Forgiven and free to love

Pentecost 4 – 2013

Luke 7:36-8:3

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose unconditional love sets us free to love. Amen. 

Long before I saw Les Miserable the musical, I happened upon a non musical version of the story. From memory, I came in at the point at which the priest, having offered hospitality to an ex-convict, was faced with this same man whom the police had dragged back because they had found him with silver that could only have come from the priest’s household. The priest knew that the silver was stolen, but instead of expressing outrage, he corroborates Valjean’s story that the silver was a gift and compounds the lie by adding to stolen goods two candlesticks insisting that Valjean had forgotten to take them.

At the time I didn’t know the beginning of the story. That scene depicted such an unexpected act of generosity, understanding and hope that I will never forget the impression that it made upon me. Jean Valjean had stolen the silverware and yet the priest the not only over-looked the theft and corroborated Valjean’s story, but he added to the treasure. In such circumstances we might perhaps expect the priest to offer forgiveness, but to extend such generosity without any expectation of restitution takes us by surprise and forces us to question whether we would be so forgiving or so generous.

Of course, this is a fictitious tale, so let me share with you a true story. Some of you will recall that in 1998 a young nurse, Anita Cobby, was abducted, gang raped and left by her attackers to drown. After the perpetrators were arrested, Anita’s father Garry Lynch went to the local RSL where he thought he would the father of two of his daughter’s assailants. He knew that the man worked there, that he was believed to be doing a good job and that he was well liked. In his own words, Garry says: “I went up to him and I just held my hand out and I said, ‘Look, I want to say to you that we hold no responsibility on you whatsoever for what your sons did.’  And he just grabbed my hand in his two …. in tears … and there was just a silent interchange.”

I could tell you dozens of such stories of people who find it in their hearts to forgive the most horrendous acts and who are somehow are able to get on with their lives.

I could tell you too of those who allow their indignation and outrage to get the better of them in lesser or similar situations. Those who, like the crowds who recently gathered outside the court on the day the young man accused of rape and murder, were not only angry but who had hung a noose over the branch of a nearby tree. This sort of lynch mob mentality is, thankfully, not common, but it does expose a desire to take justice into our own hands and an unwillingness to see the ugliness in oneself and the humanity in another.

Those who hold on to their indignation and their grief fail to see that it reveals as much about their own hardness of heart and their own self-righteousness as it does about the person who committed the offense against them.

Why is it that a father whose daughter was brutally murdered offers forgiveness to the perpetrators, whereas a crowd who know neither the victim nor the accused are filled with vitriol and hate?

I believe that the difference is faith. Faith not only gives us strength and support in times of trauma, but it gives us a different perspective on things. As Christians we know that we are not perfect but we are forgiven – even though we have done nothing to deserve such forgiveness. Knowing ourselves forgiven and loved, we are better able to extend such love to others. Knowing God’s generosity towards us, we are able to be generous in our attitudes towards others. Knowing that God understands our weakness and frailty, we are more willing to understand the weakness and frailty of others.

Jesus makes it clear that none of us is perfect. We are all in need of forgiveness. Imperfection is imperfection – there is no hierarchy – we are either perfect or we are imperfect. Nearly perfect is not perfect. If no one is perfect, then everyone is imperfect. If everyone is imperfect, then everyone – whether they have sinned greatly or only a little – is in need of God’s forgiveness.

This is the point of today’s gospel. Simon, believing that he in some way is better than the woman, judges her and finds her wanting. He is surprised because he thinks/expects that Jesus should do the same. He has failed to understand that if Jesus were to mix only with perfect people Jesus would not be dining with him. Simon’s sense of his own righteousness leaves little room for him to understand that the woman is worthy of Jesus’ attention. He is mean and narrow in his view of others because he has failed to identify his own shortcomings.

In response to Simon’s judgmental attitude Jesus tells the parable about forgiveness forcing the Pharisee to acknowledge that those who are forgiven more, love more. Those who know themselves forgiven, accepted and loved cannot help but extend that love, acceptance and forgiveness to others.

God did not and does not wait until we are perfect before God extended his all-embracing and unconditional love. When we truly understand that we will be overwhelmed by God’s boundless generosity. When we truly understand our own need for forgiveness, we will be hard pressed not to extend forgiveness to others. When we truly accept that we ourselves are not perfect, we will be more willing to accept imperfection in others.

I’ve said it before and no doubt I will say it again: “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing that we can do that can make God love us less.” If that doesn’t challenge us to share that love with the world, to extend God’s forgiveness to others, then we just don’t get it and as Paul said: “Christ died for nothing”.

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