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Friday, June 14, 2013

Forgiveness empowering love (C11O)

Not that we needed any more “proof” about the uselessness of trying to “earn” God’s forgiveness by good deeds or by spiritual calisthenics, but look at those words in the second reading for Sunday, which, as always, are only serendipitously commenting on what we hear in the first reading and gospel:
We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law

but through faith in Jesus Christ,

even we have believed in Christ Jesus

that we may be justified by faith in Christ

and not by works of the law,

because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Game, set, and match for our dreams of self-justification. It’s all more wonderful than we pulled-up-by-our-own-bootstraps-sons-and-daughters-of-the-pioneers had imagined. God justifies. God forgives. God’s love is origin and source. We can’t do anything to deserve it. What a relief!

I had forgotten that the first reading for this Sunday was taken from the whole complex of stories about King David, this one a piece of the wonderful story of his desire for Bathsheba. OK, let’s face it, Michal wasn’t much of a bargain, they had nothing in common, she probably hated him, having grown up in the household of Saul, and then with the rivalry during the period when there were two anointed kings in Israel. He was a musician, she hated to see him carrying on with his music and dancing. His eye wanders a little, he sees the shiksa on the roof, she’s married to an aide-de-camp of one of his generals, David’s a king, a palace dalliance and a pregnancy, David sends hubby off to war, badda-boom-badda-bing, “so sorry, Miss, your husband is dead,” come here into my palace, &c &c.

Two things I love about this story. One is the great summer experience I had at Youth Sing Praise in about 1985 or so, when I was part of the youth ministry team (Lord, can you imagine that? What was I thinking?) during the week when Our Lady of Snows was producing a musical by Fr. Ron Brassard of Providence and Chris Brubeck (son of Dave, and the bass/trombone player in the Brubeck quartet) on the story of David up to his accession to the throne. Their musical was called Champion of Israel, and I always wished that it had a part two, maybe more PG-13, about David, Bathsheba, Absalom, and Solomon. Right around this time, too, Joseph Heller (of Catch-22 fame) had written a hilarious novel about King David called God Knows. It was a good time for 1-2 Samuel.

The other thing I loved was a book that was really a major part of our spirituality around 1970, the year I was in novitiate, Louis Evely’s poetic and memorable meditations contained in the book That Man Is You. As you may recall, the title is taken from the story of the confrontation between Nathan and David that happens just before the first reading at today’s liturgy. (It’s all in chapter 12 of 2 Samuel. Today’s first reading starts at verse 7, the parable of Nathan starts at verse 1. The rest of the story - wink, wink; nudge, nudge - is in chapter 11.)

The whole thing in Luke about who’s a sinner and who’s not, who is kosher and who’s not, who’s in and who’s out, that all seems to me to be about what we call prejudice. “Prejudice” is the act of judging another person (or race, religion, country, etc.) before actually knowing that person, walking the mile in their shoes. Prejudice is, literally, pre-judging. Sometimes prejudice is obvious, as in the case of racial or ethnic prejudices. Sometimes it’s more personal and sinister, like the religious prejudice in Sunday's gospel, which was “justified” by the “good person” seeing a “bad person” in front of him. Simon in the story doesn't see the woman who was in his house, he saw a sinner, a person with a bad reputation. He saw the sin, or what he thought was the sin. Focused on that, he is unable to see the similarity between her and himself.

In another story later in Luke (19), a tax-collector named Zacchaeus, also reviled by the good people of the town for being a collaborator (and maybe, also, being short, had a Napoleon complex, trying to make up in bluster what he lacked in altitude; maybe you know the type?) He too invites Jesus to a meal, and all the good people at once say of the Lord, “He has gone to stay in the house of a sinner.” This prompts Zacchaeus to protest - "Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I'm caught cheating, I pay four times the damages." Some translations miss the nuance here: there is no indication in the story that Zacchaeus is actually guilty of corruption, only that he has been pre-judged as one because he is a tax collector, and therefore a thief like all other tax collectors. Zacchaeus, however, is aware that he is not God, and knows that he is a sinner; he simply refuses to be prejudged as someone who is dishonest, and Luke holds him up in contrast to the Rich Man in the earlier parable. Zacchaeus gives half his income to the poor. He is a just man. Once again, by pre-judging with hospitality and love, Jesus has enabled the reaction of Zacchaeus, and exposed the prejudice of the town’s religious elite for what it is. (Side note - this gospel is one of the ones used for the dedication or anniversary of dedication of a church. “He has gone to eat in the house of a sinner.” Isn’t that the coolest?)

This is why it’s important to keep focused not on our sin, but on the one who is all-forgiving. We risk missing the really good news about a God who has pre-judice for us, who has judged us “not guilty by reason of humanity." We’re busy with our tiresome Pelagian agendas about “getting right” with God, all our self-help talk, when what we really need to hear is that we’re beloved of a God who does not judge like we do, and has in fact spoken the words of pardon before we were even aware we needed it.

Don’t we know all this stuff from our own experience? Isn’t it true that nothing we actually do about ourselves ever makes us truly lovable or even prepared for what happens when love hits us unexpectedly? Especially when we feel that we’ve acted in so reprehensible a way that the bonds between us must be irreparably damaged, doesn’t the forgiveness of another person stun us, reduce us to tears, fill us with both the purpose of amendment and, to the extent possible, make reparation? This is completely aside from the forgiveness itself, which is gift, no strings attached. It is the forgiveness itself that enables us to act better, to make a change in direction, and to show by our actions our gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.

Having experienced forgiveness as a reality in our own lives, we can become the word of pardon and forgiveness to others. Christ revealed God’s forgiveness to us in the world. Now, as St. Paul went on to say in Sunday's happy second reading, “I live now no longer as myself; it is Christ who lives in me.” We didn’t earn it, we didn’t deserve it, we were called and baptized into it by the election of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Easter song by Michael Kelly Blanchard put it,  referring back to the “debt” forgiven in the gospel parable yesterday:
Oh, Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad
Every debt that you ever had

Has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord,

Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad, Be Ye Glad.

To me, that’s reason enough to keep focused on God’s action in our lives and in the world, and to let go of our narcissistic, self-important navel-gazing. It’s time to put the beautiful, winged horse out in front of the cart. Maybe if we do, we’ll finally get somewhere?

Check out Glad’s version of “Be Ye Glad” on iTunes. Be Ye Glad - Glad Collector's Series