In the middle of the gospel account we just read, Jesus tells a brief story. Two guys each owe serious money to a third guy. One of them owes the equivalent of about $4,000 in today’s money. The other one owes ten times that amount—roughly $40,000. Both of the debts were due and payable in full—like a balloon payment. No mention is made of refinancing or lowering the interest rate or anything like that. And neither of the debtors has the available cash to take care of their obligation. Now, in that society, the creditor would have been completely within his rights to have both of the debtors thrown into jail for nonpayment. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he writes off both debts, completely forgiving the entire amount. Remember—one owes $4,000 and the other $40,000. So which one, Jesus asks—which one is going to be more grateful; which debtor is going to feel more warm fuzzies toward the forgiving creditor?
This little parable is, of course, intended to illustrate that God’s forgiveness is abundant and extensive. The more we sin, the more God is able to forgive. There’s no amount of sinning that can outstrip God’s capacity for wiping the slate clean when we own up to our sins and turn away from them and ask him to forgive us. Some of us have a deep and penetrating sense of our own sinfulness, a sense of having let God down in a big way. We can pray with the Psalmist, “My sin is ever before me,” and “my wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness”—we can pray those words from the Psalms, and really mean them from the bottom of our hearts. Such persons identify readily with the debtor who was forgiven a debt that equaled more than a year’s wages. Others among us—let’s face it—have consciences that are less tender. We acknowledge the fact of our own sinfulness, but it’s more of an intellectual conviction than something we feel intensely in the gut. We don’t naturally feel guilty; we have to work at it! Such persons may find it easier to identify with the debtor who was forgiven the lesser amount—about six weeks worth of work at ten dollars an hour.
Either way, however—whether we see and feel ourselves as the $4,000 debtor or the $40,000 debtor—either way, the important thing is that we take seriously the magnitude of God’s love for us. This is more difficult than it sounds, because we have no model, no analogy, in our experience of human love that can help us understand God’s love. Human love is imperfect. More often than not, it lets us down. More often than not, it is conditional and limited. We may tell those whom we love otherwise, and we may really mean it when we do so. But we’re fallible, and we can’t always live up to our intentions. In a sort of cruel irony, the more we love somebody, the more likely we are to disappoint them, the more our love is subject to malfunction and failure.
So, it’s easy to imagine that God’s forgiveness is flawed in the same way, that it’s restricted and difficult to attain. After all, the human forgiveness with which we are most familiar is very often whimsical—here today and gone tomorrow and back again the next day. The human forgiveness with which we are most familiar is usually good for a limited number of refills. If we keep on committing the same offense against the same person, even if they forgive us once or twice or three times, eventually they’re going to wise up, or their patience is going to run out, or both. The human forgiveness with which we are most familiar almost always has an exclusion clause —certain offenses are not covered. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few TV interviews with crime victims and their families.
Consequently, since our understanding of love and forgiveness is determined by our experience of human love and forgiveness, and since our vision of God’s love and forgiveness is thereby clouded, our own capacity for love is constricted. Our own ability to both give and receive love is constricted by fear. Our own ability to both give and receive forgiveness is constricted by shame. Of course, fear and shame rarely show up as themselves; they usually appear in the form of selfishness or arrogance, or disguise themselves as prudence and good business sense. But whether we see it as shame and fear, or selfishness and “common sense,” it is a restricted experience of human love that gives us a restricted view of God’s love which causes us to be unable to love and forgive ourselves and others.
So today’s Good News is good news indeed. It’s the clear message that God’s forgiveness is abundant and God’s forgiveness is extensive. God’s forgiveness is not dependent on his mood; it’s grounded in his very nature. God’s forgiveness never runs dry; however much we sin, as long as we repent and return to the Lord, his forgiveness is sufficient to cover our need. And there’s no exclusion clause as far as God’s forgiveness is concerned; whatever we’ve done, it’s forgivable. Whatever we’ve done, it can be expunged from our record. This has got to come as welcome news whether we are among those who feel the full weight of our guilt 24/7, or are among those who have to accept our guilt as a matter of fact, not something we feel deeply.
But there’s more: God’s forgiveness covers not only your sins and my sins, but, as we pray in the liturgy, “the sins of the world.” Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins the world. God’s forgiveness extends not just to the personal sins of individuals, but to the world’s own cosmic woundedness—the social structures that no one person is responsible for, but which “corrupt and destroy to creatures of God.”
And what does this all mean? To be forgiven is to be liberated. To be forgiven is to be set free. God’s love and forgiveness sets us free to love without condition and to forgive with abandon. The model for this is the unnamed woman in today’s gospel. Jesus goes into the house of Simon the Pharisee in response to a dinner invitation. As was the custom then, he’s reclining while he eats, supporting himself on one elbow. So his feet were accessible to the woman who slipped through the virtually non-existent security at small-town social events and started kissing his feet and pouring ointment on them. The text merely tells us that she was a known “sinner,” but the clear implication is that she was a prostitute, an occupation that was no more reputable then than it is today. She knew that she had been forgiven a great deal. She was acutely aware of her own sinfulness, that her sins were plentiful and substantial. And she also knew herself to have been set free, liberated, to love Jesus without shame, without fear, without regard to propriety or common sense, but with absolute abandon. She is our model. She is an icon of today’s Good News. The more deeply we apprehend the depth and length and breadth of God’s forgiving love, the more we are set free to love God, to love ourselves, to love others, to love the entire created order. What a marvelous opportunity this is! Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.