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"Free Passes for All?" – Br. Mark Brown

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1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 5: 1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

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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13 Comments

  1. Suzanne Haraburd on October 18, 2016 at 13:20

    This is so compassionate and thought-provoking. You widen the gates of mercy beyond human limitations of thought, stretching our minds to see as God might. Your view of sin reminds me of the Jewish definition, “missing the mark.” Of course, people miss the mark all the time, for so many reasons, many of which we don’t understand. Nevertheless, God sees us with the eyes of love. You have gladdened my heart today.

  2. Michael on October 18, 2016 at 08:38

    Giving others and ourself a free pass can do nothing but promote forgiveness. Something that is in too short supply today. Passing it out to those we can and allowing others as well as ourself to forgive us is a healthy thing for all concerned

  3. judy on October 18, 2016 at 08:20

    I smile when I read this! I often think of our often described ‘sin nature’ and our ‘human nature’. I know Jesus understood that, embraced that, and healed that for us. Todays post is a real keeper! Thank you.

  4. CMAC on October 13, 2013 at 18:00

    What I’d like to know is this. We have stories of sinning women; the assumption that the woman washing Jesus’s feet may be a prostitute for example. Where are all the sinning men? Are they not sinning in lying with the prostitutes? CMAC

  5. Sally S. Hicks on October 13, 2013 at 17:12

    I love this sermon. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that gratitude and foregiveness —- everywhere, all the time —- for me and everyone else brings me to a place of inner peace and deep joy and closer to God. Brother Mark, I think you were truly inspired when you wrote this one. Thank you, thank you.

  6. Rene Perreault on October 13, 2013 at 10:08

    Thank you Br. Mark for you “free pass” sharing….it is so simple yet so true…now if we (I) could only live it each moment of my life. Blessings.

  7. Leslie Nicholson on October 13, 2013 at 09:32

    This meditation caught my attention. I felt excited to read it. I felt touched and grateful. These ideas are grace. Thank you and amen.

  8. barbara frazer lowe on August 17, 2013 at 15:51

    Dear Br. Frown – Huge. Humble. Endless. Opening . Thankyoul

  9. Clarice Boyd on August 17, 2013 at 08:03

    Today, I had started my day by asking mercy and forgiveness for my recurring sins. Sometimes I wonder what God thinks of me coming to Him with this list of repeating behavior. I vow, with His help, to sin no more. But, as the day progresses, I fall into the rhythm of old habits, and wind up back here in the morning praying for forgiveness. Thank you for pointing out that Our Lord and Redeemer is so much More than we give Him credit for. He receives me daily with my pitiful list of weaknesses and blesses me with His presence everyday. May it always be so.

  10. Clark on August 17, 2013 at 07:32

    Some presume that after four score years the will, imagination and capacity to sin are ancient history. NOT! Thank you Brother Mark for passing on the free pass (trust you kept one for yourself); it makes me laugh and cry simultaneously. I’ve placed a bulk order for more to hand out with shocking abandon.

  11. Fr. Charles Payson on January 19, 2012 at 09:17

    Your Give us a word thoughts are pithy and just the right length for this retired priest. ETS ’72. Glad that Life continues in an outgoing fashion at SSJE. Charles

  12. Joe Stroud on January 19, 2012 at 07:53

    Brother Mark, Wow. Talk about “probing questions!” I am neither philosopher nor theologian, and you put it much better than I could have, but I have been struggling with “the church’s understanding of sin itself” for some time and I know that my own “understanding” (such as it is), “needs further development” as well. Thank you for your thoughts and help in beginning to explore the “answers” to those probing questions!

  13. Cameron Macdonald on April 23, 2011 at 08:47

    Thank you, Brother Mark, for much-needed wisdom today.

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