Back in the ‘90s the pop singer Alanis Morissette came up with a song, ‘Forgiven’. She sings of her experience as a teenager at a religious high school where she and her friends had ‘no fun with no guilt feelings’. She wandered a long way from the religion she was taught.
Like many who have been put off religion because of its apparent coldness, it seems she made a decision to keep it at arms’ length.
But there’s a twist in her song. In the final verse she appears more thoughtful, even regretful of her past. The song is something that forces her to look at her life in a fresh way. She sings, ‘What I learned I rejected, but I believe again.’ But this raises an uncomfortable question, what she calls ‘One last stupid question’. In the last line of the last verse she yells it out: ‘Will I be forgiven?’
In a suggested ‘Coffee Conversation’ (December 6), we noted Jesus’ words to a paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house into his presence. Jesus’ words “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20), and the man’s healing assure us that Jesus wields God’s authority to forgive sins.
However, knowing this as an idea doesn’t answer the question: ‘Does he have the inclination to forgive me?’ It’s one thing for Jesus to forgive a sick paraplegic, but it’s another thing for him to forgive someone who knows they have wandered a long way from the faith. Can someone who has walked away from God return and find forgiveness?
People may ask this because they have experienced condemnation from churchgoers. The condemnation may be unspoken, but the rejection is real.
Consider Jesus’ words at a dinner party where the focus falls on three people – a Pharisee host, Jesus, and an uninvited woman who interrupted the party (Luke 7:36-50). Luke tells us that she stood at Jesus’ feet weeping, letting her tears wash over his feet. Having no towel she let out her hair to dry them, before kissing them and pouring an expensive perfume over them. She couldn’t have attracted more attention if she had burst in screaming and shouting.
Her actions could have easily been interpreted as being sexually provocative – which is what the Pharisee host thought: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” – a prostitute (7:39).
However the woman’s actions are open to quite another interpretation. Jesus had the insight of a prophet and knew what his host was thinking. “Simon”, he said. “I have something to say to you..,” (7:40). It is the only time a Pharisee is named in Luke, suggesting that Jesus was concerned for Simon and wants him to understand how God, and others, see him. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t preach a sermon. Rather he told a story.
Like all Jesus’ parables the story is compelling. Drawing from the language of the financial world, which would have resonated with Simon whose pockets were deep enough to host a dinner-party, Jesus tells of two men who are in debt to a money-lender. One owed fifty denarii and the other one hundred denarii. Neither could pay. Both needed mercy and forgiveness.
And both do receive forgiveness (grace) for their respective debts. Both enjoy the same status as forgiven debtors. The parable challenges the conventions of relationships, but Jesus focuses Simon’s attention by asking, “Which of them will love him more?” Feeling the personal challenge, Simon’s response is indirect: “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.”
Turning to face the woman, Jesus continues to speak to Simon, saying in effect: ‘You call yourself a host, but consider how you have treated me. You didn’t wash my feet when I came in; you didn’t greet me with a kiss. You didn’t even offer to anoint my head with oil as a sign of honor when I came in. You call yourself religious and yet you have not shown to me just one sign of genuine neighbor love.’
In essence Jesus was saying: ‘Simon, from the moment this woman entered your house, she has shed tears of regret, kissed me and anointed me out of a heart-felt repentance for the way she has lived’ (7:44-48). To the woman he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).
It was her faith in him, not works that evoked Jesus’ words of forgiveness. Before she had come to the dinner party, she had understood that Jesus has God’s authority to forgive sins. His words, spoken personally to her, assured her she was forgiven. She could enjoy peace with God and peace of mind.
Because God is, as the Prayer of Humble Access (1662, BCP) puts it, ‘the Lord whose nature is always to have mercy’, we can all enjoy the assurance of his mercy and forgiveness when we truly turn him in repentance and faith.
Let me ask, ‘Do people around us see this reality in our lives and our relationships? Do they see in us a ‘Simon the Pharisee’ or the signs of a truly repentant person? In his ‘model’ prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Father, … forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who sins against us…” (Luke 11:4a).
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com