By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Pentecost, Proper 6 – June 16, 2013
So our gospel story today is about forgiveness. And it’s about the gratitude that forgiveness creates. And it’s about the extravagant acts of love and devotion that gratitude prompts.
But it’s also about something else: it’s about hardness of heart as opposed to love, about judgment instead of forgiveness, and about a sense of entitlement instead of gratitude.
Notice that telling this short parable would have been enough. The parable explains why the woman is acting as she is: she is like one who has had five hundred denarii — well over a year’s wages — forgiven her. That would have been enough, but Jesus doesn’t stop there.
Instead, he compares her actions of extravagant hospitality with that of Simon’s. He changes his focus, from her devotion to Simon’s neglect. It’s not that Simon would have been expected to wash Jesus’ feet with his tears. It’s that her extravagance only magnifies Simon’s utter lack of hospitality, not providing even the minimum of what a good host would normally offer a guest.
Why this change of focus? Because the truth Jesus points to cuts both ways. It’s not only that one who has been forgiven much loves much from gratitude, it’s that the one who is forgiven little loves little.
Which is interesting. You might have expected Jesus to continue the line of the conversation at this point by moving to an accusation or even threat: Watch out, Simon, because the one who loves little is forgiven little. But rather than render judgment, Jesus instead simply offers a description: Those who have been forgiven little love very little.
Or is it less that they have not been forgiven, but don’t notice it. Perhaps don’t even think they need it. Who knows – perhaps they even disdain forgiveness as something for others, for those like this woman who is clearly a sinner, clearly beneath them, and so clearly in need of forgiveness. But them? Need forgiveness? Hardly!
And so it goes. If we cannot admit our need, we cannot receive the remedy for our lack, will not experience the gratitude of those who have received, as we said before, everything, and so are unable to love with abandon.
This certainly seems to be Simon’s situation. He has invited Jesus over but shows him no hospitality – which makes one wonder whether he invited Jesus sincerely or more for sport. And rather than be taken aback by the woman’s show of love, he judges both her and Jesus. He is a man who has no sense of being forgiven – even of needing forgiveness – and so is trapped in a judgmental hardness of heart.
Consider that forgiveness, at heart, is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable. Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” “Do you see this woman?” really struck me. That question has everything to do with relationship. Do we really notice, or know, the people around us? I ran across a story, an essay, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Listen to his story:
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a stranger crying in public. I was in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, waiting to meet a friend for breakfast. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early and was sitting on the bench outside, scrolling through my contact list. A girl, maybe 15 years old, was sitting on the bench opposite me, crying into her phone. I heard her say, “I know, I know, I know” over and over.
What did she know? Had she done something wrong? Was she being comforted? And then she said, “Mama, I know,” and the tears came harder. What was her mother telling her? Never to stay out all night again? That everybody fails? Is it possible that no one was on the other end of the call, and that the girl was merely rehearsing a difficult conversation? “Mama, I know,” she said, and hung up, placing her phone on her lap.
I was faced with a choice: I could interject myself into her life, or I could respect the boundaries between us. Intervening might make her feel worse, or be inappropriate. But then, it might ease her pain, or be helpful in some straightforward logistical way. An affluent neighborhood at the beginning of the day is not the same as a dangerous one as night is falling. And I was me, and not someone else. There was a lot of human computing to be done.
It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection, but it did make ignoring her easier in that moment, and more likely, by comfortably encouraging me to forget my choice to do so. My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.
Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation — you can say what you need to say without a response; hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up.
Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.
We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or —— but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy.
Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Amen.
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