THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Thursday, April 13, 2017
It seems like a meal is involved with anything important. Business deals are sealed over lunch and the initial details may be written on napkins. Holidays are celebrated with feasts or barbecues. Weddings have receptions, often elaborate. Jesus’ first miracle was part of a wedding meal. He broke bread on a Galilean shore and fed more than 5,000. He invited himself to lunch at the house of Zacchaeus. He dined with Mary and Martha. To the festering anger of the religious powers that be he ate with sinners and seemed to be oblivious to them when they sneaked into polite settings.
In Matthew’s account of the woman anointing him, the disciples react to what they perceive is a waste of the ointment which could have been converted to cash to feed the poor. Remember that money was a concern when the 5,000 needed to be fed. The disciples quickly calculated that it would take six month’s salary to feed th crowd, which is about right if you figure the price of small combo meal at your favorite fast food outlet.
In Luke’s version of the same anointing story, the host is the one who gets upset. He thinks that Jesus should have known what kind of woman it was who perfumed his feet, anointed them with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. Knowing what was going through the host’s mind, Jesus offered a parable abut two debtors. One owed the equivalent of 500 day’s work, the other owed just 50 days worth. When the money lender called in the debts, neither was able to pay. The lender forgave both debts. Jesus asked his host which debtor was more appreciative. The host guessed that it was the one who owed more. Jesus approved of that answer.
Jesus then explained that his host had neglected simple hospitality duties toward Jesus when he came to the man’s house while the woman came in and was lavish in the attention which she paid to Jesus. Jesus forgave her sins, which were many times greater than the host’s etiquette faux pas.
Gregory Jones says that it was not because the woman has shown repentance with tears that Jesus forgives her sins; rather she shows repentance with tears because she has already known forgiveness and thus has great love for Jesus. It is her faith in his gift of pardon that saves her.(1)
Our sense of justice is offended. In Jesus’ parable we get caught up with the debtors. But it is the money lender who begins the process. He forgives the debts: the value of 550 days wages. In the economy of Jesus’ day that would have been a year and ten months worth of income. In round numbers that about $100,000 in today’s money. That isn’t a small amount unless the lender was filthy rich, as my mother used to say. No self-respecting lender would risk losing that kind of money.
The upshot of the parable is that God doesn’t act like we do. God forgives graciously and generously, because God is filthy rich in the forgiveness asset account.
We have the witness from the cross as well. According to Luke’s account, Jesus’ forgiveness of those who torture and kill him unjustly clearly takes place before any of his accusers or executioners give evidence of repentance. The reason he gives for asking this boon of his heavenly Father is that they don’t know what they are doing. They do not know to seek forgiveness, because they don’t fully understand themselves and certainly don’t understand Jesus. Christ’s words of forgiveness, from the place of his greatest physical agony and spiritual anguish, are the basis of a Christian understanding of unconditional love.
We live in a quid pro quo world: if sin, then repentance; if repentance, then forgiveness. Jesus says that repentance is necessary to forgiveness, but not in the order we usually assume. It is not that unless we repent, God will refuse to forgive; it is, rather, that as we absorb the magnitude of God’s undeserved gift of forgiveness, we can respond only with heartfelt repentance and gratitude. As William Countryman explains, “This is how the gospel, the good news, eventually delivers us from an unforgiving spirit. It doesn’t work by admonishing us. . . . It works by overwhelming us with love.”
When we reverse the conventional relationship between repentance and forgiveness – from repentance yielding forgiveness to forgiveness yielding repentance – our understanding of justice is upended. The gospel moves us away from retributive – penal – justice to restorative justice. The concern of restoring harmony to the community is greater than the concern for breach of the law. The kingdom that has come near, the kingdom that Jesus ushers in, seeks to restore the balance that God intended from before creation’s first day. God desires to reestablish wholeness in all aspects of creation.
Wholeness includes community consensus building rather than adversarial relationships. Reconciliation and community are more important than isolation and punishment of offenders. Root causes rather than individual wrongdoers are focused on. The ultimate goal is a whole community.
The idea of a whole community brings us to this table where Jesus is the host. This is a table of reconciliation. This is the table of forgiveness. This is the table of grace. This is the table of repentance. This is the table of thanksgiving.
Even though there were gathered around the table with Jesus one who was going to betray him to the authorities, one who vowed not to deny Jesus, even to death, and then did just that, and ten others who fled into the dark of the night to hide behind locked doors, Jesus welcomed them all and formed God’s community by washing their feet as a servant, and by breaking common bread for them and sharing a common cup with them. After his crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection, Jesus would again break bread with believers, celebrating with them the reality that God’s community of forgiveness and repentance, of grace and thanksgiving not only survived the worst that the world tried to do, but that it thrives. God’s justice is no match for the so-called justice of the world. This table marks the new beginning of God’s realm.
As we come to the table, hear again Jesus’ community forming words: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have love you, so you must love each other.”
Friends, know that Jesus’ love is begins here. Know that forgiveness is already here. Know that the servant/shepherd/host welcomes each and every one of us with arms open wide. Know that his body and his blood are his love for us.
Come to the table of grace.
General Resource: Marjorie J. Thompson, Forgiveness: A Lenten Study (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
(1) L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 160-162.
(2) L. William Countryman, Forgiven and Forgiving (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 115.
Unless noted otherwise, all scripture references are from The Common English Bible, © 2011 www.commonenglishbible.com.
Copyright © 2017 First Presbyterian Church of Waverly, Ohio. Reprinted by permission.