June 16, 2013
Over the last year-and-a-half I’ve become a huge fan of TED talks. TED is a conference that is held at different places around the country. Although I am unclear as to the origins of TED, I embrace its motto: “Ideas worth Spreading.” That’s essentially what each conference is – a collection of speakers who have ideas worth spreading. Speakers discourse on every topic you can imagine – arts, science, medicine, technology, creativity, innovation, personal experience, family, children – the possibility for ideas are as endless as the speakers who speak and the audiences who listen.
A few days ago I watched a recent TED talk by author, Andrew Solomon. I’m currently reading one of his books so I was intrigued to hear what this talk titled “Love, No Matter What” was all about.
Solomon has written a book about parenting and the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance, especially in the context of parents who have children who are different from what we think of as the norm. This includes children who are deaf, autistic, children with dwarfism and Down’s Syndrome, children who are prodigies and children who are criminals.
In his talk Solomon tells his story of interviewing the parents of Dylan Klebold. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Dylan was one of the two young men who perpetrated the massacre at Columbine, then turned his gun on himself. Solomon says that at first Susan and Tom Klebold were reluctant to speak with him, but once they did their story just came pouring out. He recorded 20 hours of conversation over the course of several weekends he spent with them. At one point he asked them what they would most want to ask Dylan if he were with them. Tom said he would want to know what Dylan was thinking in doing this horrible thing. Susan thought for a moment, and then said, “I would ask Dylan to forgive me for being his mother and not knowing what was going on inside his mind.”
Forgive me for being your mother and not knowing what was going on inside your mind.
I may have titled this sermon “Overwhelming Gratitude” but in reality this passage from Luke is about forgiveness. Jesus has been invited to a dinner by one of the Pharisees, a man named Simon. I’ve read various commentaries speculating as to why a Pharisee would invite Jesus to dinner, since we tend to think of Jesus and Pharisees as being fundamentally opposed. But whatever his reason, he invited Jesus and Jesus accepted. Jesus went to the Pharisee’s house and “took his place at the table.”
Then we hear of this woman. We know nothing about her, other than she is labeled as a sinner. I’m sure that hearing that label applied to a woman conjures up one particular sin, prostitution. But I’m going to go along with the commentator of this passage on WorkingPreacher.org this week and say it’s unfair to assume that the only sin a woman was capable of at that time was prostitution. So we don’t know why she is considered a sinner. We just know that she is. But when this woman hears that Jesus is breaking bread at the home of Simon the Pharisee, she brings an alabaster jar of ointment, stands behind Jesus at his feet, weeping, bathing his feet with her tears, then drying them with her hair. But she doesn’t stop there. She kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with the ointment.
We might think this is strange for a number of reasons. One, how did she get into the party in the first place? I suspect Simon the Pharisee’s home was much more open than ours are. There would have been walls, obviously, but it’s possible that Jesus and the others were dining in a courtyard that would have been easily accessible to anyone outside of it. It’s also possible that there were others standing outside looking in, watching the festivities as we might watch celebrities on a red carpet.
Yet what’s most surprising to me is not that this woman intrudes upon the dinner, but that when she begins to weep over Jesus and touch Jesus and anoint Jesus, Simon nor any of the guests do or say anything to stop her. Perhaps they were paralyzed with shock at the sight of it, because what she was doing was scandalous. Her actions toward Jesus are intimate. They are rife with innuendo. A woman touching a man’s feet carried an implied message of physical relationship. However here is this woman, this sinner, touching the feet of Jesus! She’s crying over them. She’s bathing them with her tears, using her hair to dry them. She’s kissing them! She’s using an ointment from a costly jar to anoint him. But no one tries to stop her. No one hustles her away from Jesus. All we read is what Simon is thinking.
“If this man were really a prophet, he’d know the kind of woman she is, he’d know the kind of sinner she is.”
Jesus does know. He also knows what Simon, and probably others, were thinking. He doesn’t belligerently confront Simon. Instead he tells him a story about two debtors. One owed the creditor five hundred denarii, the other fifty. Neither one could pay, so the creditor forgave the debts of both. Then Jesus asks Simon this question, “Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answers with a certain amount of attitude. “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
Jesus tells Simon he’s correct. He’s judged rightly. But Jesus doesn’t stop with that. He then compares Simon to the woman. Jesus came to Simon’s house but was given no water for his feet. Simon did not welcome Jesus with a kiss or oil for his head. But this woman, this sinner, has done all of that. So this woman, whose sins were many, has been forgiven. Because of that she is showing Jesus overwhelming gratitude, great love. “But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
Jesus then says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” This is the final nail in the shock coffin for the others in attendance, because this man wasn’t just a prophet, he also forgave sins.
It’s easy to assume that because Jesus tells her in that moment that her sins are forgiven that this is the first time she grasps this. But Jesus’ words to Simon say otherwise. The woman knew she was forgiven, that’s why she sought Jesus out. That’s why she risked so much to show him so much love. Because she knew she was forgiven. We don’t have the back story to know how or why she knew this. But she did. When Jesus reiterates that she is forgiven, everyone else knows this as well.
She was forgiven much so she loved much. Her gratitude was overwhelming because she understood just how much she had gained. As I said earlier, I may have used gratitude in my title, but this story is about forgiveness. Even more it’s about being forgiven.
Forgiveness does not always come easily to me. I have a good memory about certain things and, sadly, I can’t always forgive them. I’ve realized that forgiveness isn’t a feeling. It’s an act of will. You have to just do it in order to feel it. But of all the things that I need to forgive right now, and there are a few, the person I have the hardest time forgiving is me. Whatever anger I may carry for other’s actions toward me, I carry even more anger at my own mistakes, my own shortcomings, my own errors in judgment. No one is harder on me than I am. The person I need to forgive the most is me.
When I was contemplating this sermon, I realized that I had tons of stories of people forgiving other people. Tons. And they’re beautiful and powerful and moving. But I was having a much harder time finding an illustration that would convey what it means to be forgiven. What does it feel like in the moment when you know that you are forgiven, completely, unconditionally?
I think about Susan Klebold’s words to Andrew Solomon and I think about the countless nights I’ve lain awake worrying about my kids, wishing I could undo or redo something I’d said or a way that I’d responded to one of them; hoping that one day they’ll forgive me. I can’t fully relate to Mrs. Klebold’s pain and heartache at the tragedy her son committed and died for, and honestly, I hope I never have reason to. But I can imagine it. I can imagine that she has been haunted by it, and haunted by her need to be forgiven – not by the many people who condemned her for being a bad parent, because bad parenting is our go-to explanation for why these terrible things happen – but by her son for believing she had failed him.
So what stories do we have of being forgiven? What does it feel like when we are?
In honor of Father’s Day I changed my profile picture on Facebook to one where I was about 3 and sitting on my dad’s lap, with his arms around me. I also have this picture, framed, in my office. In the picture I’m not just sitting. I’m sprawled out; my arms are hanging to either side. My legs are in perfect frog position, a position that only a very limber 3 year old can maintain, and I am fast asleep. I joke that my family liked taking pictures of me sleeping, not because I did it so often but because I didn’t. They wanted a record that I actually slept. In this picture that is what I’m doing. Sleeping. And I’m able to sleep because I’m in the arms of someone who loves and accepts me without condition. I’m able to sleep because I have complete trust that I am cared for, protected, loved. I think maybe that’s what it’s like to feel forgiven. I have had moments, like this sinful woman, when I have been so moved by someone’s love and forgiveness of me that I have been overwhelmed with emotion, love, gratitude, joy. But I also believe that sometimes when we know we are forgiven, we are able to trust, to sink into that forgiveness and sleep.
So if you are like me, and there are people you need to forgive, let’s commit that act of will and forgive them. And if you are like me, and you need to forgive yourself for whatever burdens you carry, do that as well. Because as the familiar words of assurance remind us, who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ. And Christ lives and dies for us, reigns in power over us, prays for us. In Christ we are new creations. In Christ we are forgiven. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”
[i] TED Talk, Andrew Solomon, April 2013
WorkingPreacher.org, Commentary for June 16, 2013