Saturday, 15 June 2013

Optical Illusions in the Bible

Once, at school, I came across one of those books of optical illusions.  Each page was just a picture, with a little note explaining the two different things you were supposed to be able to see: two faces, or a vase?  An old woman, or a young woman?

One of the pictures baffled me completely.  No matter how hard I squinted at it or which angle I viewed it from, I just couldn't see the second option.  In the end, I gave up and closed the book.  Later, going back to show a friend, I couldn't find the picture.  I flipped through the book several times before I worked out the problem - I was now seeing the other image.

There are bits of the Bible exactly like that.  Take tomorrow's Gospel reading: Luke 7:36-50.

A woman comes in and pours expensive ointment all over Jesus, making a big fuss.  The Pharisee, Simon, whose house it is, makes a sort of internal snorting retort about Jesus obviously not knowing who is touching him, because she's a notoriously sinful woman.  Jesus notes the unspoken snarkiness and tells a little story about a man who forgives one person a debt of 50p, and a second person a debt of £500, and asks which person would love them man more.  Simon answers that it would be the one who was forgiven more, and Jesus says he has judged correctly, and adds:

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Now, I have always taken that to mean that this poor sinful woman was so incredibly evil that she had been forgiven a multitude of sins, whereas shiny Simon the Pharisee only ever needed to be forgiven for things like blowing his nose at the dinner table, and so he wasn't as affected by Jesus' offer of forgiveness.

Tonight when I re-read it, the picture had flipped.  I realised how crazy that interpretation is.  It doesn't tally with what we know of the nature of sin, which is that all have fallen short: everyone is equally in need of God's grace, and everyone is equally undeserving of his mercy.

So what is going on?  Could Jesus be saying, “Because of her faith, this woman has been forgiven, and so she loves me.  But you, Simon, have not been forgiven, because you have never thought to repent”?


Or is he just making the point that the more sin we are aware of in our lives, the more acutely we are aware of our need for forgiveness, the more grateful we are for the knowledge that we have been forgiven?

Another thing I notice about the passage is that there is a sort of circular motion going on. Jesus describes the woman's actions and says "Therefore her sins have been forgiven" - as if the outpouring of tears and perfume led to the forgiveness - but then, "As her great love has shown", as if the outpouring is a result of being forgiven.

That circular motion, I suppose, is how faith and grace are all caught up with each other: and the difference between Simon and the sinful woman is not the level of sin, but the fact that Simon hasn't yet leapt into the whirlpool. Believe in a reality in which you have already been forgiven, and your thankfulness and the actions that love and gratitude lead you to perform will make it so. Know that Jesus has accepted you, and your confident approach will make you accepted. Like Esther when Xerxes points his sceptre. Like Elijah calling down fire. Like all the many people to whom Jesus says "Your faith has made you well", and they stand up realising that healing has taken place, but they are not entirely sure when, or what, or how; only that they already knew that if they just touched the hem of his cloak, everything would be all right.

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