The world has been praying for Nelson Mandela as he has been in and out of the hospital. Though he is 94 years old, there is a real fear about his dying, as though perhaps he might not die. While there are many reasons to be sad when that day does come, I think a part of the fear of Mandela’s dying has to do with the way he has forgiven and shown others how to forgive. He’s a powerful symbol of forgiveness, of mercy. When he dies, that powerful symbol will change, and people (in South Africa and everywhere) will not be able to rely upon Mandela to represent forgiveness for us. But that’s a mistake for us to see him as the superhuman that is capable of forgiving in a way that we might think would be impossible for us. Forgiveness doesn’t come from Nelson Mandela, or from any good or righteous person—it comes from God.
In our scripture readings for today we see that forgiveness is multi-layered, multi-textured. It often involves relationships that shift and change. But for forgiveness to flow steadily, from God to or through us, for forgiveness truly to be given or received, the relationships need to be in order, or at least the relationships need to be honest about being out of order.
In our first reading we see King David, who has seen the beautiful woman Bathsheba and has decided he must have her. The fact that she has a husband doesn’t bother King David. The fact that her husband Uriah is a soldier fighting to protect the kingdom, doesn’t bother David. Instead, the king simply has Uriah sent to the battle front where the fighting is fiercest. Sure enough, Uriah is killed in battle, and David moves in for the woman he wants.
But then God sends Nathan the prophet to King David. Nathan tells David this story about a man who had a perfect little lamb. But a stranger came into town and demanded the lamb. David hears the story and responds with outrage that such a thing is unfair, unjust, and ought not to be allowed. The one who demands the lamb should be punished. But then Nathan shows David that the man in the story who demands what is not his is actually King David himself—the one whose greed and lust blinds him his own guilt. David will need to come clean before he can receive God’s forgiveness. He needs to come to a new place of honesty and clarity before God’s grace can flow. David has gotten used to relying upon himself for everything, to the point that he’s forgotten to rely on God. Now, to receive forgiveness and move forward, David has to re-learn what it is to fall in the arms of God, to ask for help, and to have faith in God’s goodness.
In the Gospel, a woman approaches Jesus. She’s a famous woman whose name we don’t know. Some have jumped ahead in the story and made this woman Mary Magdalene, but there’s nothing connecting the two. The woman with the alabaster jar is famous for her act of kindness, generosity, passion… and for her faith, known and perceived only by Jesus, it seems.
The woman begins to bathe and anoint his feet with her tears and with an expensive ointment. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, are appalled at this. They ask Jesus, “Don’t you know who she is? Don’t you know what she’s done?
But Jesus DOES know her, and he knows all about her. He knows that God made her. He knows that God loves her, and he also knows (somehow) that she is sorry for her past and wants to move into the future – free, clean, and new. And so Jesus forgives her and she receives that forgiveness because of her faith.
Forgiveness doesn’t happen in the abstract, it happens between two people, usually between two very human people. But it is God who is doing the forgiving—not me, not you. God originates the forgiveness, helps it along in us, and moves us toward the other person or people, but both the frustrating and freeing truth is the forgiveness belongs to God.
That can be frustrating, because I would often rather have such things as forgiveness happen on my own time frame, according to my own sense of justice and mercy. If I’m the one needing forgiveness, hoping to be forgiven, then of course I want such forgiveness immediately, right now. Make me feel better! But if I’m the one who has been wronged, it’s usually the case that I want the other person to stew a little in their discomfort—oh, I might cover it up by saying “he needs to understand what he has done,” or “she needs to show that things will be different in the future.” But if I’m connected to God, the source of all forgiveness, then I need to be open to God’s forgiving—whether I’m ready to be a part of that, or not.
The Lord’s Prayer that we say at every Mass, and many of us every day, has that troublesome line in it, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In part, I think that phrase reminds us that our willingness and ability to forgive is connected in some way to our ability to feel and be truly forgiven. We can sometimes clog things up with a warped sense of timing, justice, or an overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness to receive forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer enables us to pray that God would keep the forgiving spirit moving through us and that we could do all we can to allow that grace to flow.
The fact that forgiveness belongs to God is frustrating for the reasons I just mentioned, but it is also incredibly freeing. This frees me to be human, to confess my own unwillingness to forgive (or be forgiven). In prayer, I can talk to God about the things I’m still holding on to, and ask God to relax my clutching hands so that I could be more in a place to be a part of God’s forgiveness. I don’t have to be a super-Christian in order to forgive—I simply need to be open to God’s power, God’s intention, and God’s grace.
When Jesus forgives the woman with the alabaster jar, those looking on don’t understand. They want her to play by their rules, to fit into their understanding of God’s justice. When Jesus offers forgiveness, they wonder aloud, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Which is to say, “Who is this who thinks he can forgive sins.” But that’s just it. Jesus is a channel, is a vessel, is the Way the Father’s love is poured out on the woman, on the religious leaders (if they will have it), and on any and all who seek God’s grace and mercy.
Whenever I begin to think that forgiveness is up to me—either to extend or to receive—I try to remember the words of the theologian Austin Farrer, whose description of forgiveness reminds me who’s in charge.
“God forgives me with the compassion of his eyes, but my back is turned to him. I have been told that he forgives me, but I will not turn and have the forgiveness, not though I feel the eyes on my back. God forgives me, for he takes my head between his hands and turns my face to his to make me smile at him. And though I struggle and hurt those hands—for they are human, though divine, human and scarred with nails – though I hurt them, they do not let go until he has smiled me into smiling; and that is the forgiveness of God.” (Austin Farrer, in Said or Sung. London, Faith Press. 1960.)
May God continue to use us in his ongoing work of forgiveness, mercy, and grace… and may we have the humility and good sense to stay out of the way of God’s working.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.