I sometimes invite an adult class to close their eyes as I read aloud the story from Mark 2 of the paralyzed man whose four friends carry him to Jesus. I ask the class to imagine themselves in the story as the paralyzed man.
"Focus on some spot within you," I suggest, "some paralysis before which you are helpless. Imagine your friends and family deeply concerned. They have heard about this man Jesus, a healer. Would you let them take you to see him? In spite of your failures, your desperate discouragement, you let their insistence sway you and you agree to their plan. They take you to him and explain the problem."
After some moments of silence, I invite the class to open their eyes and share something from their imaginary experience. What is it like, I ask, to face Jesus and be offered healing and forgiveness?
Responses vary, but eventually someone always asks, "If this is a healing story, why does Jesus bring up forgiveness of sins?" Someone else will say, "I wondered that, too. I have trouble with the word sin. I feel guilty just hearing it, but I also try really hard to lead a good Christian life." Yet another will comment, "Some of my friends say that they resent the Christian idea of sin. They try to lead a good life, and they don't want to come to church to be told they're bad."
Reading the Gospels makes us aware of Jesus' insistent forgiveness and makes us come face to face with the most unpopular word in the Christian lexicon: sin.
Sin is a state of being alienated from God, from others, and from our true selves. Out of our sense of alienation, we behave in alienating ways. We are painfully—usually secretively and shamefully—aware of our alienation, our ensuing failings, and their repetition. It is an enormous burden to our hearts. Within our alienating shame, we lose our flexibility. We are desperate to fix things. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we sew fig leaves together to hide our nakedness from ourselves, from each other, and from God.
In churches, we become greatly concerned with appearances: we smile a lot, we use correct theological vocabulary, and we feel deeply lonely. Hence, we abide in profound alienation. The forgiveness of God, offered abundantly in Jesus, can relieve our hearts, restore us to God, to community, and to our right minds.
Jesus assumes the universality of sin and makes forgiveness central in his life and teachings. He understands the desperation that Paul later describes when he says "the wages of sin is death," separation forever from the face of God. But being human like us, Jesus does not fight the limits of humanness. Rather, he submits to God in a radical vulnerability, exposing control systems by which human beings try to bargain our righteousness. Human terror, being so exposed, demands that Jesus the God-man die. It is through his submission to this saving death that he secures life for us.
Throughout the Gospels, we watch Jesus act on two basic beliefs about human nature: the universal need for forgiveness and the abiding presence of an interested and compassionate God. Jesus tenderly receives those who are obviously sinful and forcefully confronts good religious people who bargain their goodness before God. In other words, those who know they are burdened and alienated find release, and those who have covered their need with fig leaves of their own self-righteousness are found out and invited to give up pretense.
Most of us who counsel others know the ominous, undifferentiated sense of badness many people carry. It can drive us into isolation and compulsion. The alcoholic, hating himself, continues to drink. The lying child, in dread and terror, continues to lie. The overeating woman, with profound shame, continues to binge. They all say, "It would be so easy to change if I only had the willpower." Jesus knew that those who have "willpower" are just as trapped as those who do not.
As any counselor knows, change begins as love and forgiveness penetrate the human heart. The counselor's question is not, Should this person be forgiven? but, How can I reach into the despair before me and communicate the tenderness of God to this suffering person? God's concern for our burdened hearts, enacted by Jesus, speaks directly to this dilemma: Unless we experience forgiveness, we are stuck in compulsive repetitions.
Jesus' style of forgiveness directly addresses our alienation, and judged by general human experience, his approach is odd. His forgiveness is not contingent on an apology. Jesus does not say to the paralyzed young man, "Now just say you're sorry, and I will forgive and heal you." Instead, Jesus is eager, tender, joyful; he is lifting an intolerable burden. Jesus says, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven" (Matt. 9:2, NIV). It is as if the forgiveness precedes repentance; forgiveness itself creates safety for individuals to recognize how terribly alienated they are, how needy, how empty.
Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is a rich tax collector who works for the Romans and pads his own pockets. Zacchaeus, therefore, is a traitor to his own people, alienated by his own actions. He was excluded from community and from the intimacy of table fellowship, which was allowed only among family members or social equals. Indeed, table fellowship so strongly indicates status in the first-century Mediterranean world that anyone who chose to associate with men like Zacchaeus would be tainted. Jesus' decision to invite himself to dinner enacts profound forgiveness.
Jesus includes Zacchaeus before he repents. He returns Zacchaeus to community through the dramatic intimacy of table fellowship, and Zacchaeus responds as if forgiven. He repents and radically departs from his alienating behavior. Forgiveness precedes repentance. It is as if Jesus understands that we are stuck—that our shame is so terrible that we can't move. Jesus' forgiveness allows us the freedom to face our lives enough to repent. Repentance connects Zacchaeus, connects us, with forgiveness. Jesus rejoices, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9, NIV).
Another story elaborates this theme: Jesus is confronted by a crowd that pushes before it a woman caught "in the very act" of adultery (John 8:1-11). The woman is profoundly alienated. There is no one to protect her or to take her side. No one accompanies her, and no one offers her support. The other partner in the adulterous duo does not appear. She is definitely an object in the hands of her captors. Perhaps she is known to have done this before and is therefore a safe case to use for testing Jesus. No one will question her guilt. Perhaps she has a history of sexual abuse, and so she has no confidence to refuse sexual overtures but is simply swept helplessly into the same behavior. She may even cover her paralysis with a defensive crustiness that looks like self-assurance but is really a frail fig leaf of despair.
But Jesus assumes that all have sinned and are in need of God's forgiveness. The men ask him whether he affirms the law and agrees that she should be stoned; he refuses to answer. He writes with his finger on the ground. Silence, so seldom employed, is a powerful tool of confrontation. But the men, their fig leaves firmly in place, have the certainty of law on their side, and they press the issue: "What do you say?"
Jesus, following his conviction, speaks beneath their defenses: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (NRSV).
He insists on the universal human need for forgiveness. He returns again to his writing, and in the confrontative silence they leave. He has opened a healing possibility to them. Now that they too acknowledge their alienation, their sin, they also can receive forgiveness and rejoin the community.
As Jesus is left alone with the woman, we see again the unusual quality of his forgiveness: personal, tender, understated, an unconditional positive valuing. Jesus not only offers to relieve her burden and her shame, but he offers her an additional protection, the right to refuse sexual overtures and therefore the chance to end the abuse. "Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again," he says, empowering her to say no, to set boundaries.
Jesus knows that human beings languish in their need for forgiveness. No matter how guilty or how self-justified they are, Jesus seeks to return people to themselves, to their communities, and to God. No one is too deeply alienated—not Zacchaeus the traitor nor the woman caught in adultery. Jesus meets them in their suffering with forgiveness.
Jesus breaks into our suffering, calling us to the radical intimacy of table fellowship. Celebration of the gospel itself invites us into forgiveness and inoculates us against the hopelessness. Can we sit with Jesus and remember, in liturgy, Scripture, sermon, and song, the love and freedom he offers? Can we let Jesus lovingly wash our feet? Can we give to one another his feast: "This is the bread of life given for you"? Can we rejoice that Jesus announces the tenderness of God who continues to woo us into friendship? Can we remind one another that it is safe to repent and face what we fear most, because we are forgiven and the Cross makes us safe?
In the midst of this fellowship of healing, can we show others mercy and grant our enemies pardon? After such celebration of the sweetness of God, what could be more natural?
Yet we must remember that Jesus' call to forgive is both liberating and life threatening. His command to love our enemies shakes the foundations of social control. Jesus' forgiveness of Zacchaeus made enemies; his forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery fueled plans for his death.
When a woman of the streets crashed an all male party to wash Jesus' feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, the Pharisees present knew they would never be like that. They doubted Jesus' prophetic identity. He allowed himself to be touched and therefore polluted by this sinful woman. But Jesus held a mirror to their own sinfulness. "Come out from behind the fig leaves of your self-sewn righteousness. Be forgiven and live abundantly." Following Jesus into forgiveness is a costly business.
"Come," Jesus says to us in our paralysis, "your efforts to be perfectly in control, to have mastered your own righteousness, these torment you. All your efforts to be God are forgiven. Nurture yourselves in the celebration of my gospel. Remember, remind each other, that you are my friends. I call you to be beautifully human, to walk with me in the ambiguity of finitude, to accept your helplessness. I will show you the way."
Margaret Gramatky Alter teaches psychology at New College, Berkeley. She is the author of Resurrection Psychology: An Understanding of Human Personality Based on the Life and Teachings of Jesus (Loyola University Press).
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