Sunday, 13 June 2010

Dis/graceful tales?

Trinity 2 10

2 Sam 11,26-12.10,13-15, Luke 7.11-17

I wonder if you have ever felt depressed about the world as it seems to be reflected in the TV soaps or the latest films. Nothing but adultery and violence, people getting up to no good and then lying to cover it up. What is the world coming to? Never mind, let’s turn to the Bible – some truly edifying reading, wholesome tales of family values…
So, what have we got today? Ah. The Gospel has a story of a woman who is plainly known to everyone as a notorious sinner. We aren’t told what her sin is, but it’s not hard to guess from the kind of reception she gets. And to make matters worse she seems intent on indulging in a rather embarrassing public display of emotion – all that foot kissing and weeping…
And then in the Old Testament there is snippet from a much longer story from the second book of Samuel which pretty much ticks all the boxes when it comes to disreputable behaviour. If the script writers for the soaps run out of ideas, I’m sure this could help. The great king David is the central figure in this story, but he is hardly behaving in a great way here.

This story began in the heat of the afternoon on a spring day in Jerusalem. King David was strolling on the flat roof of his palace. He shouldn’t really have been there at all, because the story opens with these words. “In the spring of the year, when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” So, from the start, David isn’t where he ought to be.

As he strolls on the roof he sees a woman bathing – she doesn’t know she is being watched. The storyteller goes on “the woman was very beautiful”. David already has a number of wives and concubines, but that doesn’t stop him. He sends someone to find out who this woman is, and the answer couldn’t be clearer, “She is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” The Bible, like most ancient cultures, had no problem with polygamy – I often wonder whether those who so vehemently insist we should follow its teaching on marriage have actually read it. But although men could have as many wives as they liked, it was very clear on one thing, they couldn’t have someone else’s wife. That was a definite no-no. The views of the women, of course, were not recorded, but the fact was that they were regarded as property. Adultery was theft, and theft was wrong.

But David seems to have decided that this law didn’t apply to him.
He sends for Bathsheba, and she has no choice but to obey – he’s the king – and she ends up pregnant. Now David had a problem, because Uriah, her husband, is away fighting in David’s army, where David should have been, so there’s no chance of passing off the child as his. David tries various cunning ruses to get round this but in the end, none of them work. Disaster looms. So David orders his commanders to put Uriah in the front line of the battle, in the most dangerous position, and Uriah, as David has hoped, is killed in the fighting. Phew! David has what he wants. A luscious new wife. A child on the way and he’s got off scot-free.

As I said, Eastenders would love it – what a story-line! But if it was on Eastenders you could be sure this tale wouldn’t end there. Somehow the cat is always let out the bag – usually in the middle of the Christmas special - a stray word, a video camera left running, an anonymous tip off. And that’s exactly what happens here. God tips off Nathan, the prophet, who is close to David and an important member of his court. Nathan doesn’t confront him directly though. He sees that the power of kingship has gone to David’s head, He thinks he’s entitled do as he pleases, and he can’t see that he has done wrong. So Nathan tells him a story, ostensibly about someone else.

A poor man has one lamb; and a rich man has many, but the rich man steals the poor man’s lamb for himself and serves it up to his friends. David is incensed. What disgraceful behaviour! Remember David had started out as a shepherd boy – he had cared for lambs himself. Then, when David’s sympathies and sense of justice are fully engaged, Nathan turns the mirror on him. “This is just what you’ve done,” he says. It’s a risky strategy but Nathan gets away with it. David suddenly sees the enormity of the sin he has committed, a sin which can’t ever completely be undone. Uriah is dead and there is no way to bring him back. Even though David repents, what he has done will have lasting consequences. David’s house will crumble. Violence and division will plague it, and the child Bathsheba bears him will die. It is a grim tale, but it is true to life – today just as much as then. God can forgive us. Others can forgive us. We can forgive ourselves. But some of the damage we do can’t be repaired. People’s lives are changed. Our lives are changed.

We might be left wondering then, what is the point of Nathan confronting David at all? And why should David bother to repent and ask for forgiveness if it can’t repair the damage he has done?

But actually this story takes us to the heart of what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t, what it can do and what it can’t and it matters that we pay attention to its message, because I doubt whether there is a single one of us who hasn’t struggled with forgiveness at some point, whether we are the one who has been sinned against, or the one who has offended.

Often what we really want is to be able to wipe away the past, to go back and erase the tape, so to speak. We just want it all to stop hurting. But the truth is that we can’t do this, no matter how much we apologise if we are the one who has done wrong, no matter how hard we try to forgive if we are the one sinned against. What has happened has happened. As the Muslim poet Omar Khayyam put it, “The moving finger writes, and having writ/ moves on, nor all thy piety nor wit/ can lure it back to cancel half a line/ nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”.

We can’t change the past, but that doesn’t mean that forgiveness isn’t important, because actually forgiveness isn’t about the past; it is about the future. I’ll say that again because it’s not obvious. Forgiveness isn’t about the past; it’s about the future. Forgiveness can’t change what has happened, but it can help us to do things differently in the future. When we forgive someone we are saying to them, “even though you have hurt me, I won’t hold you to the patterns of the past. I won’t assume that you will inevitably carry on the way you are. I have decided to believe that you can be different.” It doesn’t mean that we will throw ourselves back into that person’s life – sometimes we’ll need to protect ourselves from them. But it does mean that we decide to let them grow and change, rather than fastening a ball and chain of resentment around their ankles which keeps them where they are forever.

So forgiveness changes the forgiver, as well as the one forgiven. When we forgive others, we are also saying something to ourselves. We are saying, “I won’t be bound by what you have done to me. I won’t spend my life rehashing it, pursuing it. It may have damaged me, but I won’t add to that damage by letting my precious life be swallowed up in bitterness.”

That last part is especially important when we can’t speak directly to the person concerned, perhaps because they have died or because they aren’t willing to acknowledge their fault.

So, forgiveness isn’t about the past; it is about the future. Whether we are on the giving or the receiving end, if it is genuine it will change us.

That’s the point of our Gospel reading today. The unnamed woman who pours out her precious ointment on Jesus feet and bathes them with her tears has been changed by his acceptance of her. We don’t know the “back-story”. Perhaps she has met him before, and he has talked with her, perhaps she has just been part of the crowd, but his words, and his welcome of people like her, people who know their lives are a mess, has affected her profoundly. She has come to see herself in a new light. She is not just a “sinner” – the label which she and everyone else has attached to her. She is someone who can have a future that is different from her past. Forgiveness has changed her.

Jesus’ host, Simon the Pharisee, though, is stuck in a judgemental, self-righteous rut, unable to see past the simple stereotypes he has always held. He needs forgiveness as much as this woman does. But he is unable to accept that forgiveness, unable to countenance change, unable even to see his lack of love, both for Jesus and for this woman and people like her. He can’t even extend the normal gracious signs of hospitality to Jesus. How can God’s life-changing, forgiving power take root in him? The doors and windows to his soul are firmly locked against it, and those locked doors don’t just prevent God’s forgiveness getting in, they also prevent Simon the Pharisee getting out, growing into what he can be, and that is the real tragedy of this story.

Forgiveness is about freedom; freedom for those who are forgiven and freedom for those who forgive. It is something we all need to give and receive because although it can’t wipe out the past, it can change the future. Acknowledging the need for it isn’t a mark of shame, but the gateway to new life, so let us pray that this morning we might let the doors of our souls spring open to its transforming power.

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