Loving forgiveness

Two sweethearts walked hand in hand on the riverwalk in downtown New Orleans. Both knew that their relationship was deepening and growing stronger day by day.

CEL-June122016.jpgOn that day in particular, they were musing about their future together and how they might deal with the inevitable problems and disagreements that arise in any relationship. They conversed on a variety of possible scenarios, including faith preference, cultural background, children, political views, money issues, etc.

Eleventh Sunday in
Ordinary Time
2 Samuel 12:7-10, 13
Psalm 32
Galatians 2:16, 19-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

At one point in their conversation, she turned to him and asked tentatively, "Could you forgive me if I were unfaithful?"

She was shocked by how quickly he replied, "Of course, I would. I love you too much not to!"

It is precisely this quality of forgiveness that we celebrate today as each of the three sacred texts offers assurance to sinners that God cannot help but forgive because God, who is Love, loves us too much not to.

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This quality of divine forgiveness is at the heart of the Scriptures and was made incarnate in the person and mission of Jesus.

Throughout the Hebrew sacred texts, Israel's infidelity is a constant, but even more constant is the love with which God calls her home, speaks to her heart and forgives her. When Jesus appeared among us, his first words (in Mark's Gospel) were a call to repentance: "Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).

As John O'Donnell has explained, this good news is God's offer of re-conciliation, which explains many aspects of the ministry of Jesus, such as his deliberate association with tax collectors and prostitutes (A Faith You Can Live With, Sheed and Ward, 1999). These social outcasts became symbols for what God was offering to all sinners: reconciliation.

God's great love for sinners is expressed in every word and work of Jesus. This insight was given eloquent expression by Paul, who in his letter to the Romans summed up the entire mystery of God's mercy: "While we were yet helpless ... Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for an unrighteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!" (Romans 5:6-7).

David experienced the depth of God's love, as is illustrated in today's first reading. There, the author of Samuel tells of David's scheme to have Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, for his own. When confronted by Nathan, David admitted his sin and was forgiven.

His example speaks to us all. How difficult it is to be confronted with our own sin. How humiliating to admit our guilt. But this David did, and so must we listen to the Nathans whom God sends our way to call us to repent and believe the good news of God's forgiveness.

In the second reading, Paul speaks of this good news in terms of justification. Sinners are justified, or set in a right relationship with God, through the saving death of Jesus.

Through faith, sinners appropriate this great and undeserved gift. God's salvation, justification and forgiveness are not earned; each and all are grace, freely given by a loving, merciful God.

Paul's insight is most beautifully and poignantly dramatized in today's Lucan Gospel. In the narrative, Luke tells a touching story of love and forgiveness, and our sympathy (even empathy) is evoked on behalf of the woman. Brendon Byrne calls this "a comfortable interpretation that misses the whole point" (The Hospitality of God, The Liturgical Press, 2000).

While this aspect of the narrative is not to be overlooked, Byrne points out that Luke has made use of a triangular pattern here in order to contrast the different responses to Jesus. Simon, on the one hand, offered no welcome to God's forgiveness as it was extended to him in Jesus. A Pharisee, well-versed in the law, he may have thought himself to be righteous or justified on that account. For that reason, he had no need for Jesus except as a novelty to satisfy his curiosity.

On the other hand, the unnamed sinful woman extended a lavish hospitality to Jesus, offering him every kindness that Simon had refused. Simon may have invited Jesus into his home, but she welcomed Jesus into her heart. In the process, Jesus forgave her sins, blessing her for her faith and bidding her go in peace.

What about you and me? What sort of welcome do we extend to Jesus, who comes with healing in his hands and forgiveness in his heart? Will Jesus speak those saving words to us? "Your sins are forgiven; your faith has saved you, go in peace."

[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]

This story appeared in the June 3-16, 2016 print issue under the headline: Loving forgiveness .

This Sunday scripture commentary appears in full in NCR's sister publication Celebration, a worship and homiletic resource. Request a sample issue at CelebrationPublications.org.

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