“God is Merciful”
A woman like the one in today’s Gospel story invites us to use our imaginations. We might imagine what she has done to earn such a bad reputation. Maybe she is a prostitute. Maybe she is a thief. Maybe she is considered to be a traitor to her Jewish neighbours, cooperating with the Roman occupiers. Maybe she is the daughter or wife of a tax collector.
We might also imagine the woman’s name. Perhaps Jezebel – a Hebrew name meaning “one who is not noble.” Or maybe her name is Lilith, meaning “woman of the night.” Or it could be Mariana – “rebellious woman.”
But what if, instead of imagining the woman’s many sins, we imagined the moment when she was forgiven. I am remembering another story in which an unnamed woman is about to be stoned for adultery. Jesus tells her accusers to go ahead – “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” I wonder… was this that same woman, forgiven and set free to go and sin no more?
Or maybe she was just one of the prostitutes with whom Jesus shared a meal when he was passing through her village. After all, Jesus’ enemies often accused him of eating with tax collectors and other sinners. We can only guess at the circumstances that led her into such an occupation, but likely she struggled with poverty, perhaps homelessness, or just a bad reputation or lineage that would not allow her to marry and raise a family of her own. But for the first time, when Jesus came to visit, she felt included, respected, and even loved. And maybe that was what gave her the strength and the courage to get out, and to look for another way of life.
Or perhaps this sinful woman was simply in the crowd as Jesus was preaching one day. She heard him telling the people not to judge one another. She heard him encouraging them to forgive each other as the Lord has mercy and forgives. And maybe for the first time in her life, she found a person that she could trust – someone who would listen, and understand – who would not condemn her or write her off as having no hope.
Like so many biblical people who encounter God or Jesus and are transformed by the experience, I can imagine this woman receiving a new name. Maybe from now on people will call her Joanna – a Hebrew name meaning, “God is merciful.” Or maybe she will be known as Rina – “joyful song” – as she continues to praise God for the forgiving love that she has received through Jesus. Salome, meaning “peaceful” might also suit her, freed as she has been from her past sins and the anxiety of living as an outcast.
Once in a while, in the context of a pastoral visit, people tell me about their sins. It’s not that a formal confession to a pastor is a part of our religious tradition, but our hearts and spirits know that sometimes these things need to be said out loud to someone so that they can be forgiven, and forgotten, and laid to rest.
We know that God forgives the sins we confess in the silence of our hearts to him. But sometimes it can help us to hear those words of assurance spoken directly to us, by someone who knows the awful things that we have done, by someone who still believes that God can forgive us.
Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Go in peace.”
As a pastor, I am humbled that people sometimes trust me enough to share such things, and I am honoured to be able to pronounce such forgiveness in Jesus’ name.
But if there is a character in today’s story to which more of us might relate, it is probably Simon the Pharisee, rather than the forgiven woman. Although there are times when we become aware of our sins and failings, most of us probably believe that we are pretty good, respectable people most of the time.
When we became followers of Jesus, it wasn’t a turn away from a life of crime or prostitution. We’re generally good people, who work hard, love our families, do our best to be good neighbours, and even come to church on Sundays.
The Pharisees were very much like us. They get a bad reputation in the Gospels, but they were not bad guys. They were good guys, religious guys, guys who studied the scriptures and worked hard to live according to God’s laws. They were leaders in their communities, people who hosted dinner parties, and guided others in the laws of God.
But Simon’s dinner gets interrupted. A woman with a bad reputation crashes the party, starts weeping and making a scene, monopolizing the guest of honour, and ruining all Simon’s plans.
I’m reminded of a time when a homeless person showed up to one of our church lunches. He was dirty and smelly, but he was invited to sit down with us and eat. And I think everything was okay until he started to make noise. We had a speaker on a special topic that day, and the homeless man started to ask questions, interrupting the flow and our expectations for our program.
Of course we dealt with it. We were patient, and the speaker answered his questions along with everyone else’s. We didn’t kick him out or tell him to be quiet.
But then, neither did Simon the Pharisee remove that sinful woman from his dinner party. I don’t think he even said anything out loud. When Simon saw what was happening with the woman crying all over Jesus and wiping his feet with her hair, he said something to himself. I think he probably just thought it! “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”
And that’s when Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
Can you hear Jesus saying something similar to you? Who are the people that you are writing off or ruling out? Who are the people that you are judging, condemning, or excluding? Perhaps not out loud, but quietly in your heart.
Maybe it’s the liberals or the conservatives. Maybe it’s the fundamentalists or the radical free thinkers. Maybe it’s the people who don’t seem as committed to practising their faith, or the ones who don’t seem to put it into action in their daily lives. Maybe it’s the next generation that won’t seem to take up leadership in the church, or it’s the last generation that seems so stuck in their traditions and resistant to change. Maybe it’s the First Nations people who can’t seem to get their lives together, or maybe it’s the White people who can’t stop acting like settlers. Maybe it’s the people creating a spectacle for Pride Week, or maybe it’s the politician who refuses to acknowledge that whole segment of the population.
It is so easy for us to judge one another, and to look down on others that we think of as sinful and in need of correction. It is probably the most pervasive sin among religious people, whether they are Pharisees or contemporary Christians.
But the good news of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ is for us also when we are willing to admit to ourselves and to God that we also need God’s forgiveness. Whether our sins are many or few, they are real, and serious, and certainly not hidden from God who knows what is in our hearts and minds.
May we hear and believe the good news today: In Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven. May will live in gratefulness and joy, learning day-by-day to forgive others as God has forgiven us. And may God give us peace. Amen.