11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Text: 2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13; Galatians 2:16, 19-21; Luke 7:36-8:3.
Today’s readings touch on a mystery which lies at the heart of the Christian faith: the mystery of divine forgiveness. Every religion has ordinances and rules for living, and Christianity, perhaps Roman Catholic Christianity in particular, is no exception there; what seems to me special to Christianity, however, is an explicit, orthodox belief that our failure to follow those rules scrupulously and exactly each and every day of our lives does not lead inexorably to our condemnation and punishment.
The dynamics of God’s forgiveness are, of course, beyond our full comprehension, but enough has been revealed to us that we can have some idea of how we should live our lives, and how we should come to God. It’s a big subject, and I hope you’ll, well, forgive me if I take a bit more of your time than I usually do.
Scripture is full of stories like those we heard in the readings today, in which we find examples of human sin and divine forgiveness; this is a fundamental pattern in the Bible. Before we consider God’s forgiveness, however, I think it best that we spend some time considering that which makes it necessary: human sin. It is, of course, an unpleasant topic, and not one which should be a primary focus, lest love be lost in a sea of recriminations; nonetheless, without looking at sin, we cannot begin to accept the meaning of forgiveness.
The first reading opens with the summary, “David did what displeased the Lord,” but the details aren’t explained in the passage we heard, so I’ll give a slightly longer explanation so that we can consider the example of its motivation and means. David saw, and lusted after, a beautiful woman bathing; when he asked who she was, he was told that she was the wife of Uriah, a mercenary in his service. As king, he had her brought to him anyway, and slept with her. When she sent word that she was pregnant, he gave Uriah time off and suggested that he go to his house and enjoy himself, hoping that this would lead Uriah to believe the child to be his own. Instead, Uriah stayed to guard the king’s chambers, despite being a mercenary. This demonstration of loyalty was hardly pleasing to David, however. Panicking that his sin would be discovered, David ordered Uriah back to the battle, and ordered his general to set him up in the front line and then withdraw everyone else, assuring his death on the field. David then had Uriah’s widow brought to his house and took her as his wife.
Covetousness, adultery, intrigue, murder: it reads like a script for a soap opera! Where, we should ask, is the beginning of this escalating chain of sins? We are told that the commandments to love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, incorporate all the commandments of the Law. If this is true, then we need only look for the first time David fails to love God or another in dealing with this matter.
That he saw the woman by accident and found her beautiful was surely no sin; that he asked who she was in hopes that he might legitimately marry her was also righteous. Thus, his desire for her is not the root of his sin, but a natural and wholly intended feature of being human: this desire is one of the things which draws us together, and helps us to express love for each other.
David’s sin comes after this, when he is told that she is married to another, and has her brought to him regardless; the woman’s desires are unrecorded, but I think it unlikely that she came willingly. Here, David allows his own desire to trump any care for her or her husband, or any respect for God’s commandment. This, stripped down to its essence, is the root of all true sin: the choice to prefer one’s own desire, whatever it may be, to the will of God and the good of others—and even of oneself, were one to take the long view.
Seen in this light, all sin is equal: it is a rejection of love. Although David’s sin is shocking in its luridness, the more so because David is, after all, God’s anointed, it is no different from any other refusal to love.
Like so many, though, David is blind to his own sin. The prophet Nathan tells David a story of a rich man who invites a poor man to dine with him, but instead of slaughtering an animal from his own large herds for their meal, the rich man has the poor one’s only ewe killed and served for their supper. King David doesn’t hesitate to declare that the rich man deserves to die, but is surely taken aback when Nathan springs his trap, declaring to the king, “You are the man!” The prophet then speaks of God’s punishment for David’s sin, as we heard in the reading, and David is overcome with contrition as he realizes what he has done.
The Pharisee who invites Jesus to supper is also blind. He and the others see and snicker at the presumed prostitute’s sinfulness, not recognizing that this very attitude is itself a sin: they love neither her, nor Jesus. They mock her bold approach to Jesus, and amuse themselves at what they presume to be Christ’s discomfiture at such attention from a prostitute, not recognizing what is really taking place in front of them.
The woman, on the other hand, has come to recognize her sins on her own, and comes to Jesus in love. The very shamelessness for which she was reviled as a harlot has been turned towards God: she doesn’t let the Pharisees’ sneers and off-colour remarks distract her from expressing her love. Jesus is so moved by her expression of humble love that he later borrows it himself, washing his disciples’ feet at his last supper.
Jesus, like Nathan, tells a story to get his point across to those who cannot—or rather, will not—look at themselves directly, calling us to identify with others outside ourselves in the process.
At this point, I’ll begin talking less about sin, and more about God, and love, and forgiveness—and about time, too!
Jesus’ story tells us a great deal about God’s mercy, if we listen. The debtors in the story could not pay, and neither can we. We cannot perfect ourselves and thus earn our way into heaven; we cannot repay God’s great gifts in equal measure. Paul spells this out clearly, saying that no one would be justified by the works of the law. The creditor then cancels all their debts, great and small, without even having them plead their cases; he knows their estate, and knows perfectly well that they can’t pay. The implication is interesting, to say the least: Jesus seems to be saying here that not only are the woman’s sins forgiven, but so are the Pharisees’, even though they show no sign of repentance, or even acknowledgement!
Christ then tells the woman at his feet directly that her sins are forgiven, but he is only confirming what she already knows: had they not been, she would not have love to show, because God is love, and whoever God does not forgive has no share in such love. In Jesus, she finds one who can receive and return this love in full, and all else pales to insignificance.
Mystics in many traditions, Christian and otherwise, have written of such experiences which have been graced to them in, as Father Richard says, altered states of consciousness; they have seen, and their testimony is an inspiration to those who have not yet seen, for whom belief is so much harder. For example, Rumi, a Sufi mystic, wrote,
Hide in my heart like a secret,
Wind around my head like a turban.
“I come and go as I please,”
You say, “swift as a heartbeat.”
You can tease me as much as you like
But never leave me.1
And three centuries later, St. Teresa of Avila wrote,
It is impossible to describe or explain the way in which God wounds the soul, or the very grievous pain inflicted, which deprives it of all self-consciousness; yet this pain is so sweet that there is no joy in the world that gives greater delight. … The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.2The Pharisees, however, see none of this, and refuse to be carried away by love. God’s love is offered, but they, and often we, turn away. Because of this, sin is compounded, and the debt mounts higher and higher; this isn’t because of the interest charged by some usurious lender, but because of continued borrowing on an unsustainable lifestyle of sin. Is there a limit? Is there some accumulation of sin that cannot be forgiven? I hope not, and Jesus tells us that nothing is impossible for God; nevertheless, I would gain nothing and lose much by not accepting and returning God’s love, and sharing it with others.
Is faith needed to be forgiven? Christ’s story suggests not, but then he tells the woman, “‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” Clearly, faith is important to something here, so perhaps we should look at what is meant by “faith” in order to resolve this apparent contradiction. Here, I take “faith” in the sense of “fidelity,” holding to a commitment. Not only has the woman in the Gospel been forgiven, but there is something more: she has been transformed, and has willingly accepted and participated in that transformation. When Jesus says this to her, he is recognizing and encouraging that fundamental change in her. The Pharisees may be forgiven, but because they refuse to see their sin, they also cannot see God’s forgiveness or their need for such transformation. Thus, forgiveness and salvation are distinct things: to err is human, and to forgive truly is divine, but salvation demands that we assent to and participate in God’s will.
This, then, is the meaning of Christ’s words and actions: we are forgiven, and we are called to live in the love out of which that forgiveness comes. The transformation of this life is so radical that our old, sinful selves die, and we live in, or as Paul says, to God, who is love. Moreover, this forgiveness and transformation isn’t a one-time thing: whenever we sin, we are likewise forgiven and called anew, time after time after time. When we live this faithfully, we too are saved, and go in peace to be bearers of God’s all-encompassing love.
1: Rumi, The Divan, translated by Maryam Mafi & Azima Melita Kolin, in Rumi: Gardens of the Beloved. London: Element, 2003, pp. 72-73.
2: Teresa of Avila, Life, Ch. 29, in the collection edited by Bernard McGinn, The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: The Modern Library, 2006, pp. 357-59, adapted from the translation of David Lewis in The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, London: Thomas Baker, 5th ed., 1916, pp. 264-268.