We do not know who this woman is but we are told she is a sinner. Her sin removes her from her place within a family, a community, in worship, in love. Her sin ostracizes her and now renames her, redefines her as someone to be shunned and avoided. Her sin utterly dehumanizes her. She is no-one. She has no status. No value. She is nothing.
She hears that He is at the house of Simon the Pharisee. She comes from the darkness of the colonnade behind where he is reclining to eat. She cannot bear to look Him in the face - she does not know who she is any more - He cannot know her, He must not know her.
She weeps. The tracks of her tears tell her story of shame. As she offers herself to Jesus with tears and ointment - He offers her in return that which she could not find herself - forgiveness.
Did her actions repulse Simon? Did he curl his lip? Did his love for of the letter of the Law condemn her with a look of disdain? We’ll not know what prompted Jesus’ parable.
Who do you think would be more grateful, Jesus asks, a man whose debt of five hundred denarii was cancelled or the one forgiven fifty? It’s simple. All that’s required here is a basic understanding of mathematics, as the first man is forgiven ten times the debt of the other.
Simon knows how to count, and so answers grudgingly that he supposes (“supposes”? – really, Simon, you only suppose?) it would be the man for whom the greater debt was cancelled?
Jesus looks at and acknowledges this woman - something that has not happened to her for some time - but speaks to Simon. Her actions outwardly demonstrate the repentance, the true nature, of her innermost heart and He forgives her.
Forgiveness at heart is the giving back, the restoring of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy of the debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up a future.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself. You see, after being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, and set free.
Forgiveness in that sense is a transaction - giver and receiver in a mutual exchange - offering each other a renewed future together.
Forgiveness requires you to be able to put yourself where the other person is. But because forgiveness requires that - it is nigh on impossible to truly forgive from behind a desk, or on an email, or over the phone. It is very hard to forgive from the heart unless you step out of your office and you are willing to give yourself to the other, to step round and stand alongside the them. Is it any wonder that, Jesus looks at this woman as He offers her her heart’s desire?
We all carry around within ourselves ‘stuff’. ‘Stuff’ - memories, thoughts, acts, words, deeds that if others knew about them, might see us ostracized from our place within our relationships, our community, in worship, in love. That ‘stuff’, our sin, ostracizes us and renames us, redefines us as people to be shunned and avoided. Our sin utterly dehumanizes us. We are a bunch of nobodies, worth nothing with no status or value. But not to Jesus...
That woman didn’t earn the forgiveness that Jesus offered her that day. But by that unmerited grace - the forgiveness of God freely given to one who believed that she was the least deserving - she was set her free by Christ and her present and her future were transformed.
We do not know who that woman was or what became of her, but I wonder if it is no accident that several women are named at the end of our Gospel reading this morning - women who in Jesus’ day who had no status or standing. These women who were previously ill or demon possessed - are now named - Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Restored, Dignified, Hope and so on. They are identified, they have status, they are something - people loved and forgiven by God.
The grace of God is still unbound in our world. Jesus comes from behind the desk and joins us where we are. He knows what we each carry. He looks each of us in the face, into our inmost hearts, as He did that woman, and even though we may not want Him to, He knows us, He really knows us. His love for us is dangerous because it accepts all of us, yes all of us, yes all of us and offers to set us free into a present and future together with Him and each other - to be set free and forgiven. His forgiveness gives us back ourselves - as beloved children of God. You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself first and foremost as someone carrying stuff around within us, someone broken, hurting, failing, a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and define us. We are no more and no less than what we’ve done, the mistakes we’ve made, the debt we owe and we are all there.
When we are forgiven by Jesus, all those limitations disappear and we are restored, renewed, set free to stand together with each other, named with the 12 disciples. This is the grace of God at work amongst us still. Speaking of our response, G.K Chesterton put it so beautifully,
‘...To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless...’
This is the Grace we are called to revel in, the forgiveness and love we are called to share.
Two final things. Firstly a poem by Sydney Carter:
to alter this man's life
except the one
surprise of being loved.
or any kind of sex.
a cure for cancer, smoking, leprosy
Over this dead loss to society
you pour your precious ointment,
wash the feet
that will not walk tomorrow.
your love is dangerous, your levity
our local gravity.
no future for this dying man or me.
So blow the world to glory,
crack the clock. Let love be dangerous.
And then this song from U2...