Surprised by Forgiveness
“How’d lunch go?” That was what one of our folks wanted to ask Simon the Pharisee, host of the social gathering Jesus is invited to in Luke 7:36-50. What a great question! Simon’s life has turned upside down in a rush of God’s for-giving power. Grace has been realized in the deep humanity of a woman who has risked breaching hard barriers of judgment to minister to Jesus, and remarkably, demonstrates for Simon and his colleagues the power and possibility of God’s realm! By the time we get to the end of the chapter we can begin to realize that the story has really been focusing on Simon’s (and our) healing all along. Perhaps Bible publishers will come to understand that a more appropriate subtitle for this section of Luke’s gospel might be something along the lines of “A Righteous Church Leader Forgiven!”
Wednesday was my first of five evenings with the people of Pleasantville UCC church in Chalfont, a warm, sharp, and spirited folk. The above inquiry was but one of many perceptive insights and poignant questions flowing from the dialogue. Our initial theme, “Surprised by Forgiveness,” led us to immersion in the breathtaking story of Jesus’ tearful anointing and its life-changing ramifications. We beheld the woman transcending the shackles of harsh labeling, penetrating the previously defined boundaries of belonging/exclusion, and doing for Jesus what he would later be moved to do for his own disciples in the Upper Room. While Simon assumes, Jesus receives! And though Jesus is the one addressed formally as “Teacher,” it is this humble daughter of promise who does the truest “teaching” throughout the scene. (see “The One Who is Forgiven Much, Loves Much” )
Simon does not perceive the realm of God as it opens lovingly to him, right there on his home turf. Instead, while the narrative gives expression to the beautiful intimacy of the woman’s care for Jesus, Simon is painfully lost in righteous judgment. But he will not stay that way! Once Jesus honors the blessing bestowed upon him, he turns his attention to his host. Addressing Simon by name, Jesus tells him a parable about forgiveness, a story in which the unpayable debts of both characters are canceled by their creditor. The Greek verb used here is charizomai, “to give graciously; to gift.” In the story, everyone is gifted! Jesus then asks the Pharisee a curiously worded question: “Now which one will love him (the creditor) more?” As one of our astute Bible scholars noted last evening, Jesus is “talking Simon’s language.” Being well-schooled in manners of over/against measurement, Simon concludes that the one who has had the “greater debt” forgiven will feel the love more. Jesus ruefully observes, “You have judged rightly.” But that is hardly the end. “Speaking of comparisons . . .” Jesus then astonishes the host by giving testimony to his own experience of the finest hospitality possible right there in the Simon’s house–but it is the woman(the unclean “sinner,” the outsider from”the street”) who has generously offered it! And this has happened in the face of the homeowner’s impoverished love. Simon is found! The accompanying “ouch” is a hopeful one. He will be learning a new language.
“Do you see this woman?,” Jesus asks. It is not so much a question as an invitation; an invitation from the One who has come proclaiming “recovery of sight to the blind.” And Simon is indeed among the chosen. The antidote to his blindness is to “See this woman!” Behold her face, her heart, her great love pouring forth from one whom Simon has previously regarded with disdain. “Her sins have been forgiven,” Jesus states as divine fact. She has realized God’s deep love for her, and been set free in it, before she even enters the scene! What Jesus declares is not a matter for theological debate. And right about now Simon is starting to realize that the story Jesus has told him is his story. “Seeing this woman” will be the receiving of God’s faithfulness to him.
L.Gregory Jones says that the experience of being forgiven leads us to honor “a new claim that has been made on us, to speak a new truthfulness, and to live in a new way with one another.” The woman boldly celebrating her freedom to live fully (Wouldn’t you love to know her name?) is engaging this new claim,generously expressing a deep and personal truth, and living boldly towards others. Simon and his colleagues are surprised when the incarnate power of God’s give-ness enters their heavily defended lives in a way that they neither expect nor are able to manage. They are further shocked to realize that it has arrived to claim, and transform, them. And also the religious house that they are accustomed to living in.
“So, how’d lunch go?” Might we imagine Simon’s articulated response? In a deeply impressive and very hopeful development, the folks gathered at Pleasantville wondered compassionately what would happen to Simon. Our focus moved from Jesus proclamation of deliverance and peace for his generous and humble minister (v. 50) to the prospects for Simon’s future. How would the next verses of history unfold? How broad and powerful is the promise?
I was impacted by the sensitive urgency of the questions and reflections offered. Would it be possible for Simon to respond to the forgiveness being offered him? How might he tangibly do that? We found great en-couragement in the bold love of the woman. She provides a new model, a sign pointing the way to freedom from bondage, a generous measure of inspiration. With Jesus, she offers the beginnings of a new community opening to Simon’s belonging. He will need that. Simon’s willingness to embrace this newly revealed sister will further open his eyes, this time to how God clearly sees him and loves him and entrusts him. And to embrace the bold vision of a very different future. But Simon must vulnerably let go of a great deal that is familiar and has long been assumed. My new friends dared to identify deeply with the difficulty of his struggle. I thank God for them.
People of Pleasantville (and beyond): Where does your life make contact with this narrative of God’s delivering power?
–How many of you identify with the woman in this story? How does she “give you courage?” Does her story enliven your own?
–What about Simon? His character can offer us a compelling point of entry and a narrative of hope that promises to embrace us. Are you willing to invite Jesus to lunch? And can you handle an unexpected friend? Last night, as we considered both characters and their journeys of deliverance, I asked: “Which is the longer trip to make?” Your answer will bless us with fruit from your own passage. No matter what, there will be a new claim made upon you, a new truthfulness to give voice to, and a new way of living together that will rock your world and enable you to recognize yourself.
Where is God’s realm being realized on your “home turf?” Are you surprised by forgiveness, too?