Two monks were on a pilgrimage. They came to a wide river,
and there on the bank was a beautiful but scantily clad young woman. She too
needed to cross the river but there was no bridge and no boat. So one monk
picked her up and carried her across. He put her down on the other side and the
monks continued their journey. After about half an hour, the other monk
couldn’t contain himself, “How could you?” he shouted. “How could you, a monk
sworn to chastity, carry a woman like that?” The other replied, “Brother I put her down half an hour ago, but you are still carrying her.”
Forgiveness. Letting go of the past. It’s at the very core
of Christian spirituality. Whatever you believe, if you are a follower of Christ,
forgiveness, love and compassion are at the very center of your life and practice.
Jesus visits the home of Simon of Pharisee, and to Simon’s
disgust a woman comes in who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with
her hair and then anoints them. Simon is disgusted because this is not the way things
are done. As far as he is concerned, the woman is a sinner – she is unclean –
and Jesus is letting her touch him in a very intimate way. Simon is critical
and judgmental whereas Jesus is allowing and loving. Simon sees the outer,
Jesus sees the inner essence of the woman.
Hearing his criticism, Jesus asks one of his famous
questions… two men went to a loan shark who, in an unprecedented move, offered
to write off their debt. One man owed $500, the other just $50. Which one was
the more grateful? “Well” replies Simon reluctantly, knowing that there’s trap
in there somewhere, “the one who owed more, I suppose.” You’re right,” says
Jesus. Of course you, as a Pharisee, don’t need much forgiveness so of course you
aren’t as loving as this woman who has shown me hospitality with her own body
and done everything you didn’t – washed, dried and anointed my feet.
And of course the irony here is that there are no degrees in
sin – in Romans we hear “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
In God’s eyes Simon has sinned just as much or as little as the woman. But
Simon is stuck in his criticism and his self-righteousness whereas the nameless
woman is moved to tears by her gratitude and her love for God in Jesus. She allowed
the knowledge of God’s love to touch her and move her and she responded with
gratitude and love expressed through her emotions, her body and her gifts.
We are forgiven. We are totally and absolutely forgiven, no
ifs, ands or buts…
If we are forgiven, why is it often so hard for us to
forgive others? Like the monk who couldn’t let go of his anger at his brother,
we continue to carry heavy loads around in our minds and hearts. And those
knots of un-forgiveness tie up our energy and slow us down. Imagine for a
moment that we get up everyday with 50 units of energy to spend. For one person
the weight of un-forgiven past that she is carrying uses perhaps 5 units of
energy and so she only has 45 to spend on today, but for another the weight is
much greater and eats up 25 units so she only has 25 units available for living
today. Forgiveness is not only a spiritual imperative because we follow the one
who is forgiveness, but it makes practical sense. How can you live in today if
you’re dragging yesterday around like a ball and chain?
In the first reading, we heard about one of David’s big
outrageous sins. He fancied Bathsheba and so he had her husband Uriah sent
into the front line of battle without back-up. When Uriah was killed, David
took Bathsheba for his own wife. The prophet Nathan made him see that he had
misused his power to oppress another, and that that had consequences. Unlike
the ancients, I don’t think that the baby died because David sinned. God does
not punish us. Illness happens, tragedy happens, it’s part of life in this world.
But I do know that sin often has real-time consequences.
In fact, I used to wonder why it really mattered that God
forgives us since it didn’t make things magically better. If I lose my temper
then however much I know that God forgives me, I still have to deal with
whoever I lost my temper with. God forgives us again and again but we still get
to deal with the consequences of our actions or inactions.
The trick, I think, is in forgiving myself. If God forgives
me, then why should I not forgive myself? In fact, it might even be rather
arrogant to go on accusing myself when God has already forgiven me.
Once I have accepted God’s forgiveness and forgiven myself,
then I am like the monk who put the woman down. I can move on. I can deal with
the consequences of my behavior without the added burden of self-accusation.
A couple of days ago I needed an important document in a
hurry. I have many large stacks of papers containing things I hope to get
around to dealing with, some important like unpaid bills, others less so, like
book catalogs I want to peruse just in case I need another book. So there were
many untidy places where this document could be. As I searched I berated myself
with how annoying it was that I couldn’t keep my papers in better order, that I would
be so much more efficient if I just put things away in the right place and on
and on… until I heard myself. I realized that my inner conversation was not
helping, in fact it was getting in the way of my finding the document.
When I can approach the clutter and mess in my office with
the equanimity that comes from accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving
myself, then I can deal with what’s there without the anxiety and recrimination
that makes it much harder to get anything done.
Often, forgiveness does not come easily. Especially when we
have made it a lifetime’s habit not to forgive ourselves, or not to forgive our
father or whomsoever we blame for the inadequacies and disappointments of our
lives. It’s also especially difficult to forgive when someone has injured you
in a major way. In those times when an injury or injustice is too recent or too
ingrained to be forgiven quickly, we can offer our willingness to forgive. If,
whenever the problem comes to mind, we cannot say “I forgive…” we instead say “I
am willing to forgive…” then before long that willingness will turn to forgiveness.
And with forgiveness will come greater equanimity and grace.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and
burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble
in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
gentle and humble in heart can see themselves clearly, knowing their persistent
faults and shortcomings and, being gentle with themselves, can also be gentle and
humble with others.
let us respond to God’s great gift of unconditional love and forgiveness, by disarming
our critical selves, and embracing forgiveness and generous self-giving love.