We’re meant to be shocked. The effusiveness of the tears, the wiping with hair, the kissing and anointing of a man’s feet are meant to be embarrassing. Something is out of control, a line has been crossed. The clinical term for this is “disinhibition”. Ordinarily we feel healthy inhibitions around violating social norms. Intoxication, drug use, mental illness, brain damage, dementia, post-traumatic stress—any of these can cause disinhibition and we cross lines. Bathing feet with tears? Wiping with hair? Non-stop kissing–of a man’s feet?
We’re told the woman is a sinner, but that’s all we know. We’re probably meant to assume that her sins are of a sexual nature, but we don’t know. And we also don’t know what the tears are about. Are they tears of remorse? Possibly. Are they tears of release and joy, the tears of a burden lifted, tears of gratitude? Possibly.
Or, perhaps they’re tears of sheer frustration, tears of weary frustration. Perhaps the woman realizes that whatever wonderful thing happens today while she’s with Jesus, tomorrow will be a lot like yesterday. Whatever conditions, whatever situation, whatever human frailty drove her sinful behavior yesterday will still be there tomorrow. Tomorrow’s sin will be a lot like yesterday’s sin.
Most of us don’t wake up in the morning thinking of ways to sin. Most of us most of the time don’t sin on purpose. It’s possible, but not common. Our sins usually emerge in the context of doing the best we can to make our way through the day in a world that can be quite hostile. Most of our sin is rooted in personal vulnerabilities we did not choose and environmental factors we can’t easily control. Our psychological makeup can be highly resistant to change. Life circumstances can be beyond our control. We can be caught up in generational cycles of violence and abuse. And all our brokenness can be compounded by limitations of intelligence. And, so, we often find ourselves falling into the same old traps, the same old sin, day by day.
Is the woman a prostitute perhaps? What life circumstances, what personal vulnerabilities, what poverty drove her to that? Is she an adulteress? What passion enthralls her? What situation drives her to seek forbidden love? Is she a thief? Does she have hungry children to feed? Is she mentally ill? Brain damage? Developmental issues? Physical or emotional abuse? Sexual abuse? Addiction? Has she never known love? Is she disfigured in a way that hinders intimacy with others? What wounds, what insults have formed and deformed her?
We don’t know, but a lot can go wrong in a life. We human beings are vulnerable to all manner of breakage. What can the word “sin” mean in the context of such vulnerability? What would Jesus say?
The Copernican Revolution lasted about 200 years—roughly from mid-16th century to mid-18th century. Copernicus first proposed a heliocentric solar system in 1543. It took 200 years for the world to fully embrace the idea that things are not as they seem: the earth actually revolves around the sun and not the other way around. The Church was notoriously resistant to this paradigm shift: Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition and forced to say things he didn’t believe. The church eventually came around, but the shift took a while.
We’re in the midst of another big shift now. Our understanding of ourselves is increasingly enhanced by insights from the behavioral sciences and neurology. We are coming to understand that human behavior, for better and for worse, is rooted in genetic factors we did not choose and in environmental factors we cannot often control. And accidents of history form us in profound ways. Disease, injury, and abuse deform us in profound ways. We hold fast to the idea of personal responsibility, and yet we also recognize that human behavior is often beyond direct, intentional control. Addictive behavior is one example of this, but by no means the only one. Whatever St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was comes to mind. We remember his lamenting that he didn’t do what he thought he should do and did what he didn’t think he ought to do.
Our understanding—I mean the church’s understanding–of guilt and culpability needs further development. Which is to say, the church’s understanding of sin itself needs further development. This is a shift on the order of the Copernican Revolution, perhaps even greater—and it may well take more than 200 years. A human being is a far more complex system than the sun and the planets (which is why so much can go wrong—the more complex something is, the more likely it is for something to go awry). And it is we ourselves who are trying to understand ourselves—we can’t have the same kind of objectivity that is possible with something outside of ourselves, like the solar system. And we have deeply ingrained ideas about the nature of sin and guilt and personal responsibility. Its way to early to know where this revolution will take us.
What did Jesus know about human nature, and when did he know it? We don’t know; we only have clues. What did he say about sin and forgiveness? The “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”: what did he say? Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Judge not, lest you be judged. Forgive each other seventy times seven times. At the end of the age the angels will come and sort out the good from the bad (it’s not our job). Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the final harvest. The sun shines on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
If there’s anything that comes through loud and clear in the New Testament it is God’s eagerness to forgive and God’s eagerness for us to forgive each other. Jesus models a profligate generosity of spirit in his willingness to forgive. This same spirit draws us into the same expansiveness, into the same eagerness to forgive, into the same profligate generosity.
In Christ we’re drawn toward a radical realignment, a radical reorientation. The Spirit of Truth draws us toward greater understanding of the human mind and heart using all the tools available to us. Perhaps it is providential that modern behavioral studies lead us in the same general direction as Christ’s own profligate generosity. Yes, we need to order our common life for the greatest benefit; yes, we need to protect the weak from the strong and the peaceable from the violent. But even sanctions and deterrents can be grounded in a spirit of generosity.
Sometimes I imagine Jesus pondering the human condition down through the centuries and saying, “What was I thinking? It’s just too hard for them—they’ll never get it all right! I’d better give them all a free pass.” There’s a certain expansiveness in giving out free passes—and what could be more expansive than God?
Maybe we ought to try giving out free passes today and see how it feels. Even if we don’t really understand each other, it’s probably what we’d do if we did. I think that’s what Jesus would do. And let’s not forget to give ourselves a free pass, at least once in a while.
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