This week I got into the issue of Jesus declaring to the lame man that his sins were forgiven.
Part of my thinking recalled much better sermon by a great mind, Paul Tillich, here it is for your information :
Paul Tillich Existential Sermons 1955
Professor – Harvard Divinity School
“To Whom Much is Forgiven. . .”
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “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.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered,”What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more. And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” LUKE 7:36-47.
The story we have read, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, is peculiar to the Gospel of Luke. In this story, as in the parable, someone who is considered to be a great sinner, by others as well as by herself, is contrasted with people who are considered to be genuinely righteous. In both cases Jesus is on the side of the sinner, and therefore He is criticized,indirectly in the parable by the righteous elder son, and directly in our story by the righteous Pharisee.
We should not diminish the significance of this attitude of Jesus by asserting that, after all, the sinners were not as sinful, nor the righteous as righteous as they were judged to be by themselves and by others. Nothing like this is indicated in the story or in the parable. The sinners, one a whore and the other the companion of whores, are not excused by ethical arguments which would remove the seriousness of the moral demand. They are not excused by sociological explanations which would remove their personal responsibility; nor by an analysis of their unconscious motives which would remove the significance of their conscious decisions; nor by man’s universal predicament which would remove their personal guilt. They are called sinners, simply and without restriction. This does not mean that Jesus and the New Testament writers are unaware of the psychological and sociological factors which determine human existence. They are keenly aware of the universal and inescapable dominion of sinover this world, of the demonic splits in the souls of people, which produce insanity and bodily destruction; of the economic and spiritual misery of the masses. But their awareness of these factors, which have become so decisive for our description of man’s predicament, does not prevent them from calling the sinners sinners. Understanding does not replace judging. We understand more and better than many generations before us. But our immensely increased insight into the conditions of human existence should not undercut our courage to call wrong wrong. In story and parable the sinners are seriously called sinners.
And in the same way the righteous ones are seriously called righteous. We would miss the spirit of our story if we tried to show that the righteous ones are not truly righteous. The elder son in the parable did what he was supposed to do. He does not feel that he has done anything wrong nor does his father tell him so. His righteousness is not questioned–nor is the righteousness of Simon, the Pharisee. His lack of love toward Jesus is not reproached as alack of righteousness, but it is derived from the fact that little is forgiven to him.
Such righteousness is not easy to attain. Much self-control, hard discipline, and continuous self-observation are needed. Therefore, we should not despise the righteous ones. In the traditional Christian view, the Pharisees have become representatives of everything evil, but in their time they were the pious and morally zealous ones. Their conflict with Jesus was not simply a conflict between right and wrong; it was, above all, the conflict between an old and sacred tradition and a new reality which was breaking into it and depriving it of ultimate significance. It was not only a moral conflict–it was also a tragic one, foreshadowing the tragic conflict between Christianity and Judaism in all succeeding generations, including our own.
The Pharisees–and this we should not forget–were the guardians of the law of God in their time. The Pharisees can be compared with other groups of righteous ones. We can compare them,for example, with a group that has played a tremendous role in the history of this country—the Puritans. The name itself, like the name Pharisee, indicates separation from the impurities of the world. The Puritans would certainly have judged the attitude of Jesus to the whore as Simon the Pharisee did. And we should not condemn them for this judgement nor distort their picture in our loose talk about them. Like the Pharisees, they were the guardians of the law of God in their time. And what about our time? It has been said, and not without justification, that the Protestant churches have become middle-class churches because of the way in which their members interpret Christianity, practically as well as theoretically. Such criticism points to their active adherence to their churches, to their well-established morality, to their charitable works. They are righteous–they would have been called so by Jesus. And certainly they would have joined Simon the Pharisee and the Puritans in criticizing the attitude of Jesus towards the woman in our story. And again I say, we should not condemn them for this. They take their religious and moral obligations seriously. They, like the Pharisees and the Puritans, are guardians of the law of God in our time.
The sinners are seriously called sinners and the righteous ones are seriously called righteous. Only if this is clearly seen can the depth and the revolutionary power of Jesus’ attitude be understood. He takes the side of the sinner against the righteous although He does not doubt the validity of the law, the guardians of which the righteous are. Here we approach a mystery which is the mystery of the Christian message itself, in its paradoxical depth and in its shaking and liberating power. And we can hope only to catch a glimpse of it in attempting to interpret our story.
Simon the Pharisee is shocked by the attitude of Jesus to the whore. He receives the answer that the sinners have greater love than the righteous ones because more is forgiven them. It is not the love of the woman that brings her forgiveness, but it is the forgiveness she has received that creates her love. By her love she shows that much has been forgiven her, while the lack of love in the Pharisee shows that little has been forgiven him.
Jesus does not forgive the woman, but He declares that she is forgiven. Her state of mind, her ecstasy of love, show that something has happened to her. And nothing greater can happen to a human being than that he is forgiven. For forgiveness means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected.
Forgiveness is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all. Forgiveness has the character of “in spite of,” but the righteous ones give it the character of “because.” The sinners, however,cannot do this. They cannot transform the divine “in spite of” into a human “because.” They cannot show facts, because of which they must be forgiven. God’s forgiveness is unconditional. There is no condition whatsoever in man which would make him worthy of forgiveness. If forgiveness were conditional, conditioned by man, no one could be accepted and no one could accept himself. We know that this is our situation, but we loathe to face it. It is too great as a gift and too humiliating as a judgement.
We want to contribute something, and if we have learned that we cannot contribute anything positive, then we try at least to contribute something negative: the pain of self-accusation and self-rejection. And then we read our story and the parable of the Prodigal Son as if they said: These sinners were forgiven because they humiliated themselves and confessed that they were unacceptable; because they suffered about their sinful predicament they were made worthy of forgiveness. But this reading of the story is a misreading, and a dangerous one. If that were the way to our reconciliation with God, we should have to produce within ourselves the feeling of unworthiness, the pain of self-rejection, the anxiety and despair of guilt. There are many Christians who try this in order to show God and themselves that they deserve acceptance. They perform an emotional work of self-punishment after they have realized that their other good works do not help them. But emotional works do not help either. God’s forgiveness is independent of anything we do, even of self-accusation and self-humiliation. If this were not so, how could we ever be certain that our self-rejection is serious enough to deserve forgiveness? Forgiveness creates repentance–this is declared in our story and this is the experience of those who have been forgiven.
The woman in Simon’s house comes to Jesus because she was forgiven. We do not know exactly what drove her to Jesus. And if we knew, we should certainly find that it was a mixture of motives–spiritual desire as well as natural attraction, the power of the prophet as well as the impression of the human personality. Our story does not psychoanalyze the woman, but neither does it deny human motives which could be psychoanalyzed. Human motives are always ambiguous. The divine forgiveness cuts into these ambiguities, but it does not demand that they become unambiguous before forgiveness can be given. If this were demanded, then forgiveness would never occur. The description of the woman’s behaviour shows clearly the ambiguities of her motives. Nevertheless, she is accepted.
There is no condition for forgiveness. But forgiveness could not come to us if we were not asking for it and receiving it. Forgiveness is an answer, the divine answer, to the question implied in our existence. An answer is answer only for him who has asked, who is aware of the question. This awareness cannot be fabricated. It may be in a hidden place in our souls,covered by many strata of righteousness. It may reach our consciousness in certain moments. Or, day by day, it may fill our conscious life as well as its unconscious depths and drive us to the question to which forgiveness is the answer.
In the minds of many people the word “forgiveness” has connotations which completely contradict the way Jesus deals with the woman in our story. Many of us think of solemn acts of pardon, of release from punishment, in other words, of another act of righteousness by the righteous ones. But genuine forgiveness is participation, reunion overcoming the powers of estrangement. And only because this is so, does forgiveness make love possible. We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love. We cannot love where we feel rejected, even if the rejection is done in righteousness. We are hostile towards that to which we belong and by which we feel judged,even if the judgement is not expressed in words.
As long as we feel rejected by Him, we cannot love God. He appears to us as an oppressive power, as He who gives laws according to His pleasure, who judges according to His commandments, who condemns according to His wrath. But if we have received and accepted the message that He is reconciled, everything changes. Like a fiery stream His healing power enters into us; we can affirm Him and with Him our own being and the others from whom we were estranged, and life as a whole. Then we realize that His love is the law of our own being,and that it is the law of reuniting love. And we understand that what we have experienced as oppression and judgement and wrath is in reality the working of love, which tries to destroy within us everything which is against love. To love this love is to love God. Theologians have questioned whether man is able to have love towards God; they have replaced love by obedience. But they are refuted by our story. They teach a theology for the righteous ones but not a theology for the sinners. He who is forgiven knows what it means to love God.
And he who loves God is also able to accept life and to love it. This is not the same as to love God. For many pious people in all generations the love of God is the other side of the hatred for life. And there is much hostility towards life in all of us, even in those who have completely surrendered to life. Our hostility towards life is manifested in cynicism and disgust, in bitterness and continuous accusations against life. We feel rejected by life, not so much because of its objective darkness and threats and horrors, but because of our estrangement from its power and meaning. He who is reunited with God, the creative Ground of life, the power of life in everything that lives, is reunited with life. He feels accepted by it and he can love it. He understands that the greater love is, the greater the estrangement which is conquered by it. In metaphorical language I should like to say to those who feel deeply their hostility towards life: Life accepts you; life loves you as a separated part of itself; life wants to reunite you with itself, even when it seems to destroy you.
There is a section of life which is nearer to us than any other and often the most estranged from us: other human beings. We all know about the regions of the human soul in which things look quite different from the way they look on its benevolent surface. In these regions we can find hidden hostilities against those with whom we are in love. We can find envy and torturing doubt about whether we are really accepted by them. And this hostility and anxiety about being rejected by those who are nearest to us can hide itself under the various forms of love: friendship, sensual love, conjugal and family love. But if we have experienced ultimate acceptance this anxiety is conquered, though not removed. We can love without being sure of the answering love of the other one. For we know that he himself is longing for our acceptance as we are longing for his, and that in the light of ultimate acceptance we are united.
He who is accepted ultimately can also accept himself. Being forgiven and being able to accept oneself are one and the same thing. No one can accept himself who does not feel that he is accepted by the power of acceptance which is greater than he, greater than his friends and counsellors and psychological helpers. They may point to the power of acceptance, and it is the function of the minister to do so. But he and the others also need the power of acceptance which is greater than they. The woman in our story could never have overcome her disgust at her own being without finding this power working through Jesus, who told her with authority, “You are forgiven.” Thus, she experienced, at least in one ecstatic moment of her life, the power which reunited her with herself and gave her the possibility of loving even her own destiny.
This happened to her in one great moment. And in this she is no exception. Decisive spiritual experiences have the character of a break-through. In the midst of our futile attempts to make ourselves worthy, in our despair about the inescapable failure of these attempts, we are suddenly grasped by the certainty that we are forgiven, and the fire of love begins to burn. That is the greatest experience anyone can have. It may not happen often, but when it does happen, it decides and transforms everything.
And now let us look once more at those whom we have described as the righteous ones. They are really righteous, but since little is forgiven them, they love little. And this is their unrighteousness. It does not lie on the moral level, just as the unrighteousness of Job did not lie on the moral level where his friends sought for it in vain. It lies on the level of the encounter with ultimate reality, with the God who vindicates Job’s righteousness against the attacks of his friends, with the God who defends Himself against the attacks of Job and his ultimate unrighteousness. The righteousness of the righteous ones is hard and self-assured.
They, too, want forgiveness, but they believe that they do not need much of it. And so their righteous actions are warmed by very little love. They could not have helped the woman in our story, and they cannot help us, even if we admire them. Why do children turn from their righteous parents and husbands from their righteous wives, and vice versa? Why do Christians turn away from their righteous pastors? Why do people turn away from righteous neighbourhoods? Why do many turn away from righteous Christianity and from the Jesus it paints and the God it proclaims? Why do they turn to those who are not considered to be the righteous ones? Often, certainly, it is because they want to escape judgement. But more often it is because they seek a love which is rooted in forgiveness, and this the righteous ones cannot give. Many of those to whom they turn cannot give it either. Jesus gave it to the woman who was utterly unacceptable. The Church would be more the Church of Christ than it is now if it did the same, if it joined Jesus and not Simon in its encounter with those who are rightly judged unacceptable.
Each of us who strives for righteousness would be more Christian if more were forgiven him, if he loved more and if he could better resist the temptation to present himself as acceptable to God by his own righteousness.
Distributed by Rev Peter Woods to Members of the Methodist Church – Bathurst/Port Alfred Circuit
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