.  Third, a drop of rose oil was placed on the guest’s head. An interesting element of this story is that not one of these courtesies was extended to Jesus when he came to Simon’s villa.           

     The way Jesus was treated upon his arrival may tell us something about Simon.  No doubt he was curious about this up-start Rabbi whose message was inspiring the masses.  He wanted to hear more from the man himself. Yet to by-pass even the most common of courtesies, Simon was also communicating his hesitancy in knowing how to deal with Jesus in front of the other guests.            

     All this was the prelude to the real drama that was about to unfold.  Into the courtyard came a woman who was a well-known prostitute. One could almost hear the hush that was screaming from the other guests. Simon knew exactly who she was.  The woman began to cry and her tears moistened Jesus’ feet.  Most Jewish women wore a small alabaster container around their necks filled with perfume.  She rubbed this compound on his feet.   

     Finally, she untied her long hair and let it hang down, a behavior that communicated an act of grave immodesty for a Jewish woman.  She was so focused on Jesus she did not care what anyone thought about her.  She used her long hair to dry his feet.  This unique communication between this woman and Jesus gives us another look at the face of forgiveness.  

     There is a very interesting behavior observable in people who have come to terms with their own frail nature.  Their self-acceptance enables them to be comfortable with anyone in any circumstance.  They carry themselves with no pretense.  They hold no attitudes of superiority.  They do not celebrate their goodness, talk about their closeness with God, or practice obvious acts of righteousness.  In other words, they were people who are fun to be around. They are authentic, warts and all.  They do not take themselves so seriously.  Jesus preferred to be with them rather than with those who considered themselves saved by their strict observance of the Law. 

     No doubt this prostitute had heard Jesus preach as she stood at the edge of the crowd.  She heard Jesus speak about how much he loved sinners and she had to observe with keen interest his criticism of those who considered themselves among the saved.   

     Simon was clearly aloof from the likes of this woman.  To him she obviously had no reverence or respect for God or the Torah.  She had sold her soul and character to the highest bidder many years before.  She was disgusting and a cancer growth who had entered his lovely gardens.  Simon’s attitude was very clearly visible when he said, “If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives.”  Jesus did know and it did not matter.             

     Jesus said to Simon, “The great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven.”  Jesus told her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Others sitting around the table and hearing this said, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”  Jesus corrected them.  He had not violated the Hebrew Law which says, “Only God can forgive sins.”  He only had told her that her sins were forgiven because her love proved it.  Then he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” 

     What is so fascinating about this prostitute is to observe the flow of her energy.  Jesus had been quick to point out that this was the source of her forgiveness.  Regardless of her past and the way she was living, she had not forgotten how selflessly to give away what she could.    

     She had not come to Jesus fearful for her soul.  She had not come to him seeking his forgiveness.  She did not come wanting anything for herself.  She came to give Jesus what she could.  What is amazing about her is that she evoked this observation by Jesus without saying a word.  

     She put a face on what it looks like when we transcend our limited, sinful nature.  The act of unselfishly giving herself away was what Jesus was responding to with his words.  So many times we freeze people in old molds we created in our minds and we miss seeing that they have moved on in their maturity.            

     For example, when hurricane Isabel came ashore, it really created havoc among the residents who lived along the Virginia coast where the storm arrived in its full fury.  One small village was hit very hard.  The person telling me this story said that the experience in her community was beyond anything we could have imagined.  This is what she said, 

     “In small rural communities almost everyone knows everyone else’s business.  Nothing is kept secret where I live.  When the storm was over and we were left to pick up the pieces, it was only then that we learned who our neighbors really were. We knew our neighbors by who drank too much or who was sleeping with whom or whose kids were in trouble in school or with the law.  All that changed on the first day after the storm.  People whom we thought we knew were transformed before our eyes.”            

     She went on to weave a story with her words of how people came together and were devoted and committed to each other.  People demonstrated a level of caring that no one had before seen.  Skills outcropped in their neighbors that no one knew they had.  She said, “An entire community was transformed simply by the way people were allowing each other to see what they were made of when the chips were for all of us.”   One could almost hear Jesus saying, “The great love that each of you has shown proves that your sins have been forgiven.”           

     A number of years ago I was taking a continuing education course at Wesley and the professor showed us a movie I believe was called, “The Dump.”  A young, libertine woman who had quite a reputation with the men in her life joined a young adult group at her church.  The woman spent her youth in Montgomery County.  The group went to Brazil on a mission project.            

     They came to a place called “The Dump” where adults could be seen climbing over a mountain of trash, garbage and debris foraging for anything that might have some value.  Lots of poorly dressed children were trying to find something to eat. Upon seeing this, everyone in that church group immediately wanted to give away everything they had.  They had never encountered such poverty.         

     The Maryland woman went beyond the momentary emotions that are frequently evoked by young people during such experiences.  She wrote letters, took pictures and told the story to enough people that her efforts inspired a community outpouring of sympathy and dollars.  As of a couple of years ago, she was down there in a compound that she founded.   

     This little compound is a place were Doctors Without Borders have a clinic, where several major companies in the Pharmaceutical industry send free medications.  The Agency for International Development created a small food distribution center there. Again, you could almost hear Jesus saying, “The great love she has shown proves that her many sins have been forgiven.”           

     These very powerful words of Jesus describe a process that lacks the formula or the pattern that most of us are accustomed to having preached to us.  Repentance literally means to have a change of mind.  Once our energy flow travels away from us rather than trying to accommodate our sagging self-image, our selfish interests, our apparent unmet needs or our hurt feelings, our lives literally change directions.  This is what Jesus observed in the woman who never uttered a word.            

     From Jesus’ point of view, it does not matter what we have done or what we currently may be doing that could be interpreted by others that we have lost our way.    What matters is what we are creating for someone else that is helpful, kind or life enhancing.  This is good news. God knows how to pour crystal clear water through broken pitchers.  All we have to do is give God that opportunity.  We are all a mess from time to time.  Lois will tell you that about me.  Our human condition should not come as a surprise to anyone. 

     Only the Pharisee in our lesson and those like him, who know they are just fine in the eyes of God, are the ones who continue to miss the mark.  Jesus praised the sinner over the one who knew he was fine.  No doubt Simon was, but why did Jesus find sinners more interesting and infinitely more loveable?           

     The Apostle Paul knew about sinners.  He once referred to himself as “the chief of all sinners.” (2 Timothy 1:15)  Francis of Assisi said many times, “There is nowhere a more wretched and more miserable sinner than I.”  Are these examples of false humility coming from these two men?  Not at all.  They merely recognized a reality from which none of us ever escapes.  Rather than have this reality totally define them, they decided to accept it as fact and move ahead to help make this world a better place for all of us to live.           

    This is our role.  They were content to let their salvation up to the one who gave them life.  When this woman in Simon’s courtyard was giving herself away, without thought of getting anything for herself, she put a face on what a forgiven life looks like.  Now, we can see that face as well.  We are sinful, but our condition does not need to limit us.  We can also make a profound difference and enormous contributions to our world.  As we are able, we must lead on!

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Loving God, there are moments when our lives appear so complicated.  Our relationships can be intense.  Our minds can be distracted by the flaws we detect in others.  Little things suddenly loom large on the horizon of our lives.  Our past, O God, often gives voice to our unworthiness to be a part of your church.  Yet we are here.  The Spirit that touches us also lifts us.  Help us rise above our neediness and our desires for security and comfort.  Guide us to recover the insight of who we are becoming as we continue in the process of realizing our wholeness.  We do make mistakes, but they cannot define us.  We do crawl before we walk.  We thank you for the destiny toward which Jesus pointed with his life.  We will follow, as we are able.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Thank you, God, for allowing us the privilege of finding our own way in life.  There have been so many people through the ages who have believed that they had the answers for everyone else.  What a splendid moment is it when the journey of discovery has been ours because we have chosen to follow the guidance provided by Jesus. 

    We can be taught about forgiveness and miss learning how to yield.  Yet when we let go and experience the release of our hurt, happiness fills our cups to overflowing.  We can be taught about being forgiven while still clinging to feelings of guilt.  Yet when others glow and radiate their kindness around us because they have overlooked our frailty, there is no better feeling of validation than during that moment. 

    Teach us, O God, how to love with our spirits.  Move us away from pettiness, from fault finding, from always needing to be right and from our giving unsolicited criticism to those who have not matured according to our timetable.  Allow the moments when life confronts us, to teach us humility, graciousness, thanksgiving and patience.  May we be slow to judge and quick to learn that all experiences can serve to teach us a better way.  May we strive to be like you while trusting you for how, when and where our lives might serve a purpose we now cannot understand.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .