I had a large parochial school at a previous parish assignment. There was one student whom I tried to avoid whenever possible; he had the habit of confessing spontaneously. He would volunteer happily that he had let air out of a neighbor’s tires, or that his classmate had urinated while swimming in a friend’s pool.
I wasn’t bothered by the things he considered to be serious moral transgressions. Rather, I tried to avoid him because I had a very difficult time trying not to laugh about what he judged to be so reprehensible. That little kid was convinced that sins, both his and other peoples’, needed to be confessed swiftly and publicly.
Last week I mentioned to you that miracles are signs of contradiction; miracles lead some to faith and others to disbelief. It can be said that sin, too, is a contradictory sign; there have been many different judgments made about sin over the centuries.
There was a time when many people doubted that God could be willing to forgive their sins. God was viewed as being like the cranky old man who lived on your street when you were a child; he was always on the watch, hoping to catch someone misbehaving. The Reformation’s emphasis on “justification by faith alone” was one attempt to arrive at certainty about God’s forgiveness. Catholicism took a different approach, and encouraged people to confess often – even when unnecessary – in order to avoid condemnation.
More recently, the neurotic fear of a previous generation has given way to a (worse) self-righteousness. Today, many people view God as being like the Easter Bunny: an endearing story, but fantasy. Rather than questioning the possibility of God’s forgiveness, our society now questions the possibility of God’s existence.
I’d like to suggest that all of these issues about God derive from the same source: our unwillingness to forgive one another. Perhaps our multiple doubts about God are, at their root, doubts about the possibility of human forgiveness. For many in our society, forgiveness is a sign of weakness. It is easy enough, I think, to make the case that we are slow to forgive because we judge forgiveness to be shameful. In light of our low opinion of the value of forgiveness, Jesus has a story to tell us.
The central details of the story of the sinful woman in today’s Gospel reading tell us quite a lot. A Pharisee named Simon was willing to be seen as being on friendly terms with Jesus. A woman in the town was willing to violate strict social customs by walking uninvited into a dinner party. Jesus was willing to excuse the social transgression, but Simon was not.
The woman’s transgression was quite serious. In Jesus’ culture, men and women did not socialize together. A woman who put herself in the company of men to whom she was not related would have been guilty of shameful behavior. It would have been considered equally shameful for Simon or Jesus to allow her to be near them or to touch them.
The woman behaved in a shameful fashion. Jesus allowed her to do so. The Pharisee was self-righteous and, as a consequence, shameless. Jesus was courageous enough to be in the presence of a sinful woman. The sinful woman was courageous enough to be in the presence of Jesus. Simon was either too timid or too selfish to forgive.
At the end of the story Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:50) There is a necessary connection between forgiveness and faith; they require each other, and strengthen each other. The absence of one means the absence of the other. A person cannot be faithful but unforgiving any more than a person can be unfaithful but forgiving.
Contemporary atheists object to the idea and practice of religious faith because they attribute society’s many moral failings (war, racism, unequal distribution of wealth, etc.), to the influence of organized religion. Implausibly, their criticisms of the failings of world societies do not extend to the few societies which publicly embrace(d) atheism.
The brutality of most human societies pale in comparison to the brutality of North Korea, China, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. While many countries today embrace a social value that denigrates forgiveness, the worst offenders, by far, are those countries where religion is outlawed or controlled by the government.
There is compelling evidence to posit a direct, proportional relationship between social injustice and the lack of forgiveness, just as there is evidence of a direct relationship between forgiveness and faith. The fundamental fallacy of contemporary atheism is that it tries to shift culpability for human failings onto God. The Gospels offer a very different view of human culpability: that it is a crushing burden remediable only by Divine forgiveness.
If you find it difficult to believe in a God who is trustworthy and compassionate, you probably also find it difficult to forgive those who wrong you (and vice versa). If you want to grow in faith, it might be necessary first to grow in forgiveness. On the other hand, if forgiveness is a daily habit in your life, your faith has saved you.