I preached at our church yesterday. I went a little “off book” during the sermon, so the manuscript is the best recreation I could do.
“Forgive Us Our Debts”
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham NC
June 16, 2013
The listserv in our old neighborhood was active Friday afternoon.
The instigating email concerned a man who was crossing Club Boulevard right at Oval Park — over and over again. The woman who was writing said she stopped to let him cross as she was going to pick up her kids and then found he was still trying to get to the other side on her return trip. This time the car in front of her did not stop, and was greeted by the flashing lights of a police cruiser parked nearby. The man in the crosswalk was no random walker; he was seeing who was obeying the law.
One of those who replied to the letter said, “I think this is entrapment and you might not have to pay the ticket.” The next reply, which came quickly, began, “It’s only entrapment when you get caught.” So goes the law: when we break it, we have to deal with the consequences. We have to pay the ticket.
In the scene from Jesus’ life before us this morning, he is at the home of Simon, a Pharisee — one was all about the law, who found his identity in it, and who had also invited Jesus to dinner. Based on the murmuring that comes a bit later, they were not alone. There were others — all men — who were part of the gathering. The woman who showed up, however, was not on the guest list. She just showed up, came in the house with an alabaster jar of ointment and used it to anoint Jesus’ feet, weeping in the process. She then washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. In the middle of this keep-everyone-at-arm’s-length dinner party, she incarnated vulnerability. And she is never named. All we know was she was a sinner — a woman from the city, Luke says. Her sin is unnamed as well, though commentators over the years have almost unanimously assumed she was a prostitute — “a harlot,” “a woman of ill repute” — as though the only sin a woman could commit in first century Palestine was a sexual one. But if we widen our view beyond the designated lectionary passage for today, we can hear Jesus as he responded to those who questioned his choice of companions in the verses just before ours.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
When we hear the label given the woman in light of what Jesus just said, Luke labels her rather deftly: “You know those people Jesus keeps hanging out with? She’s one of them. A sinner.” In the first part of the chapter, Jesus had been on a bit of a healing spree. Perhaps she had seen how he had treated other people in their distress, had been a part of the crowd that had followed him, and knew she could find help and hope if she could get to him. And so she did what she needed to do to get to him. Whatever she had done and whoever she was, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for the love that exuded from him and demonstrated it extravagantly. And Jesus received her offering in grace and love.
Our first clue that Simon and his pals aren’t dealing fairly is they didn’t respond directly to either the woman or to Jesus. They muttered. Simon questioned Jesus’ identity as a prophet because a prophet would have known “what kind of woman was touching him.” Jesus responded by calling him into direct conversation — “Simon, I have something to say to you” — and then he tells a parable about the two debtors — one with a large debt and one with a small debt — who are both forgiven by a banker. “Which one would be more grateful?” asks Jesus.
Simon responds sheepishly: “I suppose the one with the greater debt.” His tone implied that he was quite sure the woman would be the larger debtor in their scenario. I think it’s safe to say Simon would not have seen himself as the sinner in most any story.
Jesus agreed with his answer, but then turned the focus of the conversation from the parable to a rather pointed and personal contrast between the woman’s extravagant gratitude and Simon’s half-hearted hospitality. Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
David Lose writes:
Why this change of focus? Because the truth Jesus points to cuts both ways. It’s not only that one who has been forgiven much loves much from gratitude, it’s that the one who is forgiven little loves little.
Jesus’ analogy between debts and sins in the passage made me think of the Lord’s Prayer. If you have had the chance to worship in other congregations where they say the prayer each week, you know one of the decisions any church has to make is which word to use: trespasses, sins, or debts. When I was a kid, our church in Zambia said trespasses, which always sounded really cool with a British accent, yet it made it sound like we had jumped a fence or crossed a border and ended up somewhere we were not supposed to be. Sins is a good theological word — one that pretty much only gets used in church — and speaks to the things we do that do damage and separate us from God. When we say debts, we talk about what we owe, what we don’t have to give, what we can’t even up.
Forgive us our debts.
Debts create obligations. When we create a formal debt like a mortgage, we have a repayment plan and everything works well until we get behind on our payments. Then the law kicks in as it were. If we don’t pay our debts, we can lose everything. Carry the analogy back to the Lord’s Prayer and we are offered the chance to realize we are up to our necks in relational IOUs, in damage done and repairs unpaid, and we can’t keep up with the payments. David Lose, again:
Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable. Consider: forgiveness at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner — these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free. So, yes, forgiveness is everything.
The woman came in a broken mess and Jesus gave her back herself in love: “Go in peace,” he said. Simon acted all put together and was left standing as an observer of both the love and forgiveness.
Forgive us our debts, we pray, as we forgive our debtors.
It strikes me that our debts are full stops to the stories of our lives. They bring us to a screeching halt. Forgiveness lets the story continue. It pulls life into the present tense. We aren’t talking about last week or last year, or debts rung up long ago; we are living now by the grace of God. When we hold grudges, we trap ourselves in the moment when the damage was done and can’t move forward. When we forgive, we pour ourselves out in love and grace and the story rolls on.
The second hymn we sang this morning, “O Love, That Will Not Let Me Go,” was written by a man named George Murchison, who was a minister. He was engaged and found out he was losing his sight. When he told his fiancee, she broke off the engagement because she didn’t want to spend her life with a blind man. It was then he sat down and wrote:
O Love, that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be
Forgiveness. He knew, whatever life held for him, the rest of the story lay beyond the damage done by her leaving; it lay in trusting that what we have been reading over and over in these days of grief in our church: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.”
As our story rolls on — the story of forgiveness and redemption and love, we are called time and time again to choose which character we will play. Sometimes, we are Simon: too trapped by all we are holding to move forward. Sometimes, we are the woman: heartbroken, grateful, and set free. Sometimes, we are like Jesus: we get to be forgiver, the one who gets to incarnate grace and love to someone who has lost sight of themselves.
May we be people who forgive even as we are forgiven. Amen.