Forgiving Place

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man  has nowhere to lay his head.” –Luke 9:58

 Jesus demonstrates the remarkable capacity to be “at home” everywhere.  It is a defining characteristic of his ministry.  Jesus’  practice of forgiveness is  manifested in an openness and availability to all  people and to the various contexts where he meets them.

Let’s follow this dynamic in Luke Chapter 9.  As the narrative begins, Jesus is gathering the Twelve together, empowering them and sending them out to proclaim the Realm of God and to heal.  This is the first time they will travel on their own, though not without resource:  he grants each of them the authority that is his.  Simultaneously,  he instructs them not to take provisions for themselves, but to rely on the hospitality of the communities they visit.    Make your home wherever you are, Jesus says.  And if you are not welcomed, shake the dust off your feet and go elsewhere.  “They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere (v. 9:6).”  The local ruler Herod’s anxiety is stoked over this bewildering movement rising in the midst of his “realm,” a movement that is somehow  both powerless and powerful! Joyously returning at the conclusion of their journey, the apostles (they are now messengers) share news with Jesus of what has developed.  He takes them away on retreat to process and reflect on all that they have experienced.

Their plans are quickly dashed, however, when a huge crowd follows.  An unrattled Jesus responds, welcoming  everyone, proclaiming the Reign of God  and offering healing .   The nearness of God’s realm will be made real right where they are! Nevertheless, as the day draws to a close it is Jesus’  closest followers who become increasingly anxious,  not sure how they are to manage the needs of the hungry and tired people.  They request that Jesus  send the crowds away, as they are in a deserted place and the throngs will have to go  find the food and lodging for themselves.  Instead Jesus instructs his followers , “You give them something to eat,”  and the Feeding of the Five Thousand ensues. From the meager beginnings of five loaves and two fish, gratitude and hospitality reveal a feast of abundance and a “home” for all, even in the most desert-ed place!

Chapter Nine continues to unfold, chock- full of action and meaning.  But it is a development towards the end that I want to focus on before working our way back.  Along the road, someone approaches Jesus and declares, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  We might be tempted to hear this negatively,  coming as it does after a Samaritan village has refused to receive Jesus.  But to our surprise, this is a much more generative reference.  Though Jesus’ angry and resentful disciples want to burn the Samaritan village down in retaliation, Jesus displays no such agitation or affront.  He is sensitive to the historical enmity between Jews and Samaritans, the legacy of pain and distrust.  He does not assume that the local people should immediately set aside such a burden at his arrival, or quickly make room for visitors from a region that has never made room for them.  In the midst of Samaria, Jesus manifests his own openness and availability (1)  through his nearness (2) by his refusal to react to an initially negative reception,  and (3)  in his recognition that this incident in no way conveys all of whom these folks are.  He drives this last point home strongly in the very next chapter, stunning his listeners with the story of  ‘”The Good Samaritan,”  a key parable of grace.   Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of forgiveness.  The KJV includes these passages: “You don’t know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man has not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them (9:55-56).”  His clear message to them resonates with the grace-filled prayer he will later offer on the cross for those who crucify him.   “I am preparing you to be interruptions in history-as-usual,” Jesus emphasizes, “signs to all  of the nearness of God’s love.”

Thus, Jesus’ response to the man on the road can be understood as a  declaration of radical freedom, and an invitation to join him with open eyes.  Silvio Fittipaldi writes: “Jesus in the gospels does not define himself in terms of place.  Though he has no “place” he specifically defines as “home,”  this means he is not attached to a specific location in a way that limits his availability to others.”  He adds: “To understand forgiveness as openness and as cutting across logical structures of values can be applied to place, insofar as a person is not bound to any place for any reason but open to all place.” (Fittipaldi, pp. 8-9)  The exousia that Jesus anoints his followers with is the God-given liberty to act in love anywhere and everywhere. It is the capacity to choose to be with and for someone else, without restriction, in every place.  It is the discovery that we can be “at home” in our own skins, by God,  no matter what the setting!

Consider more closely Jesus’ example. Though he was first known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” he moves beyond the limits of three decades of Galilean life without needing to discard any of the experience.  Entering the baptismal waters of the Jordan with so many “others” expands his self-understanding and his identification with all of God’s children.  At the advanced age of 30  he is spirited by God in a way that realizes his deepest origins and the source of his life-defining values.  Having the Spirit lead  him beyond previous boundaries does not confuse  but instead clarifies who Jesus is (Luke 4:1-13). God’s for-giveness offers dynamic, supple definition to his being in ways that will be newly revealed and shared in each place, over a  lifetime.  Astonishingly, Jesus finds home with God  in the harsh wilderness of temptation (4:4,8,12). He returns to Nazareth differently than he left, and is not crushed by the rejection he receives in his old hometown.   Jesus does what he later teaches his disciples to do.  He goes on to realize community in new and surprising places: fishing boats, tax collector’s homes, and leper colonies.  It is in venturing outside his homeland (Matthew 15; Mark 7) that he is humbly evangelized by a “foreign” woman from another tradition whom he initially rejects ; eventually receiving her faith reshapes his self-understanding and availability!  The outreach mission joins him to  a much bigger family of belonging (Luke 8:19-21), and he resists all efforts to have him return to the narrow allegiances of clan.  When Fittipaldi asks rhetorically, “How can place be forgiven? (p. 9),” the life of Jesus offers substantial testimony .

In sending his disciples out, Jesus bestows upon them the same capacity he has demonstrated. Their learning will be in the laboratory of the ministry itself.  They will necessarily transgress the walls of didactic lessons. Undefended, they will be schooled to receive.  In the hospitality that is offered them will be further experiences of God’s forgiveness. The abundant humanity of others will sensitize and unlock their own deep humanity.

Of course, some of the lessons will be uncomfortable, and they won’t learn them all at once.  Yet even the painful interlude following the Samaritan rejection becomes a grace.  Jesus had instructed them at the outset what they were to do where they weren’t welcomed, but  it remained a teaching that begged for application.  Here, in their raging failure, he is able to accompany them through the practicum!   All in all, this may be better than a retreat!

In comparing Christian forgiveness with Zen detachment or “emptiness”, Silvio Fittipaldi suggests that all of us have “filters” through which we perceive and interpret the world and our experiences in it ( pp. 3-4). We  bring them with us. Filters include language, logic, common sense, widely held assumptions, and cultural norms.   What  is essential is that we develop an awareness of the limitations of these filters, so that we might not only utilize them wisely but also transcend them. Christ-centered forgiveness cannot help but lead us beyond the limited perceptions of our existing filters.

When the hungry have been filled and the alienated belong, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When he speaks of discipleship, he declares: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me.”  On the mountain of transfiguration the divine voice bids the disciples: “This is my Son; Listen to him!”  When his followers argue over which one of them is the greatest, Jesus draws a child close and says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes  me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  When a man tells Jesus he will follow him after he takes care of all his family responsibilities, Jesus tells him not to wait: “As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Every place is meant to become a forgiving place.  Right now.

In my last post I suggested that forgiveness is “a way of being ” that (a) impacts our ability to enter into the experience of others (b) empowers us to offer hospitality and to receive the “other” gratefully  (c)  equips us to make space together for authentic relationships, even in previously unfamiliar territory. Perhaps our exploration of Jesus’ forgiveness, particularly his relationship to place, can inform our own ways.

Here are some questions for consideration:

–Are we able to realize a capacity to be “at home” everywhere? What is (or would be) essential to such practice?

–Is this a defining characteristic of our ministry?

–How do we come to manifest an openness and availability to all people, in every setting, understanding this as essential to fulfilling our gospel mission?

–What disciplines can we practice, individually and corporately, that will help shape this way of being?  What will be our “curriculum?”

–In what ways can we honestly explore the filters that presently limit our perceptions, and be open to the Spirit’s leading beyond what we have previously experienced?

–What are the implications for churches, who have long defined common life by limitations of place?  Might this mean radical redefinition of our understandings, practices, and locations?

–In carefully examining and reflecting on the substance of each ministry, could a congregation like yours or mine  ask the questions: (a) Do our present practices of “home” and “space” impact our ability to enter sensitively into the experiences of others? In what ways?  Extending, or limiting? (b) Where are we being empowered to offer hospitality, to create spaces of welcome, and to receive all “others” gratefully? Are these places outside of our building, and comfort zones? (c) How is God specifically calling us and equipping us to make new space for authentic relationships in previously unfamiliar territory?




*References from Fittipaldi, Silvio E.  “Zen-Mind, Christian-Mind, Empty-Mind,” in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19:1, Winter 1982.