Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to write this sermon, I accidently opened my ipad and facebook came up. In big, bold letters, dominating the screen, was a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgiveable.” Tutu was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa during the height of apartheid, and after it ended, he chaired the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that attempted to deal with the violence, injustice, and oppression of that nation’s past. Like a bolt from the blue, well actually, the quotation’s background was violet, that little phrase gets to both the power and the difficulty of forgiveness. Continue reading
The so-called parable of the Prodigal Son, which we heard this morning in the proclamation of the gospel, is one of Jesus’ most familiar and most-beloved parables. It is full of drama and emotion and I suspect for those of us who know it well, it has helped to shape our experience and understanding of God. To confront the depths of one’s sinfulness, to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, to be embraced by God’s love and grace, that not only describes the experiences, indeed the very Christian life, that many us have lived, it is also played out dramatically in this little story. Continue reading
It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
We have slowly been gaining insight into Luke’s understanding of Jesus these past few months–slowly because our gospel readings have jumped around in Luke and have also included readings from the Gospel of John. Among the most important texts for Luke’s understanding of Jesus is his teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:17:21, read on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany). There Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of the recovery of sight for the blind, that prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have the good news preached to them. Over the following weeks, we saw some of that activity. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we also saw the promise of forgiveness from a loving God.
It may be that it is only now, in the crucifixion scene, that many churchgoers will encounter central aspects of Luke’s image of Jesus. His prayer for forgiveness as he is crucified is a prayer that God will forgive his executioners whether or not they repent of their actions. In fact, Jesus says that “they know not what they do.” Jesus responds similarly to the plea of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here, the criminal doesn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus extends his forgiveness nonetheless: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In Luke Jesus is crucified not to pay for the sins of humanity. He is crucified because the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators have chosen to execute him. The charges brought against him are political: perverting our nation,telling people no to pay taxes, and calling himself Messiah, a king (Lk 23:2). Pilate finds him innocent of the charges; Herod’s interrogation is inconclusive because Jesus doesn’t answer his questions. The second criminal also pronounces him condemned unjustly and the centurion says as Jesus dies, “Certainly this man was innocent.”
Jesus’ innocence and his forgiveness of those who crucified him in spite of that innocence is central to the story. Luke will draw on that same theme in Acts when the first martyr, Stephen, asks God to forgive those who stone him.
Many contemporary Christians and those who struggle with Christianity wrestle with the meaning of the cross, with the doctrine of atonement, and especially with the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. As hard as it is for us to get our heads around this notion, it may be that Luke’s understanding of the cross is still more puzzling–an innocent victim who prays for forgiveness: that’s an image of a God of great compassion, and of a Christ who is difficult to imitate. But forgiveness of others is at the heart of our faith (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and should also be at the heart of our ethics
Our lessons today bring us up squarely against one of those ways in which the language and world of the Bible confronts our world most profoundly. The Biblical world uses the term “sin” to express the chasm that separates human beings from their creator, and in our texts today, we see “sin” in all of its complexity and all of the suffering it causes. From the Hebrew Bible, there’s the story of King Ahab coveting and seizing a commoner’s vineyard. From Paul’s letter to the Galatians, our reading begins with words that shock us: “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” And the gospel presents the story of a sinful woman who receives forgiveness from Jesus.