Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.
Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.
We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.
Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.
Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?
In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.
But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.
He says to us.
The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.
By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.
Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.