Which came first?

Simon-Sinful-WomanJesus turns to his host, Simon and says, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven because she has shown great love.” – and later Jesus tells her that her “sins are forgiven.”  When I ponder that short verse in the gospel, I have often pondered it as though it were a chicken and egg question. You know, which comes first love or forgiveness?  I think the answer is, it depends.

Scripture is clear that in the relationship between God and us, love comes first. Listen to the words of 1st Letter of John: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins… We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:10,19) That seems pretty clear. As regards forgiveness, it is there for our asking, because God already and always loves us.

What about between two people. Again, I think it depends on the history of the relationship. It might well be that in the course of meeting and falling in love, that the incident that requires forgiveness for healing comes later. What about between parents and their children. Love is definitely first. In thinking about friendships, at least in my experience, friendship as love comes first in just about every case I can think of in my life.

Then why is forgiveness such a problem sometimes? Colossians 3:12 tells us to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another.”  Maybe we just reach a point where we forget to put on those things. Or maybe we get tired of being the one who works to put on those things, and the other person doesn’t. Then that thought creeps in, “That’s it. Next time they can forget about patience, meekness, and kindness – we’ll see how they like that!”  And it’s not that you don’t love them, but…. you don’t like them a lot right at that moment. And so it goes, until we have a perception and memory forever fixed in our own hearts and minds that is just the way they are.

That is with people we know… but the process is similar for people we know less well, or people we only think we know. I think that is what is happening between Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman. He is a seemingly a respectable person who does the right things, at the right time, and in the right way.  Scripture says she was “a sinful woman in the city.”  Could refer to many things – none of them likely casting her as a respectable person.  When she enters his house, Simon rewinds his perception and memory one more time – he knows who she is – she is that sinful woman.  She’ll never change.

And Simon begins to make notes about Jesus – recording a new perception and new memories. People said he was a prophet – but really? Simon says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”  Simon is beginning to wonder if Jesus is the kind of person who is himself respectable.

And that is the way it starts – we record perceptions and memories about people. Yes – that one, he is self-absorbed, uncaring, places his friends and career above his family, etc., etc. Yes – she is overly concerned about her appearance, she’s a gossip, only married him for his money, and such. Yes – those kids never share their toys, are bullies on the playground, aren’t good students, … and we all have a list somewhere.   And what about those priests? And that mayor, that doctor, those lawyers…. And we record our opinions, our perceptions and our memories of all these people.  ….and slowly we build the memory about them and that they will never change.

And you know what – we may get it exactly right. We might be spot-on in our conclusions about this or that particular person – at this moment in time, in this place, and in this circumstance.  But time and experience contain the conditions for the possibility of change in all things.

In this same chapter in the gospel, Jesus has been healing, restoring, forgiving – being a source of life, love and hope. And maybe this unnamed “sinful women in the city” has seen all of this while standing apart from the respectable crowd, keeping to herself…. Keeping her thoughts to herself.  That fire of Jesus’ love entering into her soul like a red-hot catalyst, making all things possible, making all things new.  Maybe she heard the words of the Roman centurion, “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof” and she responded with our words from the Invitation to Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  And the word has been said – and in those words, the possibility of healing, restoration, and forgiveness.

And in a moment it all changed.  She boldly enters into Simon’s house, under his roof, under his stare of disapproval, to find the one who has already said the words of love, healing and restoration. To find the one who will heal her, change her, and make all things new.

What Simon saw was a sinner.  What Jesus sees is a woman who knows she is a sinner, a woman whose need for forgiveness drove her to her knees, and brought her to her senses. We see before Jesus, a woman who is both repentant and grateful.  A woman who changed, a woman forgiven, a woman saved.

Maybe today will be our day of change. Perhaps today we will say with new insight and conviction: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  Maybe today is the day we will erase all those many perceptions and memories of others, allowing them to change; allowing ourselves to be changed.

Which comes first love or forgiveness?  Maybe today is that day we figure out we are loved and forgiven by God. How can we do less for others?


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