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Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Simon, I have something to say to you..." (C11O)

Note to self - if, at the final judgment, Jesus begins by putting his arm over my shoulder and saying, “Rory, I have something to say to you,” it will be my cue to take off running in a southerly direction, since I will surely be headed there anyway.


"Master, Say On" by Angela Johnson
Sunday's gospel from Luke 7, the story of the the meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee, with its famous story of the woman with a bad reputation washing Jesus’s feet with her tears. The story of the meal at Simon’s house goes something like this. Jesus is invited to dine, but the man who invites him doesn’t really like him, he just wants to keep an eye on him for his buddies. So when Jesus arrives, he ignores the normal hospitality shown to diners, and offers neither a foot bath nor a ritual anointing, amounting to an insult before the dinner even starts. Enter the woman with a bad name. She enters weeping, sits at Jesus feet as they recline at table, lets down her hair, and washes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them with precious nard from an alabaster jar. The Pharisee, seeing an opportunity to further slight Jesus, notes that if he were a prophet he’d know what kind of woman was touching him.
"Master, Say On" sculpture, detail

This is where Jesus replies, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon should have left while he had the chance. Jesus tells him a little story about two debtors, one who owes two years’ wages, another who owes a couple of months’. Both debts are forgiven by the creditor. Jesus asks Simon, “which, do you think, will love him more?” Simon replies, “Obviously, the one who was forgiven the higher amount.” This is where Jesus lets him have it, recounting the slights he has received since walking in the door, and comparing the reprehensible behavior of Simon, a religious leader, to that of this woman with a bad reputation, showing her behavior to be more in line with acceptable Jewish practice than his. 

This is where the essential part of the story, the “punchline,” comes: Luke records Jesus
"Master, Say On" sculpture, detail
as saying:

“I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown such great love.”
Before the original sense of the scripture was corrected for us, the translation said:
“I tell you her many sins were forgiven because she has shown such great love."** (see endnote)
See, the difference is that they mean the exact opposite. In the first case, following the logic of the parable, the forgiveness precedes and enables her act of love, which is why Jesus is able to tell that her sins have been forgiven. The second rendering, following the logic of a mistranslation that has been replaced for at least 20 years, suggests that forgiveness follows her act of love, that somehow she has “earned” it by her actions and repentance. This is neither the fact, nor our experience, nor church teaching about grace! Grace precedes and enables repentance. Jesus sees her actions, her love, her tears, her atonement for Simon’s lack of hospitality, and knows that her sins are forgiven. He knew that anyway; his intimacy with God has already taught him that God’s love is infinite and forgiving and not dependent on human religious calisthenics of any kind. It is God’s love that makes repentance possible. God loves us when we are still sinners, and forgives us and dies (pours self out) for us. God is not like us. God is not vindictive, jealous, or hurt by our stupid self-destructiveness. 

The story was told wrong for a long time. It was the New Jerusalem Bible that finally got it right, and other translations have come along as well. The translation that imagines that the woman's good works were the cause of her forgiveness misses the point of the parable! Jesus just got finished with a story about forgiveness enabling love, and the translators, as full of our phony sense of "justice" as we are, don't even see the disconnect. We want to believe that we can make ourselves all better and that God gives us the medals at our spiritual Olympics by finally forgiving and loving us once we’ve run the course, jumped the hurdles, and made ourselves squeaky clean. 

But if we can do that, make ourselves squeaky clean, we don’t need God. We need someone to emulate, someone who loves without waiting for a return of love, someone whose love is irrational and doesn’t care what we look like when we get up in the morning. Any of us who is lucky has had that experience more than once in our lives, the experience of a friend or lover who sees past all the junk that blocks our being able to see ourselves as God sees us, someone who loves us with surprising ferocity no matter what we think of ourselves. Their love enables us to make changes in our behavior or our appearance or whatever, but never requires that change as a condition for love. There’s nothing we can do to make the other person love us - love is a gift, it wakes us up and empowers us to be something even greater than we thought was possible.

How sad that, for so long, instead of hearing the scripture message, we get the Pelagian opposite. Instead of grace and wonder, we get the pragmatic Bauhaus dullness of self-
important human exertion. Instead of forgiveness, barter. Instead of love, stoicism. Sorry, but that God is too small for me.

We don’t know anything more about this woman or Simon. I’d love to think that Simon’s heart was changed, and that drawn toward the same flame, the two of them found their way to dance together in the newfound exhilaration of freedom and love. Maybe at the same time next year they both enjoyed a bad reputation and couldn’t have been happier about it, eating and drinking with their friends of ill repute, breaking bread, washing feet, and telling the story over and over again of that supper. Their sins, many though they are, must have been forgiven; hence, they’ve shown such great love. May it be so for all of us sinners.

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Endnote: (NB: One can barely make the case that the second version, using the conjunction "because," means the same as the first translation. The sense of the phrase to the translator might have been, 'I can tell that her sins have already been forgiven because (I can see that) she has shown...." But I don't think that's what any of us hears when we hear "because." We think of causality between the closer verbs, "forgiven and shown," rather than between the more separated "I tell you" and "shown.")