A Miserable Human Being
I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.
— Linus Van Pelt
I suspect that most of us can, at various points of our lives and to varying degrees, identify with this statement that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz puts in the mouth of good old Linus. “Humanity” as an abstract category seems entirely worthy of love and good will. Individual human beings? Well, that’s another matter entirely.
Individual human beings can be difficult creatures to love. Perhaps you’ve noticed this. I think that we all go through stretches of life where the combination of the volume and variety of human need, the weight of human stupidity and selfishness, and the utter inadequacy of our own resources to deal with it all seems like it will stretch us to a breaking point. Whether it’s kids whose stupid choices are breaking our hearts or people in our circles who seem to be little more than black holes of demanding neediness or the sheer pain and brokenness that we see all around us in our families, neighbourhoods, communities, and world, sometimes it all seems like too much. “Humanity” is fine and all, but we’d rather take our leave of humans and all their real and imagined needs, thank you very much.
My morning prayers this morning directed me toward the seventh chapter of Luke’s gospel. A “sinful” woman invades a conversation between Jesus and a very religious man as they were sitting down to dinner. I imagine the very religious man was looking forward to an enjoyable evening with this enigmatic rabbi that he’d invited over. They’d have a nice meal, perhaps a glass of wine or two. They’d talk theology, sort out some categories, scratch an intellectual itch or two. I imagine he was looking for an evening of refined conversation with a “person of interest.” Who knows, perhaps they’d even talk about God’s love for “humanity?”
And then, inconveniently, a human being shows up. A woman, to make things worse. And worse still, a sinful woman. A prostitute, quite likely, although we’re not told specifically. The sinful woman rather embarrassingly falls at Jesus’ feet. She weeps uncontrollably. She anoints Jesus with expensive oil (how, we might wonder, did a “sinner” come by such an expensive gift?). She makes a rather pitiful scene, all in all, and it’s more than a little uncomfortable. It would have been much more enjoyable to keep talking about God and love and “humanity” without this miserable human being showing up to complicate things.
And the “sinful woman” was both—miserable and a human being. She had done bad things. Stupid things. Destructive things. Things that she ought not to have done. Things that she probably knew better than to do. Or things that her life’s circumstances and social context seemed to railroad her into. Maybe she had made the same mistakes over and over and over again. Maybe she had been told and ought to have known better. Maybe she felt she had no choice. Maybe she had been bailed out a time or two by people of good will. Maybe some people were at the end of their rope with her. Maybe religious people looked at her and saw a black hole of need.
I’ve probably read this story dozens of times in my life. But I’ve never noticed—really noticed—what Jesus says in verse 47:
Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
I think that I instinctively want to conflate this passage with some of Jesus’ other words about the reciprocal logic of forgiveness. If you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven, or something like that. I expected to hear Jesus say, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, therefore she, too will forgive…” But that’s not what Jesus says. He says that because her sins, which were many (and it’s important to think of real annoying, inconvenient, selfish, destructive sins, here, not just “sin” as a remote abstraction) have been forgiven, she has shown great love.
And then Jesus, as he is wont to do, goes on:
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.
An interesting formula, that.
Is Jesus saying that there is a connection between our inability or, more likely, our unwillingness to love—humanity or, more importantly, human beings—and the degree to which we have experienced forgiveness? Is Jesus saying that miserable sinners who keep screwing up their lives and being demanding and inconvenient and needy and weeping at Jesus’ feet sometimes have a capacity for love that those of us who (think) we have our s*** together do not? Is Jesus saying that real love springs out of miserable sinners who know just how miserable their sins are and how desperate they are for forgiveness? I think so.
An awkward formula, that.
And given what I know of Jesus, I think he might be saying even more than that. He might be saying that those of us who think that we haven’t been forgiven much could do with a bit of a rethink there. Who knows, perhaps there might be a sinful human being kicking about that would be willing to educate us.